These days, András Schäfer has good reasons to be cheerful (Photo: Attila Török)

– Did you return to Berlin in a good mood?
– Not only in a good mood but also - at least for most of the journey - in good company because I flew from Budapest to Leipzig from where I took the train to Berlin. I traveled to Leipzig with Péter Gulácsi, Dominik Szoboszlai, and Willi Orbán, and we had one last look at what we had experienced at the Nations League.

– And what was your conclusion?
– That we have no reason to be sorrowful! We finished second with ten points in a group of which it is hard to imagine a stronger one. Upon the group draw, some people even feared that we would not only not earn points but that we would not even score a goal... On the contrary, we went into the final group match leading the group ahead of Italy, Germany, and England, and a draw would have meant that we would have finished top and advanced to the final four of the series. I think that says everything about our performance. Even though we didn't manage to do the latter, on the way to Leipzig, we were saying that we shouldn't be sad, but be happy with what we had achieved because that's a big thing! Of course, after the defeat to the Italians, we were all moping in the dressing room but once we cleared our heads, we realized that we should be proud of we had reached.

András Schäfer will always remember that “we defeated England in Wolverhampton" (Photo: AFP)

– Since you've cleared your heads... Did you have a good Monday night celebration with the fans?
– Oh, it wasn't that big of a party... But we need these once in a while. We were saying goodbye to Ádám Szalai, so we gathered in a bar, and I'm glad the fans were there, too. I wouldn't mind if we could get together once or twice in the future, not after every match, but maybe every two years, at the end of a successful series. Obviously, we don't need to go overboard, but I think it's okay to have a glass of beer with the fans on occasion. It's important to keep the good relationship that we've built up between us.

– Can this bond be strengthened even more?
– Good question. We've received a lot from the fans in the last period, and we're grateful to them. The question is what happens if we are not as successful as we have been recently. However, it is reassuring to know that even after the two defeats to Albania in the World Cup qualifiers or the 4-0 win for England in Budapest, they have not turned their backs on us, and we can really say that they have stuck by us through thick and thin. But, in the future, I hope that both of us will have something better only.

– Let's go back to December 16, 2021. What was your first thought when you found out you were in the same group as Italy, Germany, and England?
– I wasn't like, "Oh, what's going to happen to us!” I must admit that I was happy. As was the whole team. We were happy to be playing against such renowned opponents, we felt we could measure where we were against the best teams and how far we had already come. And we secretly hoped that we would be able to bring back the footballing fever we had experienced during the European Championship. And well, we did it! We've come an incredible way, and by the end of it, we managed to create the same atmosphere in Hungary as last summer. When the national team steps onto the pitch, it's a celebration for the country, and there's nothing more exhilarating. We now know that we have a chance against anyone, we just have to believe that we are capable of a feat. The six games we played show me that we have reached the level of the top teams in terms of mentality. However, we know best that we still have a lot of room for improvement. We are not comparing ourselves to the strongest teams in Europe, but we are not going out to the field against them with the underdog mentality. We won't always be on the same wagon as we have been in recent months – there will certainly be matches where we don't win, but if we are clever, we will learn from them.

– Did the team give its best in the Nations League?
– We could say that if we had won the group. However, we felt that we were getting stronger and more united match by match, and that certainly gives us hope for the future. Nobody expected our last group match to be a mini-final, and to be honest, not even we thought of it. One of our main goals before the start was to possess the ball as much as possible. The statistics also show that this was achieved. We had possession of the ball fifty-three percent of the time against Italy. We dominated in several phases of the game, and despite the 2-0 defeat, I would say that we performed well at times, and who knows what would have happened if Gianluigi Donnarumma had not been a great goalkeeper. We played balanced games from the start, and we can learn from them. Let's not forget that we have a young team, and what we have experienced now can be to our advantage later on.

– Have you improved with the team together?
– I think so. I put on the national team jersey for the first time two years ago, and it's taken me a lot of small steps to get to where I am now. And I want to continue on this path in many small steps. I have no intention of sitting back and saying to myself, "You're good, Andris!” In fact, I want to improve and train even more. I want to give 100% every day! Though I've already been told in Berlin that I need more rest – and that's true, I want to get better and better.

– That takes confidence, doesn't it?
– I had a coach who once said to me that if I don't have confidence, I should go to the supermarket and buy one, see if it's on sale. Since then, I've been doing my job to the best of my ability, I'm confident in myself and I try to take every opportunity.

One of the three highlights of the Nations League series was Hungary’s victory over Germany in Leipzig (Photo: AFP)

At the age of twenty-three, you can already claim to be a national team player with 22 caps. The twenty-two games include an unforgettable European Championship and a magnificent appearance in the Nations League. As they say, it's fabulous.
– It is. I'm rarely satisfied, but what I've experienced so far as a national team member has been fantastic! I'm so lucky.

  – It wasn't just luck, though...
– But it was necessary. And so the lots of work and perseverance. And last but not least, the good people who surround me on and off the pitch. I couldn't wish for better people!

– If you had to choose one moment from the Nations League, what would it be?

– You see, I really am lucky because I have a lot to choose from. We won three games, and I played through all three. We defeated England in the first one with 35,000 kids cheering us on, so I hope we gave them a great experience. Ten days later, England lost to us in Wolverhampton, and we did it with a sensational game of 0-4. We stayed out on the pitch to celebrate with the fans after the final whistle – England is not beaten by four goals every day in their country! The third win in Leipzig is mainly beautiful because of Ádám Szalai's goal, which was also a great moment. And which one of them is going to come out on top? Perhaps the singing of the national anthem with the fans after the match in Wolverhampton. That was chilling...

– Is there anything you would erase from your memory?
– I'm still annoyed about my two yellow cards; I didn't see either of them as one. The second yellow was particularly upsetting because it forced me to miss the home game against Germany. I also have a feeling of lack about the two games against Italy, we didn't play well in Cesena, and there was also more in the match in Budapest. All in all, of course, we had a lot more good than bad.

– Joy mingled with pain: the team captain has retired from the national team. What did Ádám Szalai mean to a young player?
– "Szala" can be a role model for many Hungarian children! What's more, to many players too. A few years ago, my career in Italy didn't turn out as I had imagined, and at that time, I drew strength from his example. He had faced problems before, but he never gave up, he fought relentlessly, and he always had the strength to fight back. His determination is impressive. I had an image of him before I met him, and after I made the national team, I was convinced that he was exactly who I thought he was. As well as being a great footballer, he is uncompromising, a real leader on the pitch and in the dressing room. He has given me good advice, but he has also been the first to put me in my place in training. I owe him a lot! And Hungarian football owes him a lot too. Not everyone gets the chance to celebrate with the crowd at the Puskás Arena after their last national team game like he did, but he deserved it. Ádám earned the respect of everyone. Congratulations to him, and I wish him happiness for the rest of his career and beyond.

– Since you've seen what a good team captain looks like, would you wear the armband for the national team?

– That'll take a lot of time before I can be Hungary's team captain. But I would be so happy to be it one day!

– At the press conference leading up to the match in Leipzig, you spoke about how a lot of fans were cheering on you - even at the game against Germany. What happened after the win?
– So many people congratulated me - perhaps more than ever before. Most of the team wrote me as well as the staff. Even our physiotherapist didn't forget me. It's nice to be listened to, to be cared for, and to be celebrated. Before I came to Germany, I had heard some stereotypes about Germans being a bit cold and less friendly, but they were all proven wrong - at least in my case. What I got at Union exceeded all my expectations, I just love playing for this team.

He played against Italy at the Puskás Aréna in the beautiful new white kit for the first time. He surprised his girlfriend with jersey number 13 (Photo: AFP)

The other day, managing director Oliver Ruhner praised you in Kicker's columns.
– I read that interview, and his words meant a lot to me. Something tells me that they won't say that to my face because they don't want me to get carried away. Not that there is any danger of that. happening If someone compliments me, I thank them, but that doesn't make me slow down. What's more, recognition only encourages me to go the extra mile.

From the outside, it seems that even if your opponent is two heads taller and weighs twenty kilos more than you, you are not afraid and go into the fight as if your life depended on it. Am I right?

– If I were scared, if I were pulled back, I would have to think about whether I still want to play football. This attitude has always been a characteristic of me, one of my morals. I'm not a pumped-up giant, but in Berlin, I was told I didn't need to put on ten kilos of muscle, that I was fine as I was. So, it doesn't bother me that from the outside it looks like the baby-faced blondie is bumping into everyone... It could even be my trademark.

There was a scary scene in Wolverhampton, though...

– It was a serious situation, close to an even more serious injury. I had knee pain for a month afterwards, even walking was difficult at first. At this point, I can return to being lucky because it was the last game of the previous season, so I had time to recover. And we can also come back to the fact that I was surrounded by good people because the national team and Union's specialists were a great help in my rehabilitation, and I got better by the time I had to be. However, that particular incident was also a warning sign: if I am going to get into tricky situations, I need to take even more care of myself and strengthen my legs.

He has a great relationship with Marco Rossi - he even made him laugh at the press conference in Leipzig (Photo: MTI)

And what makes you smile all the time?
– When I get to do what I love most in the world when I get to play in matches with a magical atmosphere for my national team and my club when I get to be part of amazing successes, why not smile? Besides, I don't like it when there is tension in the air. Some situations call for seriousness, there is no need to fool around twenty-four hours a day, but I think we should smile rather than be sorrowful.

You also created a good atmosphere at the aforementioned press conference in Leipzig where you sat down with the journalists after answering the questions. I thought you were going to ask Marco Rossi if he was going to make you a starter the next day...
– I think that was one of those situations where I could joke around. Anyway, they say it's not the player who should be nervous, but the person who puts him in...

– Are you superstitious? I only ask because of the number thirteen on your jersey.

– I'm not! I wear it proudly because of one of my best friends, Zsolt Kalmár. His favorite number is thirteen, and he plays for the national team and DAC in a thirteen jersey. Sadly, he suffered a serious knee injury in Andorra last March, but if anyone deserved to play in the European Championship, it was him. Uncle Laci Hegyesi, who was in charge of the kit, suggested that I should play in that jersey in Zsolt's absence. When I asked him if I could wear it, he agreed. Perhaps he even blessed it. But I don't want to keep it, I promise to give it back to Zsolt as soon as he returns. I hope that at the next training I will have to ask Uncle Laci for a new number.

Union Berlin head coach Urs Fischer is also pleased with his performance (Photo: AFP)

– If you had to place an order for that today, which number would you choose?
– The numbers eight and twenty-six are the ones closest to my heart, but the former belongs to Ádám Nagy, and the latter is not on the national team. I'll ask around to see if it's possible for me to play in it. If I don't succeed, I'll take what's left. The important thing is to have the coat of arms on it.

– Are you looking forward to the match against Luxembourg and Greece in November?
– You bet! On the plane, we were also talking to Dominik about how good it will be to come home again. When we're surrounded by such an atmosphere, when I can play in such a close-knit team, I can't wait to start preparing again. In the meantime, I'll be playing a few league and Europa League games with Union, so I'll be focusing on those in the weeks ahead. If I've been praised for my performance so far, I'd like to pick up where I left off.

– I suppose the same goes for your teammates: Union leads the Bundesliga after seven rounds...
– It's a pleasure to look at the league table, but we're not pompous, we always knew where our place was, and we know where we are now. As I said, I love it here, I'm grateful to be a Union footballer. It is incredible to have such a wonderful time with the national team and my club. It's no wonder that as hard as it was to leave the national team, it was so nice to come back to Berlin. I went from euphoria to euphoria... Have I told you how lucky I am?

HAT TIP

One chapter closed with the match against Italy, and a new one will begin in March 2023: the Hungarian national team will start the European Championship qualifying series. There is reason to be hopeful, not only because of what we have seen over the last year or two but also because Marco Rossi's side's excellent performance in the Nations League has put them on top for the draw in Frankfurt on October 9!

"The fact that we are among the strongest teams shows that we are on the right track," said András Schäfer. "We have talked amongst ourselves about the importance of being in the first draw, but we haven't got to the point where we say who would and wouldn’t be good to play with. The beauty of football is that you can beat anyone, and you can also get beaten by anyone - we've experienced that on our own skin. In any case, we have to keep on believing in success, if ten points in the Nations League doesn't give us confidence, nothing will."