The term 'Magical Magyars' was first coined in the early 1950s, when Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and the rest of the Hungarian team were wowing football fans the world over. The high-point for this generation was when they cruised to victory in the 1952 Men's Olympic Football Tournament and reached the Final of the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™, a 31-match unbeaten run that spanned four years. They scored an incredible 25 goals in four matches at the world finals, but lost the most important one; 3-2 to West Germany in the decider.
Since then, the eastern Europeans have failed to scale the heights of their glory days. They have qualified for the FIFA World Cup six times since 1954 but without any real success, and with their last participation coming at Mexico 1986, they have missed the last five editions. Second place at the UEFA European Championship in 1964 and fourth in 1972 have been the solitary highlights for Hungarian fans since their team's heyday, but over the past few months, the words 'Magical Magyars' have resurfaced again - and all thanks to a Dutchman by the name of Erwin Koeman.
Koeman, a former Netherlands international and coach of Eredivisie powerhouse Feyenoord, signed up to lead the Hungarian national team on 1 August 2008. Despite the country's litany of recent failures in major tournament qualifiers, the 47-year-old felt himself under no pressure, as he explains to FIFA.com.
"At the beginning I heard a lot of negative things about the team and the players, but I wanted to form my own opinion," Koeman explains. "The players are highly professional and motivated. There are about 25 in the international squad, and obviously I'd like to have a few more to choose from, but the good thing is that most of them play in top leagues abroad."
Playing to the team's strengths
"The quality is there and the players just need confidence. My aim is to engender this self-confidence. We all got off to a good start together, and since I'm a positive kind of person, I'm working on the team's strengths and not their weaknesses," says the Dutchman to FIFA.com.
This recipe has certainly paid off in the early stages of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, with Hungary currently second in Group 1 on seven points from four matches, behind Denmark (7) but ahead of Portugal and Sweden (both on 5 points).
The group is rounded off by Albania and Malta, two teams who are difficult to predict and more that capable of causing an upset. "We're in the toughest qualifying group with Portugal, Sweden and Denmark. Even the Albanians have a good team. Our group really is an exciting one. Each team is capable of scoring points. Portugal started the qualifiers as favourites but they have had a few problems. I think that we won't know who is going to qualify until the last round of matches. It's important for us to finish first or second, and we have a good chance of doing so. I hope we can take that chance," is Koeman's analysis of his team's opponents and the current situation.
European Group 1 indeed seems very tight, with all of the favourites already dropping points unexpectedly. Denmark could only manage a goalless draw in Hungary, while Sweden and Portugal failed to beat Albania, and Koeman thinks he knows the reason why. "You can see at club level there's no longer such a big difference between teams. The Faeroes showed against Austria, and Luxembourg against Switzerland in these World Cup qualifiers that the so-called 'minnows' can take a few prize scalps. You need to be focused at all times and play well."
The next two matches are of the utmost importance to Koeman and his troops. The Magyars travel to Albania on 28 March before playing bottom-of-the-table Malta in Budapest four days later.
"We're obviously aiming for six points. A maximum would be ideal but at the end of the day, it might only be four," says Koeman. "The main thing is that we are still in the top two and that way we can look to the future. We cannot afford to lose in Albania, as that would put them back in the running."
Chasing a miracle
Whatever happens, the group is likely to still be wide open, although Denmark have a real chance to pull clear. Morten Olsen's team face Malta away on 28 March and then are at home to Albania on 1 April - on paper two of the easiest games in the group - while Portugal and Sweden will face off with one or both set to drop points.
"There aren't any clear favourites at the moment in our group, except maybe Denmark," Koeman tells FIFA.com. "We're definitely not favourites - other teams have some big names in their squads like Portugal with [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Sweden with [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. We need to play as a team and get everyone to pull together. If my players go out there with confidence, they'll be difficult to beat."
Who knows whether these Magyars will be able to conjure up some more magic moments and turn their dream of a first FIFA World Cup in 23 years into a reality. Koeman knows how important this would be but is nevertheless trying to manage expectations for his team.
"If you take into account where we're coming from, qualifying for South Africa 2010 would be a miracle. It would give such a boost to the country, particularly for the football association and the domestic competition. Hungary is a small country with a proud footballing heritage, and people would then see that we can rub shoulders with the best. That would give everyone more confidence."