England’s Nations League campaign got off to a losing start as a disappointing display brought a deserved defeat by Hungary in Budapest.
This international was billed as taking place behind closed doors as UEFA punishment for racist and homophobic behaviour by Hungary’s fans during Euro 2020.
And yet it was played in front of a large crowd, consisting mainly of schoolchildren allowed in under UEFA rules – and the young supporters revelled in a poor England performance and Dominik Szoboszlai’s winning goal from the penalty spot after Reece James fouled Zsolt Nagy.
The start of the game was overshadowed by loud jeering of England’s players as they took the knee and what followed was a jaded, mediocre effort that carried all the hallmarks of the end of a long season.
West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen worked hard on his debut but Leicester defender James Justin, also making his first appearance, suffered an injury and had to be replaced by Bukayo Saka – though the Arsenal man produced a rare England threat with a fine run and shot that Hungary keeper Peter Gulacsi saved with his legs.
England now move on to Munich, where they face Germany in their second Nations League A3 game on Tuesday.
England looking leggy
England went into this game on the back of a highly impressive, and lengthy, run of good form that saw them qualify for the World Cup in comfort, so this performance will come as a disappointment to manager Gareth Southgate.
They had not lost, other than to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, since Belgium beat them in November 2020.
England cannot, however, have any complaints about this outcome, other than perhaps the concession of a rather soft penalty.
There are, of course, mitigating circumstances in that these competitive fixtures – although even seasoned internationals such as Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne argue they are little more than glorified friendlies – come at the end of a gruelling season for so many England players.
The visitors lacked spark and it was perhaps no surprise that the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold looked so jaded having figured in Liverpool’s losing Champions League final against Real Madrid only a week ago.
What will concern Southgate was the sloppiness and lack of spark against a Hungary side who looked much fresher and more creative, especially Nagy, who won Szoboszlai’s penalty, and Loic Nego.
Harry Kane, seeking his 50th England goal, sparked only fleetingly, although service was sparse, while Southgate’s side lacked the energy and zip of their opponents.
There was a competitive edge to this game as far as Hungary and their fans were concerned and how they celebrated at the final whistle.
Southgate will have learned little from this but he would have hoped for better – and will need to get it in Munich if England are not to suffer a similar fate.
Surreal scenes in Budapest
This was meant to be a game played behind closed doors to punish Hungary and their fans for their behaviour at Euro 2020 and yet their victory was concluded amid joyous scenes and deafening roars at the final whistle.
Hungary invoked Uefa’s Article 73 to invite children aged 14 and under to the game, who had to be accompanied by an adult.
It resulted in a large attendance, England’s players being jeered when they took the knee before kick-off and then an almost festival atmosphere as Hungary’s players went on a lap of honour.
As punishments go, this was allowed to become a celebration.