Losing FIFA World Cup™ finalists at France 1938 and Switzerland 1954, Hungary finally seem to be putting their golden past behind them. While the likes of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti will be long be remembered for their contribution to the Hungarian game, the members of the current national squad are now aiming to make a little history of their own.
Lying second in Group 1, three points behind Denmark but four clear of upcoming rivals Portugal and Sweden, Hungary are understandably optimistic about their chances of reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
The future is orange
The man responsible for leading them to that position of strength is 46-year-old Dutchman Erwin Koeman, the older brother of Netherlands and Barcelona legend Ronald. The former midfielder enjoyed a successful playing career, helping his country lift the UEFA EURO 1988, and also winning the Belgian championship in 1989 and back-to-back Dutch titles in 1991 and 1992.
After a two-year spell as coach at Feyenoord, Koeman was given the Hungary job in May 2008. It proved an inspired choice and in his 15 months in charge he has moulded a competitive team from a clutch of maturing players and a talented group of youngsters honing their skills abroad.
Beaten 2-1 by Malta in the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2008, Hungary showed their potential for improvement when they beat reigning world champions Italy 3-1 in August 2007, a result that helped them climb to 43rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their highest position since 1992. Since taking over, Koeman has continued the good work, fashioning a side that is hungry for further success.
"We can call on some very creative players such as Tamas Hajnal (Borussia Dortmund), Szabolcs Huszti (Zenit St Petersburg) and Zoltan Gera (Fulham), and thanks to them we can play a more vibrant game," explains Koeman, who has engineered an entertaining outfit that likes to play good football and get forward in numbers.
A talented trio
The 28-year-old Hajnal is the man who sets the tempo. Having learned his trade at Ferencvaros, he was voted Hungarian player of the year in 2007 and 2008 and is now bringing his considerable playmaking skills to bear in the Bundesliga.
Two years Hajnal's junior, Huszti is a pacy and highly versatile player capable of supplying pinpoint crosses and of performing any role, defensive or attacking, on the left flank.
At 30, Gera is the most experienced of the three, having made 60 international appearances and scored 18 goals in all. A right-sided player, the Fulham man has great vision, strength and is a real threat in the air. As important in the dressing room as he is on the pitch, Gera performs a vital role in dictating the pace of Hungary's game.
The foreign-based trio form the nucleus of a large contingent of Hungarian exiles. The 18-man squad Koeman selected for their most recent qualifier, a 3-0 defeat of Malta on 1 April, contained 16 players who now ply their trade outside the country.
The two odd men out were 24-year-old striker Gergely Rudolf, recently named player of the year in the Hungarian Soproni Liga, and experienced defender Laszlo Bodnar. The duo will be getting plenty of quality European club action in the months to come, however, having helped Debrecen become the first Hungarian side since Ferencvaros in 1996-1997 to reach the group phase of the UEFA Champions League.
Onwards and upwards
The Hungarian FA are doing their utmost to ensure Koeman enjoys the smoothest possible preparations for the vital home dates against the Swedes and then the Portuguese, offering the Dutchman a contract extension that will keep him in the job until 2011.
Koeman had no hesitation in putting pen to paper. "It's very reassuring for me to see that the Hungarian FA are thinking about the future and not just about results. I find that very motivating and it means I can go about my work in peace."
His immediate task, though, is to end Hungary's lengthy spell in the wilderness, one he is confident of achieving. "All being well, we'll be in South Africa."