Connect with us

News

Callum Styles’ unlikely path to Euro 2024 with Hungary… via Barnsley

Sitting down for a routine pre-match interview with the in-house media team at Barnsley a few years back, Callum Styles decided there was something he was going to drop into conversation.

It was, in the football reporter’s lexicon, a come-and-get-me plea.

But this one, in October 2020, was different. Rather than fluttering his eyelashes at suitors in the transfer market, Styles, a promising young English midfielder, wanted to make it known that he was eligible to play international football for Hungary or Ukraine — “just putting it out there,” he recalls to The Athletic, “and hoping something comes of it”.

For weeks, nothing did. “And then… you know how everything spreads these days with social media?” he says. “That’s basically how it was. It caught fire.”

The story was picked up by a sports website in Budapest. The Hungarian FA got in touch with Barnsley and was put in contact with Styles’ agent, who verified the story and gave more details of the player’s ancestry. Hungary started to monitor him — remotely at first, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions — and then, suitably impressed, started to explore further.

Styles imagined the first step would be a call-up to Hungary’s under-21s. But once the various administrative hurdles were cleared, he was drafted straight into the senior squad, making his international debut against Serbia in Budapest in March 2022. Three months later, he was part of a Hungary team that thrashed England 4-0 in the Nations League — “a unique moment where you kind of have to pinch yourself afterwards and be like, ‘Wow, did that actually happen?’.”

Now 24, having spent the past season on loan to Sunderland, he has 22 caps for Hungary. Everything, he said, has worked out very nicely. He is firmly in contention to start their opening game against Switzerland in Cologne on Saturday, having overcome an injury scare in their final warm-up against Israel last Saturday (a 3-0 win).

He loves playing for Hungary. He cannot wait for the Euros. But he is not going to pretend he grew up eating goulash and listening to tales of Ferenc Puskas while Franz Liszt’s rhapsodies played in the background.

On the contrary, he grew up without knowing about any links to the country he is now proud to represent.

GO DEEPER

The Radar – The Athletic’s 50 players to watch at Euro 2024


Growing up in Middleton, Greater Manchester, Styles was aware that his mother’s parents, Jan and Magdolna, had originally been from somewhere in Eastern Europe. But he didn’t know where.

“As a kid, I didn’t really look at any of that,” he says. “I was just playing and enjoying life. You’re playing with your toys or you’re out with your friends. None of those conversations really happened until later.

“I always used to go round to my nan’s house because she only lived around the corner from my mum and dad. I would go around twice a week and she would always be cooking a chicken noodle soup. But she passed away when I was just at the end of primary school.”

He was a professional footballer in his late teens, making a strong impression in Barnsley’s first team, by the time he started to find out more about how Jan and Magdolna had moved to the UK from Ukraine and Hungary respectively “in their early twenties”. Details of Jan’s past in Ukraine were sketchy — “we couldn’t find his old passport” — but more was known of Magdolna.

Styles and his girlfriend wanted to visit Hungary during the international break in March 2020. But that plan was scuppered by the pandemic. By the time he finally made it to Budapest two years later, his first time on Hungarian soil, it was to join up with the national team.

It was daunting at first, particularly since he could not speak a word of Hungarian (something he has since begun to rectify on Duolingo). But his new team-mates welcomed him from the start. They didn’t expect him to know the national anthem — he can sing it now — but were impressed when, during an initiation ceremony, he performed Candy Shop by 50 Cent.

He wasn’t the only player in the squad who had qualified via dual nationality; Hertha Berlin winger Palko Dardai was born in Germany, as the son of former Hungary international Pal Dardai, who played for and coached Hertha); RB Leipzig defender Willi Orban was born in Germany but had a Hungarian father; Le Havre full-back Loic Nego played for his native France from under-16 to under-20 level but became a Hungarian citizen after more than five years playing there; and Bournemouth full-back Milos Kerkez was born in Serbia but, like Styles, had a Hungarian grandmother.

“And our manager (Marco Rossi) is Italian,” Styles says. “He explained to me about the welcome he received even though he wasn’t Hungarian or having Hungarian roots. And a lot of the meetings are in English, which helped me a lot. The lads talk to me and they’re really welcoming.

“But just going to the country for the first time was a beautiful experience. Making my debut made it even better. Settling in was a lot easier than I thought it might be. I felt at home straight away.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Hungary Euro 2024 team guide: Solid foundations and Szoboszlai magic cause for hope


For much of the recent past, a player discovering he was eligible to play for Hungary would still have had little or no chance of competing in a major tournament.

One of the giants of world football in the ‘Magical Magyars’ period of the 1950s and 1960s, Hungary’s appearance at the 1986 World Cup was their last in a major tournament for three decades.

But this will be their third consecutive European Championship. Qualification has been made easier by the competition’s expansion to 24 teams, but Hungary’s upturn in performance is undeniable. They won their qualifying group without losing a game. In total, they had gone 14 matches without defeat until they were beaten 2-1 by the Republic of Ireland in their penultimate warm-up game.

When UEFA launched its Nations League competition in 2018, Hungary were in the third tier with, among others, Estonia and Lithuania. In the most recent campaign, they finished second in a first-tier group, winning away to Germany (1-0) and beating England home (1-0) and away (4-0). Qualification for the Euros was secured with a stoppage-time equaliser in Bulgaria. They flew back to Budapest, headed into the city centre and partied all night — players and supporters alike. “Crazy,” Styles recalled.

“We’ve been doing so well as a team, improving game by game, year by year,” he says. “When we beat England, it was a bit like, ‘Wow’. The manager (Rossi) has changed a lot. There’s been a lot of progression since he started. I feel like we’re a good team.”

The team’s star is Liverpool midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai. “He’s a world-class player, a leader,” Styles says. “In the camp, he’s quite chilled. But on the pitch, he brings that extra percentage, that X factor that you sometimes need when it’s a bit stale in the game and you need someone to create some magic and force a 1-0 win or whatever.

“But we’re a team. We’re not going to get carried away, but we should be quietly confident because we’ve shown we can go up against the top teams. Obviously, with the pressure of the Euros, those games can swing either way, but we’ve got a really good team. Hopefully we can progress.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Euro 2024 Group A guide: Germany’s narrow No 10s, resolute Hungary and Scotland’s set pieces


Styles will be in the shop window in Germany, looking to build on a positive loan spell at Sunderland by securing a permanent transfer from Barnsley — who lost to Bolton Wanderers in the League One play-off semi-finals — this summer.

He enjoyed his time at Sunderland but is unsure of their plans as they are yet to appoint a new manager. If not Sunderland, then he hopes to be back in the Championship with another club.

But club aspirations are on hold. “International football is what I’m focusing on: the Euros and doing my best for Hungary,” he says. “The rest will take care of itself.”

His parents, his girlfriend and several friends will also be travelling out to Germany. Are they all learning the national anthem? “They already know it,” he says. “We’ve been singing it.”

One of his aunts, who lives in Hungary, has been to some of the home matches but he is unsure whether she will be able to get to Germany. He hopes so. Either way, Styles is looking forward to the experience — on a deeper personal level as well as professionally.

A flag of convenience? Initially perhaps, but he has embraced his second nationality. When he pulls on the Hungary shirt, he thinks of his grandmother and wonders what she would have thought of him wearing her country’s colours.

“It’s special for my mum’s side of the family to see me representing our bloodline,” he says. “It’s an honour to play for Hungary. It’s in my DNA.”

go-deeper
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Must See

More in News