Hungary flagTwenty-six long years have passed since Hungary last participated in a major footballing tournament.  It was the World Cup of 1986 in Mexico and even though confidence was high, the Magyars crashed out in the group stage after disappointing results to France and their bitter foes, the Soviet Union.

In 1985 Hungarian football was at the centre stage of European football as a small side named Videoton from Szekesfehervar in Western Hungary shocked the continent to reach the UEFA Cup final after beating English giants Manchester United along the way.  A 3-1 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the final was to be expected, but nonetheless, it took nothing away from the achievement of the players who became the first Hungarian side to reach a major European final since Ferencváros ten years earlier.

Twenty-seven years on, Hungarian football couldn’t be more different. Since the inception, in 1992, of the money-making machine that is the Champions League, smaller nations from the east of Europe have struggled to make any impact in Europe’s major competitions and the bigger, wealthier countries have taken a stranglehold on the European game.

Clubs from Spain, England, Germany, Italy and Portugal can now have up to three or four teams in Europe’s top competition, while Hungary struggle to get one. In fact, since the start of the Champions League, only two clubs have managed to reach the group stages from Hungary: Ferencváros in 1995/96 and Debrecen in 2009/10.  It’s a stark contrast to the years when Hungarian sides were amongst the best in the world, competing on a level playing field.

But things might be starting to change.

Last summer, after Videoton secured their first ever league title, the Vidi board inexplicably got rid of their manager György Mezey (who incidentally, was the last manager to guide Hungary to a World Cup). Next came the most bizarre appointment in domestic Hungarian football. Step forward former Juventus and Dortmund midfielder, Paulo Sousa.  The move shocked and angered most Vidi and general football fans across the country. Mezey was a national treasure, and the appointment of a big name who knew next to nothing about Hungarian football was deemed a ridiculous decision by the footballing masses.  But it was a shrewd move from the board.

The attention that the club received was unprecedented for a Hungarian side. Media outlets across the world took note, and even if the experiment wasn’t to work on the pitch, at least it would give Videoton, and Hungarian football in general, some sort of international coverage.

Things didn’t start well for Sousa’s men as they crashed out of the Champions League at the first time of asking to a strong Sturm Graz side. The Videoton directors were quick to defend Sousa and stated that there was a three year plan for Vidi to reach Europe (where have we heard of a yearly plan with Sousa before?).

The league became the focus for the Portuguese, but unfortunately for the double winning Champions League midfielder, his charges – including new arrivals from Sporting and Parma, Renato Neto and Felipe Oliveira – were struggling to gel as a team.  Consequently, Vidi lost five of their first fourteen league matches.

At the start of November, Vidi’s form picked up. The foreign signings started to show their quality and the side really became a force to be reckoned with. Impressive wins over Ujpest, DVTK, Ferencváros and a 7-0 mauling of Siofok gave Vidi a chance of making the European spots; something that Sousa had to achieve to stay in a job.

The side were starting to play some great football, and they did have some success in the less-than-coveted Liga Kupa, beating Kecskemet 3-0 in the final.  Vidi ended the season finishing second in the table, eight points adrift of undefeated Debrecen, but the telling story was that they only dropped points in two games after October – showing that there was plenty to come from the developing side.

The short summer of 2012 was met with more signings, and a Europa League adventure lay ahead.  Vidi breezed past the first two rounds of qualification with wins over Slovan Bratislava and Gent, and beat Trabzonspor on penalties in the final qualifying round to reach the group stage.

The draw was quite an unfavourable one for Vidi; Sousa’s former side, and last season’s semi-finalists, Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United’s Champions League conquerors, FC Basel and 2011 Belgian champions, Racing Genk.  A 3-0 loss away to Genk on the opening match day wasn’t the best start to their campaign, but memories of that defeat were quickly erased as Videoton thrashed Sporting 3-0 in Szekesfehervar to claim their first victory. A 2-1 win over Basel followed, before a 1-0 defeat in Switzerland left Videoton with everything to play for with two games left.

It was the first time a Hungarian club had a realistic chance of making it through the group stages of the current tournament format, but it wasn’t to be. A 1-0 defeat at home to Genk and a 2-1 defeat away to Sporting saw Videoton eventually finish three points off the pace, and their European dream was sadly over.

It seemed inevitable before the tournament began that Vidi wouldn’t progress past the group stages, but coming so close naturally left a bitter taste in the mouth for Sousa.  But for Hungarian football, the Videoton success has done a world of good. Documentaries have been made about the club for ESPN and Sky Sports. Sousa has appeared as a guest on football shows in England talking up the side – all good media coverage for the Hungarian game. The OTP Bank Liga has moved to 29th in the UEFA league rankings, and young Hungarians such as Roland Szolnoki, Adam Gyurcso and István Kovács have gained experience from playing against some of Europe’s top sides.

The club itself has become a benchmark for the league. Their website has been recently voted best national site in the category of lifestyle and sports, and has a fully functional, daily updated English section for foreign fans to navigate – something that no other Hungarian club has. Their academy is the best in the league (aptly named the Puskas Ferenc Academy), and their professionalism has been praised enormously by former Chelsea, Parma and Braga winger, Filipe Oliveira who recently described Vidi as the most professional club he’s played for.

Videoton are a well run football club, but several other top Hungarian sides, and even the Hungarian FA are not. Despite being twelve points adrift of league leaders Győri, Vidi are in good shape and after making an impact abroad, it won’t be long until other clubs in Hungary, and the MLSZ (Hungarian FA), start to take note.

By Tomasz Mortimer

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona