Hungary march into top 50
© AFP
It’s good having a coach from overseas. He’s a calm, intelligent person. It’s all very positive at the moment, we’re working very hard and with great determination.
Pal Dardai praises Erwin Koeman.

Hungary have ended 2008 with their best placing in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for more than nine years. Erwin Koeman’s side advanced to 47th spot, a leap of nine places compared to November. However, there is still some way to go to match their best-ever ranking. The nation which finished runners-up at the 1938 and 1954 FIFA World Cups™ advanced to 36th in the world back in 1992.

Hungary’s past is redolent with glory. A truly golden generation, featuring the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Jozsef Bozsik and Sandor Kocsis, remained undefeated in 30 competitive fixtures from 1950 to 1954. However, this great side fell at the final hurdle in a 3-2 defeat to Germany in Bern in the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final. "I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again. We’re not in the same bracket as the Germanys, Brazils or Italys," current international Pal Dardai exclusively told FIFA.com a few months ago.

Indeed, fully 40 years have passed since Hungary last tasted international triumph. The record books show three Olympic gold medals in 1952, 1964 and 1968, a silver in 1972, and a bronze in 1960, and a total of nine appearances at the FIFA World Cup finals. However, the Hungarians have been waiting 20 years for any comparable success.

The most pressing task at the moment is qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The Hungarians last contested the global showdown in Mexico back in 1986, but the task of sealing a berth in South Africa appears a daunting one on paper, with Sweden, Portugal, Denmark, Albania and Malta providing stiff opposition in European qualifying Group 1. "It’s very hard. I’d be happy enough if we were still in with a mathematical chance of qualifying from our last match."

Despite Dardai’s somewhat gloomy prognosis, the Hungarians have given a creditable account of themselves so far. A total of seven points from four matches has sent them second in the standings, level on points with group leaders Denmark. Koeman’s side beat Albania 2-0 and Malta by the only goal of the game, and held out for a goalless draw against the Danes. The eastern European’s solitary reverse was a 2-1 defeat to Sweden. Portugal, currently two points off the pace in third, provide the opposition in home and away fixtures next autumn, a double-header that already promises to be decisive for both aspiring nations.

The appointment of Koeman to the national helm in May 2008 has prompted hopes of a better future. "It’s good having a coach from overseas. He’s a calm, intelligent person. It’s all very positive at the moment, we’re working very hard and with great determination," Dardai commented. Koeman, who boasts a 1988 UEFA European Championship winners’ medal, has previously coached at club level with the likes of PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord.

The Dutchman will have made greater consistency one of his priorities. The Hungarians contrived to lose 2-1 to Malta in UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying, but defeated FIFA World Cup holders Italy 3-1 in Budapest just ten months later. "That’s the biggest problem we have in Hungary. We all call for the ball in friendlies, we accept responsibility, and it’s all terrific. But when the chips are down, it falls apart."

As 2008 draws inexorably to a close, the Hungarians have at least returned to the top fifty in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. After spending January to September in a narrow arc between 50th and 57th positions, Hungary briefly fell to 62nd in October, their worst showing of the year. They were back up to 56th just four weeks later, and have now finished the year on a high with 47th place in the latest edition of the chart.

The eastern Europeans have high hopes of a brighter future, and a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa would fit well with that ambition. "I’m hopeful, because our creative players like Tamas Hajnal (Borussia Dortmund), Szabolcs Huszti (Hanover 96) and Zoltan Gera (Fulham) are in good form. That’s a major plus for us," Dardai explained. The 2010 spectacular opens in Johannesburg on 11 June 2010, and according to Dardai, "if everything goes well for us, we’ll be there."