Having reflected the mood of the country by so jubilantly bouncing around at the back as the clock ticked down in the Ferenc Szusza Stadium, Hungary’s Gabor Kiraly then caught the sense of occasion.
“It was a great success for the whole country,” the 39-year-old goalkeeper said after his side had eliminated Norway 3-1 on aggregate to reach Euro 2016, their first tournament since 1986. “I think about the ex-players for the national team over the last 30, 40 years, and the coaches who did a lot of work. In the end, we reached our target of flying to France and this is most important for our country. I cannot believe it today, but maybe tomorrow we can start to enjoy it.”
From seeing such celebrations, and thinking about Hungary’s romantic history in the game as well as the dedications to Martin Fulop, it is difficult not to be touched by their achievement. The country that gave us one of the best sides the world has ever seen are returning to one of the great stages and it is something to cherish.
From seeing the football, and thinking about the new set-up for the European Championships, though, it’s equally difficult not to think that achievement has little enough merit. How can it when you’re waving almost half of the field through?
The potential effects of that were hinted at on Sunday night, and throughout all these play-offs so far. The Hungary-Norway tie offered just another match between two milk-weak teams. The hapless own goal that clinched qualification was a case in point, but so did Tamas Priskin’s earlier strike. Brilliant as the finish was, it’s a lot easier to pull off when two defenders are of such low quality that they offer an exclusion zone at the edge of the 18-yard box from which to set yourself up and pick a spot.
The play-offs so far have been filled with moments like that, reflecting why the eight teams are in the play-offs in the first place.
At the same time, the contrast between the wonder of Priskin’s strike and the woefulness of the defending also hints at the contradiction at the root of the reshaped tournament itself.
There is very deep merit to the root idea of expanding the Euros. The thought process is that, through the mere event of participation, more countries will get the benefit of the intense enjoyment of involvement; of the carnival atmosphere it creates in the qualified countries as much as in the host nation itself. That also tends to bring a boost to football participation in those countries, but these senses of carnival and community are all the more important in the wake of the awful events in Paris that will now cast such a shadow over the tournament.
In the longer term, though, that act of participation will become a little more passe if it is always more or less the same teams in a more diluted event.
And this remains the other side of it. While the enjoyable nature of the qualifiers overturned expectations it would be a boring procession, the lower quality of the play-offs has pointed towards the more negative consequences.
Because, whatever about how teams get there, there is no escaping the argument that the 16-team European Championship almost represented the perfect international tournament.
It meant that, due to the continent’s size and football development, it offered exactly the right threshold of quality.
Think about it: how many real thrashings have we seen in the Euros? Teams getting there really meant something. It meant they were good enough.
Most games tend to be much closer, setting an enticing competitiveness. From there, just the right amount of teams got through to the quarter-finals too, to set the right dynamic. There were no permutations or safety nets. It was so beautifully symmetrical, and so cleanly structured in every sense.
We’re not going to have that next summer. For one, four third-placed teams will go through to the second round, creating safety nets and the potential for teams with just two points to go through because someone in another group has performed even worse.
Secondly, it means we’re going to spend 24 of the tournament’s 39 games whittling 24 teams down to… 16. So, over 60% of the Euros are going to be spent getting rid of just 33% of the field.
It’s hard not to think some if not all of those will be the play-off qualifiers, and that will be the point the “real” Euros begins.
The scenes in Hungary, however, show there is still a real contradiction to this.