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The inside story of Attila Szalai: “Hungary’s Virgil Van Dijk”

Attila Szalai is catching the eye and attracting interest from some of Europe’s elite clubs. This is the story of how he was discovered in Cyprus.

Sitting in a small bar in Mezőkövesd, Petros Konnafis was exhausted and drained. But most of all he was elated.

It had taken months and weeks of negotiations and convincing the right people, but finally he had completed the deal he was certain was worth every penny.

Sitting next to him the boy responsible for all the talking and brokering , Attila Szalai, was just as tired but he grinned too.

This was a moment the pair of them had been waiting to get to for months. For the first time they could relax and look forward to an exciting future.

‘Everything was hard, we worked so many hours to negotiate and find a solution, me and Attila were both really tired but happy that the deal was completed,’ Petros Konnafis, Apollon Limassol’s former sporting director tells FTF.

‘There was a Cypriot guy who worked in Hungary and who helped with the transfer and he took us around to find the right place. We were taking pictures in the small bar, it was a very special moment, especially looking back on it now. It’s not something that happens everyday you know.’

Serendipity

When Petros watched Hungary U21s against Cyprus he did not expect to discover a hidden treasure back in 2018.

But the more and more he watched the more he felt himself captivated by Hungary’s number 13.

‘He was a really interesting profile for us. Attila was a really fast and strong player and in the modern day it is difficult to find a left-footed centre-back, especially one who is so fast and so strong,’ he recalls in awe.

‘Immediately I went to scout his games at Mezőkövesd.’

By then a 20-year-old Attila Szalai was enjoying his second season in Hungary’s top flight.

He was a mainstay for mid-table Mezőkövesd and somewhat a rarity as the only Hungarian centre-back under the age of 21 who had played more than 90 minutes during the season.

Szalai stood out in Hungary too winning 68% of his defensive duels (top ten for CBs who played 2000 minutes) and he averaged the most interceptions per 90 in the entire league for centre-backs.

Even so Petros had to do some convincing at Apollon.

‘Here in Cyprus it’s difficult to spend money on a player. 90% of the signings we make come to us as free-agents. But I believed in Attila a lot and I thought he had the potential to improve a lot so I managed to convince the president to invest in him and pay money to buy him.’

For £360,000 according to Transfermarkt Szalai became the 9th most expensive player in the club’s history and the second most expensive for a centre-back.

Coming from the Hungarian league, there were sceptics but Petros was adamant he had made the right transfer.

‘I got a lot of information that he was a top boy and a top professional and a guy who is really interested to just play football at the highest levels.’

Origins

Attila grew up in Göd in the suburbs of Hungary. He was born to sport crazed parents. His father was a former international footballer and his mother an athlete.

From day one Attila took to sports too.

It was not long before he was trying himself out at Gödi SE before moving to Vac and Vasas.

His father embraced his love for the sport. He built a football pitch in their backyard and constantly practised day and night with his son.

When Vasas travelled to an international tournament in Austria, Rapid Wien spotted the then 12-year-old and invited him to the club.

His family first moved to Sopron close to the Hungarian-Austrian border before he eventually moved into Rapid Wien’s academy quarters.

Being in a competitive academy environment helped to hone Attila’s skills, but his father still played an integral role in his development.

There were times Szalai would miss out on the matchday squad at Rapid Wien. In those times him and his father would use his time off to practise and train during the weekends.

‘I met his father,’ Petros says. ‘I think that his father has influenced his career a lot. He keeps him concentrated, encourages him to keep a low profile and work a lot. I think he gives him the right advice and helps him stay on the right path.’

Elite

At Rapid, Szalai captained the side for various youth teams – but his path into the first team stalled.

Moving to Mezőkövesd was regarded as a step-down at the time.

But Attila Szalai did not heed the whispers and condescending remarks.

One of the best traits about the Hungarian is his maturity off the pitch and his belief in himself.

When he moved back to Hungary he thought of the long-term plan.

At Mezőkövesd not only did he stand-out in Hungary’s top flight and was able to get regular minutes in senior football but he was also able to get the recognition of Hungary’s U21 coach, Michael Boris and play at international level against tough opposition.

‘If you ask him, he would remember that I told him he is the future of Hungarian football,’ Michael Boris tells FTF.

‘He played well, not always the best but I liked that he wanted the ball at his feet all the time and he was always trying things – sometimes he made a mistake, but then he tried again and again and improved.’

Some players disappear from the radar when they make a backwards step in their career, but Attila Szalai’s eagerness to improve ensured he was able to fight back.

‘It was clear he would make a bigger future step than his peers because they were not as interested in trying to improve,’ Boris says.

Petros agrees.

‘He’s a 100% professional. He is one of the most intensive and focused football players I have ever met in my life. Attila was always doing extra training, he was always trying to learn and trying to work on his body. He worked a lot and he worked very hard.’

Petros commends the Hungarian’s character off the pitch too.

‘In football you need to be a smart guy and polite and Attila was a really smart guy. He speaks four or five languages. He’s very clever and he studies a lot as well so he’s not just a football player, he’s the full package.’

A unique profile

One of Attila’s best traits, which is perhaps unique for a centre-back, is that he plays with his head up.

When he is in possession of the ball he rarely makes a side-pass, he instead looks to instigate attacks through precise progressive and long balls. Sometimes in true Harry Maguire fashion he also tends to maraud forward from the back when appropriate and cause problems to the opposition’s defence.

‘From the first moment we saw him, I always said to the president these kinds of players and this profile if we can get him to improve, he will be a Premier League player,’ Petros says proudly.

‘I think his best trait is that he is really fast and strong. He’s still young and he needs maybe a bit more experience to read the game better so he makes better decisions but he’s already improved a lot.

‘I watched his games at the Euros and he’s doing very well with the ball. He’s taking the right decisions to play it safe and to not lose it easy.’

In his home country many have labelled him the ‘Hungarian Virgil Van Dijk’ due to the transformative impact Attila Szalai has had on the national team since he came into the side in September of last year.

With Szalai in the side Hungary have lost just two games out of their last 16 matches.

For comparison. Before Szalai’s integration into the side Hungary lost four of their five previous matches.

Petros sees a different former Liverpool player in Attila Szalai.

‘All the time I was saying to people that he reminds me of the Slovakian centre-back who played for Liverpool, Martin Skrtel.

‘I told the president it’s a similar style of player, but Attila is even better. He is faster and maybe even stronger. So, I think if he got the chance and if makes the right choice, he can make it at the top.’

In Cyprus, Attila joined a club where he got to play alongside former Premier League and La Liga centre-backs. Petros believes this was crucial for his development too.

‘He worked a lot on his passing when he came to Cyprus. He was also very lucky because we had Roberge, who had experience in Premier League, Portugal and France, and Attila watched him and worked with him a lot.’

A bright future

The step-up from Cyprus to Fenerbahce is a steep one. But Attila Szalai has handled the pressure well and he has established himself as a fan favourite in Turkey.

At Euro 2020 the Hungarian proved he is able to do it against the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Leroy Sane and Antoine Griezmann.

Fenerbahce are likely going to make a major profit on their £3 million investment. Petros agrees.

‘I think after this Euros he’s going to get more offers. I feel very proud, personally, I chose him for the club, convinced the player and the president to pay the money for him.’

Of course at 23, the Hungarian still has many things to improve on too.

‘But now Attila has a lot of things to do and move onto the next-step. He has more than 10 years to improve and play in a better league. He has all the package to do it for sure.’

Petros is adamant the Hungarian has the potential to make it in England in the future even if the next step takes Attila Szalai somewhere else.

‘If he gets the chance to play for a team like Atalanta or Atletico, I still think that in the future he can be a Premier League player. Physically he’s so strong, so fast and aggressive. I believe that he has the profile to make it there.’

For now a nation waits its breath for his next move.

But staying with Fenerbahce for another season would not be a damning choice either. The Hungarian is adored by his teammates and managers – he is settled and at a place where he can still learn an ample amount.

Speaking to Petros, Michael and all those who know him the Hungarian certainly carries an aura around him. The kind of aura you don’t want to let go.

‘He’s a great guy it’s unbelievable. He is one of the most correct, professional and nicest guys I met in football. And I believe he can move on and he can play to a much higher level because of his character. He’s so concentrated about his job and football.’

At 23, Harry Maguire was still at Hull City in the Championship. Virgil Van Dijk was lining up in the green and white of Celtic.

For a centre-back this is just the beginning.

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