Uefa must answer serious questions about handling of Barnabas Varga incident

Players and stewards hold a cloth to hide Hungary's forward #19 Barnabas Varga receiving medical treatment during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group A football match between Scotland and Hungary at the Stuttgart Arena in Stuttgart on June 23, 2024
Sheets were erected around Barnabas Varga as he received initial treatment - Getty Images/DAMIEN MEYER

A sickening dread gripped Stuttgart Arena as the beige sheets were held up, shielding the gravity of the scene from the crowd. In a sense, it was too late: everybody present had recoiled at the sight, beamed here on giant screens, of Hungary striker Barnabas Varga in visible distress on his back after a jarring midair collision with Scotland goalkeeper Angus Gunn. The host broadcaster dwelt on the pictures for so long that Gabby Logan, anchoring the BBC’s coverage, was forced to apologise.

Dominik Szoboszlai, Varga’s captain, cried helplessly as he looked at his team-mate, who exhibited signs of tonic posturing. Marco Rossi, the manager, was beside himself as he tried to hurry up the stretcher-bearers, who at first seemed dilatory in the response. On its own, it was a moment of the grisliest alarm. But what heightened the urgency was the fact that we had been here before, in this very tournament three years earlier, when Christian Eriksen collapsed on the Copenhagen pitch after a heart attack.

The similarities were eerie: a few towels to protect Eriksen from public view, and a phalanx of players standing around him in acute degrees of astonishment and anguish. The same reactions were true of Hungary, with Roland Sallai wiping his eyes on his shirt and Andras Schafer pleading for more medics to come to Varga’s aid. Only when confirmation came through from the Hungarian federation that Varga was stable in a Stuttgart hospital, but that he would need an operation for a suspected cheek fracture, did their panic abate.

With play suspended for over five minutes, you could only imagine the difficulty they faced in readjusting to the task at hand. After 70 grimly attritional minutes against Scotland, there was still a match to win, still qualification to secure. The fact that Hungary not only gathered themselves, but seized the victory with the most rapturously-received of injury-time strikes courtesy of Kevin Csoboth, reflected their extraordinary courage under strain.

It was officially the latest goal in European Championship history. And it was one that Csoboth marked in the aftermath by holding up Varga’s shirt. Barely believably, TNT Sports’ official football account tweeted that the dedication was for a “fatal collision”, before hastily deleting the message. According to Hungarian media, Varga, who plays for Budapest’s Ferencvaros, did not lose consciousness at any stage, with doctors putting him in a neck brace before taking him for hospital treatment.

While the overwhelming sensation is one of relief at Varga’s health, there are serious questions for Uefa to answer about how this episode was handled. Why did directors on the home feed immediately zoom in on the stricken player, with the memories of Eriksen’s cardiac arrest so fresh? And why did the severity of the situation take so long to comprehend that Szoboszlai had to grab the stretcher himself?

The Eriksen parallel was one that Logan was quick to invoke. “We were as shocked as you when they replayed that incident,” she said. “There are protocols around this kind of thing after Christian Eriksen three years ago. We were very surprised that Uefa chose to play in that angle, which is why we cut to a wide angle as soon as we could.”

Denmark's players react as paramedics attend to Denmark's midfielder Christian Eriksen after he collapsed on the pitch during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group B football match between Denmark and Finland at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen on June 12, 2021
Pictures were reminiscent of those from Euro 2020 after Christian Eriksen collapsed - AFP/MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN

She had a point, with the outrage over how Eriksen’s near-death experience was handled a key factor in determining how these scenes are broadcast. In 2021, the cameras had homed in and lingered for far too long on the Dane as he received chest compressions, his life in the balance. “Cut to the studio,” demanded Ian Wright, speaking for many. The strictest television guidelines have long applied to privacy and intrusion into grief, both of which were relevant to the Eriksen situation. And both should have been more swiftly noted as the Varga drama unfolded.

While the injuries were starkly different, the sensitivities remain the same. In light of how profoundly the game was shaken by Eriksen’s heart attack, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Varga should have had the stretcher brought to him sooner. These were the most precarious of circumstances, as Hungary’s players understood. And if the example of Eriksen, whose life was saved by the timeliest use of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, is any guide, it is that every second matters.

From a Hungarian perspective, these considerations could wait. All they could feel, after this unforgettable denouement, was gratitude that Varga was stable – and an intense pride that they had just pulled off one of the finest tournament fightbacks in their history.