When the audience in the Puskás Aréna celebrated the national team, tough defender Attila Szalai was touched, too
(Photo: István Mirkó/Magyar Nemzet)

 

– Can you hear me? – asked 23-year-old Attila Szalai, defender of Fenerbahçe and the Hungarian national team, on the phone.
– So well that even the birds chirping can be heard in the background. Can you reveal where you are?
– I'm from Göd, but my father has a house in Verőce where we spend a few days. It's good to be home with the family talking and relaxing.

ATTILA SZALAI
BORN:  January 20, 1998; Budapest
NATIONALITY:  Hungarian
POSITION: center-back
CAPS/GOALS (2019–): 16/–
CLUBS:  Rapid Wien (Austria, 2016), Mezőkövesd (2017–2019), Apollon Limassol (Cyprus, 2019–2021), Fenerbahçe (Turkey, 2021–)
ACHIEVEMENTS:  Cypriot First Division runner-up (2021), Süper Lig 3rd place (2021), European Championship participant (2021)

– When it comes to the Hungarian national team's European Championship participation, you don't seem to be desperate.
– Even though I slept a little after what had happened, it's still hard to put into words how I feel. Playing two games on home grounds in the Puskás Aréna full of Hungarian fans is indescribable! I have to add, though, that what we've had in Munich will accompany us for the rest of our lives as well. We faced three of the strongest teams in the world, we weren't put to shame. In fact, we've achieved good results against France and Germany. What's more, we prepared for the last group stage with a chance of qualifying – which we were very, very close to. We took the lead twice against the Germans, we played well, it worked out what we had planned, and we gave the maximum of our strength, or maybe even more. We've mobilized our last energy reserves to make one more slip successful, or to run another kilometer. We were within reach of the miracle... If there's one thing I regret, it's that we couldn't play football against Portugal as we did in the other two games. I watched the eighth final in Seville on Sunday night, and it really occurred to me that instead of the Portuguese, we could be the ones playing against Belgium.

– Overall, is joy surpassing sorrow?
– Absolutely! It's a wonderful feeling when I think about what we've accomplished. There are no words for the support received from fans. It was a dreamy experience what we've been through. I still haven't fully processed what happened to us. Perhaps I'll need a week or two, or maybe a month to realize all that. But what I already know is that I'm happy and proud to be a member of this national team!

Photo: Miklós Szabó

– You mentioned before the start of the tournament at a press conference that you were nervously watching the 2016 event on TV.
– That's correct that we watched all the games with the family, but even then could I experience what great success can mean for the country and what footballers who fight on the pitch give their fans. The fact that five years later I was able to experience this as a member of the national eleven is again indescribable. As we took the bus to the Puskás Aréna amid fans cheering us on, as I looked up at the stands – it still gives me the creeps when I talk about it. Then, when the National Anthem turned on, it was one of the best moments of my life.

– If someone said after the Hungary-Portugal match in Lyon that you were going to play against Cristiano Ronaldo at the next European Championship, then...
– I would've told him that he better be right! Thank God, it turned out this way...

– You're not the first footballer in your family: was your father, capped twice for Hungary, satisfied with your performance?
– He didn't complain... I trust him a lot. He's been helping me with everything since I was little. I'm happy we brought him joy at the European Championship. I want to thank my parents and girlfriend for always being there for me. They attended all three games and teared up a little.

– You too?
– There were some emotional moments... When the National Anthem played before and after the matches, I noticed a lot of people wiping their tears. It was equally uplifting to live through Attila Fiola's scoring against the world champions, that we took the lead with Ádám Szalai's header in Munich or that immediately after the equalizer, András Schäfer gets in between the Germans in kamikaze style and gives us an advantage again. That goal, I think, showed the national team's attitude perfectly. Andris didn't care about his health; he did it for the sake of the team.

– You're on the right track, too. You've crowed this great season with the European Championship, haven't you?
– Yes! It's been a productive year for me, and the change of club in the winter has worked out well. I've had the opportunity in 56 stake matches in total that is the highest I've ever had in my career. I've accomplished great success both at national and club levels. The only reason I'm a little disheartened is that Fenerbahçe was as close to the title as the national team to the eighth finals, and we only finished third. I hope we can move up two places next year!

– Just to look at the latest news. While Napoli also has an interest in you, the managers have already rejected West Ham's offer.
– Various news often gets out quickly, but the formula is simple: I am Fenerbahçe's player. My contract keeps me here for years, not to mention that I'm happy in Istanbul and proud to play football for this team. It's not a secret, though that if fate ordains it, I'd like to test myself in one of the top leagues. That's why I'm working day to day to get this opportunity one day.

– In recent days, Atlético Madrid, Leicester City, and Atlanta were also interested in you. Have already imagined yourself in one of the teams' jersey?
– I'm honored that my name comes up somewhere, but I don't want to dive right into it. The most important thing for me right now is the opportunity to play a lot, and there's no shortage of that at Fener. I'm at the right place at the right time. I can improve and fight for success. It's not worth talking about transferring until the managers tell me that a proper request has been received.

– And when I say September 2?
– The next big match: we welcome England for the World Cup qualifiers! We're aware of how strong the English are, we also have goals... We want to keep the level we've reached now. I hope that we'll cause problems for England, too. The huge love for football that characterizes Hungarians gives a lot to us footballers. A lot of people stop me on the street nowadays to congratulate us... To my delight, even on Sunday when I was at a christening ceremony in Borsod county, the pastor specifically mentioned the Hungarian national team. As I was listening to his words, I thought, everything was worth it even just for this.

Translated by Vanda Orosz