Barnabas Varga’s ‘nightmare’ collision – and how Hungary rallied around him

On a night that made heroes of Marco Rossi’s Hungary team, captain Dominik Szoboszlai was intent on keeping an absent team-mate at the heart of their dramatic Euro 2024 story.

Barnabas Varga’s No 19 shirt was held aloft in the celebrations that followed Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Scotland and then worn, back to front, by an emotional Szoboszlai throughout his media duties. “We dedicate this victory to Barni,” said the Liverpool midfielder.

Varga ought to have been there to enjoy Hungary’s big moment but, by then, he was under assessment at a hospital close to the Stuttgart Arena.

A sickening, accidental collision with Scotland goalkeeper Angus Gunn in the 70th minute had left Varga unconscious and, it would later transpire, with multiple fractures of his cheekbone.

Szoboszlai was among the first on the scene, finding Varga unresponsive and frantically urging help from pitchside medics and stretcher-bearers. The lengthy stoppage that followed had a nation fearing the worst was happening on the other side of blankets (held up by team-mates Andras Schafer, Bendeguz Bolla and Marton Dardai) that afforded a stricken Varga a semblance of privacy.

It was an image to evoke memories of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 but, as with the recovery of Denmark’s talisman, an anxious wait eventually brought a positive update.

Eight minutes after the full-time whistle was blown there was the update from Hungary’s FA that Varga’s condition was “stable” and an hour later came more detailed word of his injuries. Varga was said to have broken “several bones” in his face and likely to require surgery. “The whole team is rooting for him,” Hungary’s FA said on X.

A successful operation came today (Monday) ahead of his planned release from hospital on Wednesday but this is where Varga’s Euros end. The only mercy is that it might have been worse.

“It’s no secret the family went through difficult moments in front of the television screen, but now we can be calmer,” Varga’s father, Andras, told the Hungarian outlet Nemzeti Sport on Monday afternoon.

The affection shown towards Varga in the aftermath of Hungary’s win was undeniably sincere. The 29-year-old forward is a popular figure in Rossi’s much-improved squad and featured prominently throughout an unbeaten qualification campaign.

Varga started all three games in Germany, too, adding a brilliant gloss to his romantic rise.

The last time Hungary competed at the European Championship in 2021, Varga was an uncapped and largely unknown forward on the books of Gyirmot, now playing in the country’s second division. He had not played at all in the Hungarian top flight, largely crafting a nondescript career in Austrian football. Szombathely, where Varga calls home, is just across the Hungarian border.

Varga toyed with the idea of quitting football at the age of 20 after seeing his development stall but after time was spent with Mattersburg and Lafnitz, two lower-league Austrian clubs, a return to Hungary in 2020 with Gyirmot sparked his transformation.

“I’m a late bloomer,” he said. “In Szombathely, I was much shorter than my peers, and I got few opportunities to play. We decided that I would transfer to Austria for the fifth division. The team and I then moved up to the fourth division, I stretched myself over the course of a summer, and the game got better and better. But even then, I didn’t think that any kind of career could turn out of this.”

Varga celebrating his goal against Switzerland (Kevin Voigt/GettyImages)

A first season with Gyirmot, who scouted Varga in pre-season after coming across him by chance, brought promotion to Nemzeti Bajnoksag I (NB I), Hungary’s top division, before a second won him a move to title challengers Paks, who sign only Hungarian players. It was there, on his way to becoming top scorer in NB I, that Varga earned a first international call-up — 15 months ago.

He has not looked back. What turned out to be a consolation goal in the 3-1 defeat by Switzerland last week was his seventh international goal in 14 caps, with last summer’s €1.5million move to Ferencvaros cementing his position as the most prolific forward in Hungarian domestic football. Varga’s 20 league goals in 24 games helped secure the Hungarian title and a place in Rossi’s 26-man squad, even after missing over a month through injury.

Varga typified this new-look Hungary team; confident, in-form and optimistic. And he was their undoubted attacking talisman.

If fans will always look to Szoboszlai for inspiration, it has been Varga they have hoped would bring the goals. That continued into Sunday night’s tense, scrappy contest against a Scotland side sharing ambitions of sneaking through as one of the four best third-placed teams. All until the 70th minute.

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Hungary’s players urged for swift action on the field (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

A cross into the Scotland box was cleared by the punch of Gunn but, in his attempts to get there first, Varga collided heavily with the opposing goalkeeper. It is thought Gunn’s left elbow inadvertently struck the Hungary forward flush on his cheek, knocking him unconscious.

An agonising seven-minute wait followed, with Szoboszlai hurrying on stretcher bearers from the sidelines. Hungary’s captain was shown in tears, and team-mates would later criticise UEFA’s handling of the situation. It responded on Monday, insisting there had been “no delay” in the medical treatment.

A neck-brace was fitted as a precaution but UEFA protocols, altered after TV coverage of Eriksen’s collapse three years ago, ensured little was shown of Varga lying motionless on the turf. That vacuum brought fears but Hungary’s players had seen enough encouragement in his condition to continue the match. Varga regained consciousness by the time he reached the waiting ambulance, allaying concerns of a more serious head injury.

Varga’s condition was still being closely monitored when Kevin Csoboth stroked home a Hungary winner in the 10th minute of stoppage time. “This one is for you, Barni!” wrote Schafer afterwards, above a picture of team-mates posing with Varga’s shirt. The love heart emoji for once felt fitting.

“It was a terrible moment to see Barni like that but fortunately he is stable now,” said man of the match Roland Sallai. “I think he is probably going to have a minor operation but he’s OK and we cross our fingers for him.”

Szoboszlai promised to lead Hungary’s squad to the Stuttgart hospital where Varga was kept in overnight and it was the morning after the night before when confirmation came that surgery was unavoidable.

“Our striker suffered multiple facial skull fractures, several smaller and larger bones were broken in his face, and some were even dislocated,” said Ferencvaros club doctor Gergely Panics, who visited Varga in hospital. “After the operation, he will be kept in for two days and if everything goes well he will be released on Wednesday.”

Varga’s partner Laura was also at the hospital. She posted an image of the pair holding hands by Monday evening. “Barni is over the surgery,” she wrote, after calling the ordeal a “nightmare” during a brief interview with Hungarian media. “A little rest awaits him but everything will be fine.”

Hungary must wait to learn if their journey at Euro 2024 is to continue this weekend (as one of the group stage’s best third-placed teams) but the certainty that comes with Varga’s recovery at least ensures there is a will to keep on going.



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(Top photo: Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

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