KÁROLY PÓR 2021.01.14 11:22 Frissítve: 2021.01.16 11:31

“We didn’t decide against Real or Milan” – The Road of Szoboszlai

Dominik Szoboszlai, at just 20 years old, set a new record for winning The Athlete of the Year award based on the votes of Hungarian sports journalists. In fact, he is the first team sport athlete to have won this individual prize since the beginning of the first award ceremony in 1958. We talked with Mátyás Esterházy, manager of the midfield player who signed on with RB Leipzig from Red Bull Salzburg in the winter, about the road so far, and how Dominik could serve as an example for future talents. The player's agent also revealed some behind the scenes related to Szoboszlai's change of club and prior negotiations.

Dominik Szoboszlai (Photo: Attila Török)

– Let's start with the latest: what does a recognition like The Athlete of the Year mean to Dominik? Can he feel the significance of it at just 20 years old?

– We talked about it after his nomination, and it came up after whom he may receive the award. There are Olympic champions who are also nominated this year, and Dominik's father, Zsolt Szoboszlai just said “Oh, my God!” Mátyás Esterházy told Nemzeti Sport. “It's already such an honor itself to be nominated at a young age for this prestigious award. Maybe we can't even realize his successes, records he achieves after one another. It seems almost natural that he made his debut in the national team at the age of 18 and scored a goal right in first match in the Champions League (by the age of twenty, he was the most successful Hungarian goal scorer in the Champions League – the editor), that he is the most expensive Hungarian player and signed on with the German Bundesliga, and that he became The Athlete of the Year in Hungary. In the meantime, we forget he said goodbye to Salzburg after four years in a way that in his last league against Wolfsberger AC, he was still the youngest player on the team. After each success I accented that he can be happy, feel proud of himself because he works for these moments. A few years ago, it seemed unimaginable that a Hungarian footballer could reach such heights so soon. Now this is reality, which confirms that he's on the right track.”

SPORT MOMENT OF THE YEAR
Dominik Szoboszlai also took home The Sport Moment of the Year award which was awarded for the first time at the Gala. He earned it for his goal against Iceland.

– A road that simultaneously lifts Hungarian football and its international qualification to a new level, comes with great responsibility...

– Dominik's career so far has not all been just about his success, but also about opening up opportunities for future generations. We hope that his achievements and dedication will inspire young people that no matter how unbelievable it sounds, it is possible for a young Hungarian teenager to be mentioned among the hundred best footballers in the world. That's why a mini film was made about his journey to Leipzig. Dominik tries to live in such a way that he can be a good example to others in every way - the way he works, the way he behaves on and off the field. I often tell him, “you're not just doing it for yourself,” but he's aware of it, and that's why he's become a completely different person both professionally and in terms of mentality, during his years in Salzburg. He has improved a lot on the field, learning off the field how to respect his teammates or anyone else, and the fact that he is not always the greatest player on the team. In Hungary, for example, it's a problem that outstanding talents in their own age group often spend too much time in their youth teams, and they don't get the opportunity at the age of 16 or 17 in the second division, then in the first division with the adults to play. So, their improvement is often stalled because the junior championship is no longer a challenge for them.

THE ORAD OF SZOBOSZLAI 2007–2020

“I don't want to be someone else. I'm Dominik Szoboszlai and I want to show an example to those Hungarian children who start playing football now.”

Born: October 25, 2000

Professional Career: Liefering, Red Bull Salzburg – 125 matches, 42 goals, National team: 12/3

Records, Fun facts
• The most expensive Hungarian footballer costs 20 million Euros.
• The first athlete that earned The Athlete of the Year award as a representative of a team sport.
• Became the youngest Hungarian to score goal at the Champions Leagues, and he is the most successful Hungarian player with 3 goals in the elite series at just 18 years old.
• He made into the Top 100 footballers in 2020 (as the 96th) at The Guardian.
Achievements
- 3x Austrian champion
- 2x Austrian Cup champion – the season's best player in 2019-2020

Career road in five steps

1. In the Hungarian Football Federation's tournament system, Dominik Szoboszlai played in 203 matches and scored 262 goals between 2007 and 2016. Along with his club, Főnix-Gold – where his father Zsolt Szoboszlai (right) was his coach – he played a season in MTK's youth team between 2015 and 2016. On one of his last Hungarian matches he scored five goals in the U19 category at the age of 15. There was a time in his teenage years when scored 78 goals in 47 matches.

2. In 2017, he transferred to the Red Bull Salzburg youth team. He wasn't even 17 when became a permanent member in the second division, and he earned two goals for his team in just his second match. At Liefering, he played in 42 matches netting 16 goals and assisting 11 times.

3. He was introduced to Red Bull's division one team, the top team in the Austrian Football Bundesliga, in May 2018. Since then, he's played a total of 83 matches, scored 26 goals and assisted 35 goals. In the Champions League group stage, he has a scale of 11 matches, 3 goals and 1 assist.

4. He got into the Hungarian national team from Salzburg. In March 2019, he debuted against Slovakia when he was 18 years old. He wasn't even 19 when in his fifth match, against Slovakia again, earned his first goal in September. He has played 12 national team matches scoring 3 goals. He netted the winning goal in the 92nd minute against Iceland that made Hungary qualify for the UEFA Euro 2020.

5. Top teams such as Manchester City or Real Madrid were interested in him, but in December 2020, he chose RB Leipzig that is in the Champions League semifinals. “We chose Leipzig because we saw the biggest chance here to improve from the experiences learned from Salzburg,” said Mátyás Esterházy (right), who has been managing the midfielder for the seventh year in a row now.

– After the successes of Hungarian football in the fall, there should be a big change in the player market, so more and more could get into the strongest European championships.

IS HE ALL OVER THE NEWS IN HUNGARY? SEE THE INTERNATIONAL PRESS!

The M4 Sport – The Athlete of the Year Award Gala was followed by a press conference where Mátyás Esterházy represented Dominik Szoboszlai (who also won The Team of the Year with his Hungarian national teammates) and answered Nemzeti Sport's questions. Our paper stated that it was decided in the last minute that Red Bull Salzburg lets him play against Iceland. If he didn't have the chance, we wouldn't have been able to take home The Sport Moment of the Year award along with the other two.
“We didn't even dare to think about this possibility," said Mátyás Esterházy on behalf of Dominik Szoboszlai. “It was a difficult situation, it was in the deal, we had scenarios A, B and C, and luckily A worked out. Moreover, since he scored a winning goal in the 92nd minute, we can say that it was scenario A + ...” We also asked the manager what he says about the fact that the Hungarian press is giving too much attention to this 20-year-old player, he is being compared to Puskás, and that is all over the news now. We were curious how to handle a situation like this.
"Anyone who thinks that they are paying too much attention to Dominik Szoboszlai in Hungary does not see what is happening in the foreign press about him," said Mátyás Esterházy. “I have to say that the Hungarian press is quite discreet about him, for which I am especially grateful. We are constantly preparing for the fact that his private life will become more and more in the spotlight, and there is a growing interest in everything related to him. Although he is only twenty years old, fortunately he has been in a circle for years where he can gradually get used to the big fuss around him. I've been preparing him for a long time for that this will be his life. We are preparing for a career and the reputation that comes with it, which is a completely different level from what we are used to at home. Fortunately, he is very strong mentally, handles pressure very well and only deals with work, to be better on the field day by day.”

ZALÁN BODNÁR

– Let's not expect an explosive change in the player market overnight, but change can be achieved in a few years with hard work. There is a situation that Hungarian clubs need to take advantage of. Thanks to the successes of Dominik, Péter Gulácsi, Roland Sallai or Attila Szalai, many experts watch our players, which is an opportunity that can and should be consciously built on. It seems like a dream category for a Hungarian player to be able to sign on with a top team directly from the Hungarian National League top tier (NB I). But, if László Bénes from Žilina, Slovakia, who actually grew up in Győr, Hungary, could sign on with Mönchengladbach or Milan Skriniar could sign on with Sampdoria the same year, then why can't Hungarian clubs do business with top-rank teams in a few years as well? Players need to be educated for the purpose of being sold, and young people at 16 should be given more and more opportunities to play football in adult team. Dominik wasn't even 17 years old when he was already a permanent member at Liefering adult second division. It would be unrealistic to think the Hungarian National League (NB I) could be a market for all clubs in the world. First, we need to find those six or seven domestic clubs that can regularly transfer their players. More and more young people prove that they can stand on their ground, so the clubs are also more confident turning towards Hungary and its players. However, we cannot go against the market process; we have to position ourselves properly on an international level.

What does it take for a Hungarian young man to follow a path similar to Dominik? How important is the role a footballer parent? Because if we look at the great promises of the current national team, we can see that in addition to Dominik, Roland Sallai's and Attila Szalai's fathers were also great footballers.

– I would highlight three factors in addition to talent. One is to have perfect technical training by the age of 14.  It's not the academy's task to pass this on, because there tactic and other elements would be in foresight. However, in Hungary, even in the youth team matches we often talk about whether this or that player is properly trained. For example, whether or not they can take the ball and pass it right away. The other key factor in career building is consciously thinking parent. It's obvious that a child whose father is a footballer spends more time with the ball than others, so he is at an advantage. Long time ago children used to kick the ball on the ground until the sun went down, learned from each other, so an average, not so talented child could still play football better than today's children who spend less time with the ball. However, a consciously thinking parent is continuously looking for ways to improve his child. This applies not only to football, but to any sport. The final one is in relation to this is career planning. It's not expected from the parent to understand how each team builds up its players – it's the managers' jobs to help them make a decision by evaluating and sharing all available information. It's often said that Dominik was lucky with Salzburg, but they forget that a decision had to be made for this. We chose Salzburg instead of other teams together with the parents, because the experiences have shown that talent can develop together with the club that signs on with him. Then, the club educates these young people to then be able to sell them to the higher-level clubs. Not everyone who gets to Salzburg will be a top player, but everyone will start with equal chances.

What are the benefits of the Leipzig contract for the further management of Hungarian players? Is it possible to get close to the top clubs as a Hungarian manager?

– Due to the recent history of Hungarian football, we tend to limit ourselves in our thinking and state in advance: a Hungarian player cannot score a goal in the Champions League at the age of 18, a Champions League semi-finalist club doesn't sign on with a Hungarian player at the age of 20. Arsenal, Manchester City, or AC Milan won't sit down with a Hungarian manager to negotiate. However, Dominik's career path so far shows that all this can happen, and the star clubs that have been associated with him in the international press have really taken a specific interest in him. So, if you have a family background in addition to talent and technical skills and the player is also able to gradually improve and perform at a higher and higher level thanks to good career planning, then the sky is the limit.

Mátyás Esterházy (right) said that Dominik Szoboszlai chose the German team because of
RB Leipzig's outlined project (Photo: EM Sports Consulting)

Didn't internationally renowned agencies try to take away Dominik from you?

– There have been inquiries from top agencies in Europe, but fortunately, during these seven years we have developed a relationship of mutual trust with Dominik and his family that we all utmost faith in working and in the path we have chosen together. At the same time, I negotiated with potential partners who, in return for a certain commission, would've helped manage him with their exclusive contacts, but we couldn't find a form that would've benefited all parties. I'm young, I have plans, ambitions, and I didn't want to make otherwise unnecessary compromises because of a financially promising offer in the short term. In the future as well, we will only engage in a collaboration that can serve the player's advancement.

– If we could really believe the press, this particular trip could've already led to Munich, Madrid or even Barcelona. Would it have been too much of a leap?

– When we decided on Dominik's future, we didn't decide against Real Madrid or AC Milan, but we were for RB Leipzig's outlined project. Though it was a huge experience to meet the technical director Paolo Maldini of Milan, we chose Leipzig because we saw the biggest chance here to improve from the experiences learned from Salzburg.

– What doors can this transfer open for you?

WE HAVE TO WAIT FOR HIS INTRODUCTION
“Dominik has had his pubic bone inflamed for a long time now, which is why he often played with take anti-inflammatory drugs before matches. There was a time when it helped and it hurt less, but there were times when it hurt more. Now that he has started training in Leipzig again, he felt pain again, so the decision was made to go to Salzburg to a specialist, and if the treatments are effective, he can do full-time work in Leipzig again in three weeks,” said Mátyás Esterházy about Dominik's injury.

– With each success, new gates will open for my agency, thus for our players as well. I get very good feedback from all over Europe, several clubs have come up with concrete ideas, so it would be a shame to deny the positive aftermath. I think the conscious work that we started years ago is starting to pay off, and I'm sure that Hungarian football will benefit from this in the short and medium term.

– Do you already see new “Szoboszlais” among the 14-16-year-olds who could take a similar path as him?

– It's unlucky to compare players, but I don't want to get around the question. Yes, there are individuals in the youth teams who can get very far with proper diligence and dedication. Without being exhaustive, Zsombor Senkó (Juventus), Marcell Berki (FC Liefering), Noel Keresztes, Tamás Szűcs, Dániel Németh (Honvéd), and Patrik Kovács, Zalán Vancsa (MTK) are all 16-18-year-old players who show enormous potential at international level. I mention them because they are at the age when they are a near go to playing with adults and proving themselves there regularly. I'm very proud to be able to help these talents, and I believe that if they continue on the path they have begun, they will be successful. There are huge talents among the younger ones as well, but they still have a long way and need to work hard to become real footballers. Dominik Szoboszlai is an excellent example of the need to forget sentences that begin with “it's impossible to do it,” because they are just good excuses why we shouldn't do something. If the above-mentioned bases are given, anything can be achieved, even from Hungary too...

(Translated by Vanda Orosz)

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