For a dizzying period at the Puskas Arena, as the sweltering heat hit 30°C and a capacity home crowd frothed with fervour and fury, France almost became lost at sea. The world champions had dominated the ball, of course. Antoine Griezmann had conspired to miss a simple tap-in. N’Golo Kante, supported by his four shadows, had smothered the midfield single-handedly. But for all their chances, for all the inevitable suspicion that their quality would eventually tell, the first signs of weakness were appearing in the tournament’s finest armoury.
On the brink of half-time, as Karim Benzema huffed, Kylian Mbappe shrugged, and Didier Deschamps gazed glassily into the middle distance, France weren’t so much knocked off their stride as swept off their feet in what threatened to become the biggest upset of Euro 2020. It is barely an exaggeration to claim that the stadium shook as Attila Fiola collected a one-two, hurtled away from Benjamin Pavard and toe-poked the ball past Hugo Lloris at the near post. Sixty thousand fans rose in unison and erupted into a wave of sound. France had been hit by an earthquake of their own frustrated complacency. And after surviving a first-half onslaught, Hungary were making hay out of the rubble.
It has been a familiar pattern throughout Euro 2020 that, for all the heavy favourites in the group stage, results have still been hard-earned through sweat and patience rather than individual brilliance. Italy’s operatic intensity took 53 minutes to reach a crescendo against Turkey. In Hungary’s previous defeat against Portugal, they muted Cristiano Ronaldo until the finale. For Spain, the high notes against Switzerland never came at all.
And yet there had always been more of a surety to this France squad. In recent years, they have operated with a level of genius and grace most international sides cannot even dream of matching. A slim and somewhat unfortunate deficit should hardly have marked anxious territory for an all-conquering side. But as the second half wore on, they became highly strung and unmistakably jittery. Presnel Kimpembe beat the turf in frustration. Raphael Varane miscued one of several clearances. Even Mbappe, irrepressible in the first half, found the ball sticking under his feet. And with every mistake, as another misplaced pass or cross lifted the avalanche of pressure from Hungary’s defence, the crowd began to believe that the unlikeliest of miracles was creeping into a reality.
But, of course, France’s greatest strength is not just their wealth of World Cup-winning experience, but the gluttony of riches at their disposal, too. Sensing the discomfort, Deschamps seized on Adrien Rabiot’s clumsy tackle and replaced the midfielder with Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele. The substitution - and switch to operating effectively with four forwards - finally brought a crack in the dam. Moments after coming on, Dembele skipped down the right wing, faked a shot that felled two Hungary defenders, and fizzed a shot off the post. His injection of urgency, from a seemingly bottomless pit of ammunition, galvanised France. Before long, the pressure told - but not without a large sigh of French relief.
It was not by the mark of any individual ingenuity, but rather the keen eyes of Hugo Lloris that was required to cut the tension. Spotting a two-on-two, his long ball confounded Hungary’s centre-backs, allowing Mbappe to burst into the penalty area. Willi Orban got the most desperate of touches on the cross, but succeeded only in laying it perfectly into the path of Griezmann. This time, with the goal gaping, he swatted it into the corner with conviction.
But rather than crumble, as their faint dream dissipated, Hungary stayed determined, fought scrappily, and fed off the will of their supporters. In a frantic final 10 minutes, no one stood quite as tall as Peter Gulacsi, their captain in goal, who palmed, caught and beat away a rain of shots. But there were performances to savour all over the pitch, a strength of the collective that harnessed the spirit that oozed from the stands. In the dying minutes, an abundance of French quality threw itself in tides against a wall of resistance to no avail. In the heat of battle, Hungary held on to a point that was celebrated in Budapest like a piece of history.