BUDAPEST, Hungary — Normally, Hungary would have no incentive against the United States, one of soccer's Third World nations. Indeed, the only other time the two teams met, 11 years ago, the Hungarians were so carefree that they lost.
But Tuesday night at Ulloi Stadium, the Hungarians put their best feet forward in a 2-0 victory over the United States before a crowd of about 15,000 and cameras from two national television networks, their own and one in Italy.
For the first time in 20 years, the Hungarians will not be in the World Cup, soccer's most prestigious championship. So they were eager to prove they are better than at least one of the 24 teams that will play in Italy this summer.
But Italian fans, astute enough to know that much without having to watch this game, probably had changed the channel by halftime. Except for a hit crossbar here and a hit post there, the score could have been as one-sided as the game. For previous reference, see the Soviet Union's 3-1 victory over the United States last month at Stanford.
"We know we're students of the game," said U.S. forward Chris Sullivan, who is from the University of Tampa via Redwood City, Calif., but is doing his postgraduate work in the Hungarian first division.
"We Americans can make cars well, and we can promote well, but now we want to do something new well."
As one of two American players who have played in Hungary, Sullivan said he knew before the game how the United States might beat the Hungarians. Or more accurately, how the Hungarians might beat themselves.
"If they score one or two goals, they will work together like a family," he said. "But if they get down, there's a negative feeling throughout the team. They start yelling at each other."
Tuesday night, the Hungarians were one big happy family. They scored in the 39th minute on a left-footed shot by Tamas Petres after a crossing pass lured U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola out of position. In the 74th minute, Zsolt Limperger scored on a left-footed scorcher from 25 yards out that Meola did not see until too late because he was shielded by one of his own men.
Hungary had 10 other solid shots, six of which Meola was forced to save. In contrast, the United States, as meek offensively as usual, took six shots, only three of which caused goalkeeper Istvan Brockhauser much concern.
"Early in the second half, we started getting some momentum so that maybe they were thinking they weren't really that dominant," Sullivan said. "But once they got the second goal, it was a festival for them."
Perhaps it was the type of performance the Hungarians needed to win back their fans. There were about 10,000 empty seats in the stadium, which soccer officials here attributed, in part, to the political rallies downtown Tuesday night for Sunday's historic free elections. But they also admitted that the team has lost support since not qualifying for the World Cup.
Hungary had one of the sport's legendary teams in the early 1950s, losing, 3-2, to West Germany in the '54 World Cup championship game after leading 2-0. All national teams have suffered by comparison since then, although Hungary still was able to qualify for all four World Cups between 1974 and 1986.
But in the '86 World Cup in Mexico, the Hungarians lost, 6-0, to the Soviet Union, something they never overcame. They have had four coaches since then, including Kalman Meszoly, who was hired in January after Hungary failed to advance to the World Cup from a difficult qualifying group that included Spain and Ireland. Two ties against lowly Malta sealed Hungary's fate.
Meszoly, who also had the job from 1980 through '83, was implicated in a game-rigging scandal as the coach of a Hungarian first-division team in 1988 but was exonerated after an investigation.
"As the political changes opened up the freedom of the press, they blew it out of proportion," he said last week.
He also said he believes that the liberalization of Hungary has contributed to the country's decline in soccer.
"Young people in the past didn't have a chance to go to discotheques," he said.
Despite that, Meszoly has put together an extremely young team in hopes of qualifying for the 1992 European Championship. Only two players in Tuesday night's starting lineup had participated in more than three games for the national team.
"They have to realize they are playing for the Hungarian national colors," he said.
Perhaps that means more than it has in the past. Tears came to a Hungarian soccer federation official's eyes this week when he saw a picture of the U.S. players holding their hands over their hearts during the national anthem.
"Our players must start doing that," he said, "now that we are a free country."