Mágikus Magyarok

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The final stages of the initial qualifying for the 2014 World Cup — yes, that sentence actually makes sense — are happening this month and next, and Hungary hosted Estonia last night in a key match. Beforehand, Hungary stood in third place in their group, and while Netherlands held a dominant lead (and would go on to clinch the automatic spot for a group winner by winning its match), second place, and the spot in a secondary round of qualifying, is still very much up for grabs.

Hungary is one of the least soccer-mad countries in Europe, so although we had forgotten about the upcoming game until the day before. it was no trouble at all to get good seats at Puskas Ferenc Stadion, named for Hungary’s most celebrated player, Puskas Ferenc, who was the star of the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Hungary’s golden era of soccer.

One of the things you notice pretty quickly is that soccer games aren’t a big date-night attraction here. Well over 90% of the 15,000 people filing into Puskas Ferenc were males, and the security forces were arrayed to match that distribution, meaning that while one of us got quickly through the obligatory patdown, the other is somewhere in this long line of women:

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Puskas Ferenc was built during the heyday of communist might — its original name was Nepstadion (People’s Stadium) when opened in 1953. For those of you in the Houston area, it’s basically Rice Stadium with really cool light stanchions and even less maintenance. With the smallish crowd (capacity is right at 70,000, announced attendance was 15,000, which according to my quick count of the empty seats seemed fairly accurate), the atmosphere was much more like a high school football game in Riverdale than an international soiree hosted in a cosmopolitan capital. At halftime, we went up to the lone food vendors only to find them out of everything but bottled sodas, so I guess the student council did pretty well.

The game itself was a blast. Estonia was coming off a very impressive tie with the group leader, Netherlands, and based on the reports of that match, had outplayed the Netherlands squad throughout. So we expected a very competitive game, but Hungary came out smoking and scored 3 goals in the first half, making for a very jovial atmosphere in the stands. The Magyars gave one back after halftime, but went on to add two more to close out the game, 5-1, after which we joined the happy throng headed for the M2 and home.

All in all, a fun time at the old ballyard. Hungary moved into second place in their group, a scant point ahead of both Romania and Turkey. They have a tough road assignment against Netherlands next month, so (cue sports announcer hype voice) it all may come down to their final match October 15 against Andorra back here in Budapest, for which we will no doubt have to be dressed a good bit more warmly.

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