|Hungary head coach Gergely Magyar and his team won all three games in the first round|
Women's basketball is on the rise in Hungary, and the U16 European Championship Women hosts are optimistic about capitalising on their current wave of success.
Head coach Gergely Magyar's team has started the U16 European Championship Women with three consecutive wins, the latest coming over the historically successful Spanish programme on Saturday evening.
It's too early for the team to start dreaming of a medal. The tournament appears to be wide open, and they needed Ágnes Studer's incredible buzzer-beater to overcome Croatia in their second match.
But optimism abounds, and why not when podium finishes have fast become a habit over the past 12 months?
The 1997 generation won Hungary's first U16 medal in 37 years at the 2013 U16 European Championship Women in Bulgaria, beating Italy in the bronze medal match, and they captured another third-placed finish earlier this year at the U17 World Championship for Women with an impressive victory over hosts Czech Republic.
Seven of that team's squad, coached by Andrea Tünde Mészárosné Kovács and led by Debora Dubei, went on to secure promotion from the U18 European Championship Division B in style, winning every game in Romania. Dora Nagy and Amadea Szamosi were key players in the U20 squad which also celebrated promotion, bouncing back from an opening-day defeat to win the rest of their matches and claim second place behind Germany.
The basketball family still feels the pain of the tragic bus crash which affected the HAT-AGRO Uni Györ club in September 2013. But the success of this young generation has vindicated the federation's investment in facilities and coaching throughout the country.
FIBA Europe board member Ivan Bodrogvary has been an enthusiastic spectator of the first three days of competition in Debrecen, and he has seen a lot of changes over the years. "Ten years ago we had a very good generation - 1986, 1987. Then we had to wait 10 years for another good generation. But we have a new system and we work very hard for women's basketball, and if you work hard, the results slowly are coming," Bodrogvary explained.
The U16 team's podium finish last year was indeed Hungary's first top-level medal since the class of 1986 claimed silver in the 2006 U20 European Championship Women, having also taken bronze at U18 level two years previously. That team was led by current national team players Timea Czank, Dóra Horti and Katalin Honti, who have all also progressed to play EuroCup and EuroLeague Women basketball.
Hungary co-host the 2015 EuroBasket Women with Romania and Bodrogvary is proud to see the facilities which have developed throughout the country over recent years: "We had FIBA Europe tournaments in the last five years. This is our goal, this is our target - we have to promote women's basketball. We hope to collect the older players and qualify for the second round. The pyramid locally is working quite well, and I hope we do not have to wait another 10 years for a strong generation.
"Last year in Bulgaria we took third place and we qualified for the World Championship for Women."
Bodrogvary happily went on to understate that the federation had "solved a problem", with success in both tournaments despite the U18 starting only a week after the end of the World Championship. And now the 1997 generation will be optimistic of further elite success when they return to the U18 Division A in 2015.
Magyar is happy to see the promotion of the older age groups, and he hopes to see the impact on the senior team in the near future: "It would be a big thing if we stay in Divison A. All three teams would be in Division A, so that's what we're working on. These are such good generations - 1996 through to 1999 - and we hope when they get called in the senior team, we will have a good senior team and we can go back to the European top 16."
Hungary's team in this tournament features more 1999 players than any other, with eight in total. "I am looking forward, and I hope that they will get the experience now and it will be easier in the next year. The most important thing for these players, the 1999 girls, is to get experience and to feel the atmosphere of the European Championships and get used to it, and I hope that in the next year, they will step up a level," says Magyar.
And Magyar is optimistic that the recent success will help in bringing new players through: "It will inspire the next generation because they will remember that we were in a World Championship and we won a bronze medal, and that's a big thing for Hungarian basketball. The new players saw this and started to work harder and train harder to reach this also. So I think and I hope that in Hungary all the youth players want to reach this level and want to be at the top European teams."
|Ágnes Studer has an important role for Hungary|
That pipeline is well served by the significant investment which the Hungarian government has put into team sports. Magyar explained that the coaches and national teams are well supported in providing everything that the players need to succeed: "The government gives us money from the taxes to the team sports, so to basketball also. We can buy what we need to train the children and make them better. So that's how we can grab so many children to play basketball, and more children means more good players." Bodrogvary is pleased to see the returns on the investment: "We have a lot of young coaches and young referees, and in my opinion this is very good. And we have a lot of schools that are playing basketball regularly."
The financial crisis has of course had an effect around the continent, but in Bodrogvary's position on the FIBA Europe board, he is determined to keep pushing the annual youth tournaments as a crucial part of player development: "It was a great idea to have the junior tournaments every year, and I fully support this. Every year it's a great promotion for women's basketball."
The current team is led by Studer, the only player who also played on the U17 World Championship for Women team. Magyar is proud of his point guard: "She plays in the club where I am the head coach, so we know each other very well, so that helps me and her a lot. She's a talented player. It was a long season and she played in a lot of places, a lot of games, the World Championship - so she is tired. But she's a talented player and we need her."
Riding this wave of optimism to an unbeaten start in this tournament, who knows how far this young group can go, though they will of course be forgiven for falling short this year. But watch out for Hungary in the 2015 U16 tournament, the 2015 U18 tournament and in future senior tournaments - they are ready to make podium finishes a regular occurrence.