Budapest (AFP) – Euro 2020 outsiders Hungary’s prospects in a daunting Group F may largely depend on RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulacsi and Willi Orban keeping stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe at bay.
But a new defensive stalwart has come on board in Fenerbahce’s Attila Szalai, 23, a regular fixture in the Hungary team since making his debut under coach Marco Rossi in 2019.
With Hungary’s most creative player Dominik Szoboszlai – also at RB Leipzig – out through injury, Szalai told Hungarian media he “expects to be busy” tackling star-studded opponents.
The modest Magyars face title holders Portugal (June 15) and world champions France (June 19) in the Puskas Arena in Budapest, before taking on Germany in Munich (June 23).
“But we want to cause a surprise, and win at least a point, or better still several points,” the powerful centre-back, who can also play on the left, said in a interview.
Tall and broad-shouldered, his career has ascended swiftly from humble beginnings.
Still playing for lowly Hungarian side Mezokovesd just two years ago he moved first to Cypriot side Apollon Limassol in June 2019, before joining Turkish giants Fenerbahce last January.
Quickly established as a fan favourite at the Istanbul club, Szalai, who likes to roam forward and join set-pieces, scored three goals in 22 appearances this season.
“It would be the greatest day of my life if I scored a goal for the national team,” said Szalai.
The defender’s “seamless transition from Cyprus to the Turkish top tier has been impressive,” Hungarian football journalist Gergely Marosi told AFP.
“He has also stood out with commanding performances for Hungary, has a good chemistry with defensive partner Willi Orban, and proved he can hold his ground against tough opposition,” said Marosi.
– Interest from abroad –
The Magyars take an 11-game unbeaten run into their opener against Portugal, in large part thanks to solidity at the back.
“If Szalai doesn’t get injured or his frankly amazing development does not stall, a ‘top five’ league career is definitely possible,” Marosi told AFP.
“Making another step up this summer might be moving too early, but he can test himself against the world’s best forwards now,” he said.
With La Liga champions Atletico Madrid and Sevilla already expressing interest, as well as Premier League sides West Ham and Leicester, Szalai will be keenly watched at Euro 2020.
“Every player wants to play in the three biggest leagues in the world, so like everyone else, I have dreams like this. I want to play at the highest level possible,” said Szalai.
Nicknamed “Sancho” after his father Attila, a twice-capped Hungary defender in the 1980s, Szalai joined Austrian side Rapid Wien as a 14-year-old before returning home aged 19.
“I was grateful to learn my trade at Rapid, and was offered a contract but I needed regular first-team top tier football which they couldn’t guarantee,” he said.
Now, with 13 caps under his belt and Hungary’s Euro 2020 opener against Portugal beckoning, Szalai said he “can’t wait” to play at a packed Puskas Arena, the only tournament venue not to limit fan capacity as a Covid-19 health precaution.
“Goose pimples are guaranteed from the atmosphere,” he said.
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