This time last year, 18 months after retiring from professional football, Pal Dardai was just finishing his first season in charge of Hertha Berlin’s U15 side, guiding the young Blue-and-Whites to 17 wins from their 18 league games, conceding just 4 goals and scoring 82.
As impressive as that spell was, Dardai could never have expected so many of his coaching ambitions to have come to fruition the following year. The Hertha legend has found himself living the dream of coaching, while also in a real predicament.
In March 2014, Attila Pinter’s record in charge of Hungary consisted solely of just one home loss to Finland. His next three games were slightly better; a home draw to Denmark was followed by back-to-back wins against Albania and Kazakhstan, marking a steady, rather than a spectacular, start.
Pinter was far from a popular choice when appointed in December 2013. His first few games did little to ease fan concerns, and his off-field antics – including being sent from the field of play for berating a referee when watching his child play – left the MLSZ (Hungarian Football Federation) with no choice but to remove him from his position following an embarrassing 2-1 loss at home to Northern Ireland in September.
It was a bold move, but one that had to happen before Hungary’s Euro 16 bid was destroyed, and crucially, before another embarrassment in Romania (the game that curtailed World Cup qualification hopes the year before). Dardai was appointed as interim boss. His job was to galvanize Hungary’s campaign and provide a much-needed spark against arch-rivals Romania the following month.
And a much-needed spark was duly created, with Hungary claiming a fantastic, spirited 1-1 draw in Bucharest. Five days later, an edgy 1-0 win in the Faroe Islands preceded a later 1-0 win at home over Finland in a match Dardai had guaranteed fans his side would win. A late Zoltan Gera header delivered on Dardai’s promise.
The former Hungary captain quickly became the national team’s most popular manager in years. His positivity and ambition, together with his experience in Germany as a player, brought an unprecedented amount of optimism around the Hungarian side from the press, fans, and especially the players, who were clearly vocal in their support for their former teammate. The win over Finland was followed by a 2-1 friendly loss to Russia, but it wasn’t nearly enough to stop Dardai taking over the reins for the rest of the campaign.
Unsure whether he should take the job, Dardai explained that his son swayed his decision by telling his father, “You have to go back because without you they are not going to win.”
He made a fair point, but Dad wasn’t completely convince. He thought it would be best for him to stay and develop at Hertha rather than take the poisoned chalice.
After things were finalised in December, Dardai was clear about wanting to stay with Hertha’s to continue his development, with the Hungary job remaining an interim duty until November 2015. Dardai, in truth, couldn’t completely leave behind what he had started. The emotional roller coaster he must have endured – and enjoyed – in the game against Romania is something he wouldn’t want miss in the September return in Budapest.
But this is where the story takes an unusual twist. Will Dardai still be in charge for that game? Will Dardai finish what he has started? Just two and half months after officially taking over as Hungary manager, Hertha Berlin, in trouble at the bottom of the Bundesliga, came knocking on the door of their all-time appearance maker.
Two days later, a victory over Mainz was secured. Six games later, Dardai’s record stands at 3 wins, 2 losses, and 2 draws, keeping Hertha four points above the relegation playoff and five above the bottom two direct-drop spots (where Hertha found themselves before Dardai’s intervention). Now it looks for all the world that Dardai will be offered the Hertha job in the summer should he save them from relegation. Logic, together with loud whispers in the Hungarian press, suggests he’ll leave his post at the national team to accommodate.
The Hungarian fan in me screams, “How can he?!” After Sunday’s results in Group F, Hungary know any kind of result against Finland in Helsinki will all but secure at least a playoff spot for Euro 2016 (a feat they haven’t achieved since 1997) and give themselves a huge chance of reaching a major tournament for the first time since 1986. Hence, Dardai could make himself both a national hero. Can he turn that opportunity down? Will he get another chance of coaching a group who are willing to do anything for him to reach that goal? Will Hungary ever again have a group as easy as this from which to qualify? Everything is in his favour to create Hungarian history.
Then, on the flip side, you look at it rationally for his career prospects. Can he turn down an opportunity at the age of 39 to coach in one of Europe’s top leagues? For his beloved Hertha Berlin, the club for which he made 366 league appearances? The club for which he turned down Bayern Munich?
Not since Pal Csernai led Hertha in 1991 has a Hungarian had a permanent head coaching job in the Bundesliga. These opportunities just don’t come around for Magyars. Csernai’s six-match run was also the last Hungarian to coach in any of Europe’s top five leagues. How can he say no to such opportunity through the Bundesliga?
But, again, how could he leave Hungary while on the verge of achieving something historic?
Dardai has one almighty dilemma to overcome.
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