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

When Callum Styles sat down for a routine pre-match interview with Barnsley's internal media team a number of years ago, he decided there was something he desired to add to the conversation.

In the vocabulary of the football reporter, it was a request: “Come and get me.”

But this time, in October 2020, it was different. Instead of batting his eyelashes, Styles, a promising young English midfielder, desired to announce that he was eligible to play international football for Hungary or Ukraine – “just put it out there,” he recalls. The athlete“and hope that something comes out of it.”

Nothing happened for weeks. “And then… you know how everything spreads through social media these days?” he says. “That's basically what happened. It caught fire.”

The story was picked up by a sports website in Budapest. The Hungarian Football Association contacted Barnsley and was put in contact with Styles' agent, who confirmed the story and revealed further details concerning the player's parentage. Hungary began monitoring him – initially from afar because of Covid-19 travel restrictions – after which, suitably impressed, began to analyze further.

Styles had envisioned a call-up to Hungary's U21 national team as a primary step. But after overcoming the assorted bureaucratic hurdles, he was called up on to the senior national team and made his international debut against Serbia in Budapest in March 2022. Three months later, he was a part of the Hungarian team that crushed England 4-0 within the Nations League – “a unique moment after which you have to pinch yourself and think: 'Wow, did that actually happen?'”

Callum Styles vies with Conor Gallagher during Hungary's win at Molineux (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The 24-year-old, who spent last season on loan at Sunderland, has 22 caps for Hungary and the whole lot, he said, has gone thoroughly. He is confident of starting Saturday's opening game against Switzerland in Cologne after overcoming an injury scare in last Saturday's final warm-up game against Israel (a 3-0 win).

He loves playing for Hungary. He can't wait for the European Championships. But he won't pretend he grew up eating goulash while listening to stories by Ferenc Puskas and Franz Liszt's rhapsodies playing within the background.

On the contrary, he grew up knowing nothing of any connection to the country he proudly represents today.

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Growing up in Middleton, Greater Manchester, Styles knew that his mother's parents, Jan and Magdolna, were originally from Eastern Europe, but he didn't know where from.

“As a child, I didn't really look at all of this,” he says. “I just played and enjoyed life. You play with your toys or go out with your friends. I didn't talk about these conversations until later.”

“I always went to my grandma's because she lived just around the corner from my mom and dad. I came over twice a week and she always cooked chicken noodle soup. But she died when I had just finished elementary school.”

By his late teens, he was an expert footballer and making a powerful impression in Barnsley's first team when he discovered 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 about Magdolna.

Styles and his girlfriend planned to go to Hungary in the course of the international break in March 2020, but that plan was thwarted by the pandemic. When he finally made it to Budapest two years later, it was his first time on Hungarian soil to affix the national team.

It was daunting at first, especially because he didn't know a word of Hungarian (which he has since began improving with Duolingo). But his latest teammates welcomed him from the beginning. They didn't expect him to know the national anthem – he can now sing it – but were impressed when he sang 50 Cent's Candy Shop during an initiation ceremony.

He wasn't the one player within the squad who qualified based on his dual citizenship. Hertha Berlin winger Palko Dardai was born in Germany to former Hungarian 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 the U16s to the U20s but became a Hungarian citizen after greater than five years. And Bournemouth full-back Milos Kerkez was born in Serbia but, like Styles, had a Hungarian grandmother.

“And our manager (Marco Rossi) is Italian,” says Styles. “He explained to me how warmly he was welcomed, even though he is neither Hungarian nor has Hungarian roots. And many of the meetings are held in English, which has helped me a lot. The guys talk to me and are really warm.”

“But just the trip to this country was a wonderful experience. And my debut was even better. Settling in was much easier than I thought. I immediately felt at home.”

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In the recent past, a player who had learned of his eligibility to play for Hungary would have had little or no probability of participating in a serious tournament.

Hungary was one among the giants of world football in the course of the era of the “Magic Magyars” within the Fifties and Nineteen Sixties, and its participation within the 1986 World Cup was the country’s last participation in a serious tournament for 3 many years.

However, that is their third European Championship in a row. Qualification was made easier by the expansion of the competition to 24 teams, but Hungary's improvement in performance is undeniable. They won their qualifying group without losing a game. In total, that they had gone 14 games unbeaten until they lost 2-1 to the Republic of Ireland of their penultimate warm-up match.

When UEFA launched its Nations League competition in 2018, Hungary played within the third division, together with Estonia and Lithuania. Last season they finished second in a primary division group, winning away against Germany (1-0) and beating England at home (1-0) and away (4-0). Qualification for the European Championships was secured by an injury-time equaliser in Bulgaria. They flew back to Budapest, drove into the town centre and celebrated all night – players and fans alike. “Crazy,” recalled Styles.

“We've done so well as a team and improved game by game, year by year,” he says. “When we beat England, it was a bit like 'wow'. The coach (Rossi) has changed a lot. There's been a lot of progress since he started. I think we're a good team.”

The star of the team is Liverpool midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai. “He's a world-class player, a leader,” says Styles. “In training camp he's pretty laid back. But on the pitch he brings that little extra, that X-factor that you need sometimes when the game is a bit boring and you need someone to create some magic and force a 1-0 win or whatever.”

“But we are a team. We don't get carried away, but we should be confident because we have shown that we can compete against the top teams. Of course, these games can go either way because of the pressure of the European Championship, but we have a really good team. Hopefully we can progress.”

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Styles might be within the shop window in Germany and can look to construct on his positive loan spell at Sunderland by securing a everlasting transfer from Barnsley – who lost to Bolton Wanderers within the League One play-off semi-finals – this summer.

He has enjoyed his time at Sunderland but is unsure of their plans as no latest manager has been appointed yet. If not Sunderland then he hopes to return to the Championship with one other club.

Callum Styles spent last season at Sunderland, but his long-term future is uncertain (George Wood/Getty Images)

But his club ambitions are on hold. “I'm concentrating on international football: the European Championship and on doing my best for Hungary,” he says. “The rest will work itself out.”

His parents, his girlfriend and a few friends will even travel to Germany. Will all of them learn the national anthem? “They already know it,” he says. “We'll sing it.”

One of his aunts, who lives in Hungary, has been to some home games, but he's unsure if she'll have the opportunity to come back to Germany. He hopes so. Regardless, Styles is looking forward to the experience – each on a deeper personal level and on an expert one.

A flag of convenience? Maybe at first, but he has adopted his second nationality. When he puts on the Hungarian jersey, he thinks of his grandmother and wonders what she would have considered him wearing the colors of her country.

“It's special for my mother's family to see me as a representative of our bloodline,” he says. “It's an honor to play for Hungary. It's in my DNA.”

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