Let's hope that we will see the players of the Hungarian national team just as joyous next year at the European Championship (Photo: Imre Földi)


THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES. At least, in volleyball there isn't as the fact that the women's national volleyball team qualified for the European Championship for the fifth time in a row cannot be attributed to luck. However, a few "ingredients" were definitely needed.


The first link in the chain is in the youth team, as the Hungarian team participated in the 2003 European Youth Championships with a squad that included Dóra Horváth, Zsanett Kötél and, Rita Liliom. The team, led by highly respected Zoltán Jókay, finished in seventh place and, thanks to them, the country was represented at the World Youth Championships again after ten years.

Six years later, they managed to qualify for the continental championships again with another successful team, including Rita Molcsányi, Ágnes Pallag, Zsuzsanna Tálas, and Evelin Vacsi. They finished the tournament in seventh place, and although almost the same squad qualified for the Junior European Championships a year later as the leaders in the group, they finished twelfth, winning only one set. The aforementioned players, along with other talents such as Renáta Sándor and Edina Dobi, were gradually given a chance to play for the senior team from 2009-2010 but failed to qualify for the 2011 and 2013 continental tournaments.

Another important element is the head coach. Former Dózsa Újpest setter Mihály Farkas, who coached the national team in eight matches, was succeeded by Zoltán Jókay, who made his debut on the bench in May 2011. The trainer was already a two-time champion and four-time cup winner with Vasas when he proposed to the federation's board that the Hungarian national team should join the European League. In the end, only the women were given the opportunity, but there is no doubt that this was a milestone. Overall, it was thanks to this that our team won the series in 2015, under the guidance of Belgian coach Jan De Brandt. But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

There was great joy in 2015: the Hungarian national team defeated Azerbaijan (Photo: Imago Images)



The team has a bright future ahead of it as well as an internationally renowned professional. Jan De Brand was hired as national team head coach in March 2014 to succeed László Hollósy, who replaced Jókay in 2012. Jan De Brandt had previously won a Champions League silver medal and Turkish league and cup titles with Turkish women's team Fenerbahce and led the Belgian national team to seventh place at the 2007 continental tournament. Under his leadership, a fundamentally different system and a new approach began to emerge, and success came quickly: the team qualified for the 2015 European Championship in six qualifying rounds played between May 23 and June 1, 2014. The last time a Hungarian women's team had been to a continental tournament before that was 1987... And, as mentioned above, the players achieved a second feat in September 2015 by winning the European League. Back then, the final was played in a back-and-forth format, with a 3-0 win against Türkiye in Érd. Though, three days later in Izmir, with Türkiye leading 3-1, the Hungarian team won the golden set, ending it with a goal from Renáta Sándor.

The Hungarian women's national team has never won a gold medal in a prestigious international tournament before, but this success has put the country back on the international volleyball map.

There was no stopping, the European Championships started on September 26. Although Hungary lost to hosts Belgium and Türkiye, the team won the last group match against Azerbaijan to advance from Group B. In the end, Jan De Brandt's side finished twelfth in what was then a field of 16.

A year later, the national team's performance didn't start as expected; they lost every match in the European League as defending champions and their 2017 European Championship participation was also a disappointment. In any case, the best memories are still from the qualifying round: after a 3-0 win over Romania in the first leg, the Hungarian team won the golden set at the Érd Arena.

Then in December, a letter was sent to the Hungarian Volleyball Federation (MFA) in which Jan De Brandt resigned from the post of national captain citing family reasons. It was clear then that 2017 would be a very long national team season for the Hungarian team as they would play in the World Grand Prix and the World Championship qualifiers, as well as the European Championship. His successor, Alberto Salomoni, former German national team and MTK head coach, was appointed in March. To make things even harder for the new trainer, Dóra Horváth announced her retirement a month later. The best Hungarian volleyball player of the 2000s won the Challenge Cup that spring with Turkish club Bursa, won bronze in the 2014 Champions League with Azerbaijan's Rabita Baki and spent five-and-a-half seasons in the world's top women's league, the Italian A1.

The failed World Championship qualification was followed by winning the third division of the World Grand Prix. The continental tournament in Azerbaijan, after the end of a long season, proved to be no easy task. The hosts, known as the dark horses, Poland, and Germany joined Hungary in the group. This time, the girls failed to advance and were eliminated without a point.

Six years ago, Andrea Pintér also played a lion's share in the European Championship qualification (Photo: Péter Kovács)



The Hungarian national team has had two years to prepare for the upcoming, partially home-organized European Championship. From 2019, the European tournament will be organized by four nations, with 24 countries participating, which means that qualification has become easier. With the return of Jan De Brandt, who lacked the energy and drive that had helped the girls so many times before, Team Hungary finished the tournament in 20th place.

Another difficulty for the future was the fact that the Hungarian national team had another generation change, as Renáta Sándor and team captain Rita Bokorné Liliom left the national team after losing the last group match against the Netherlands 3-0. The fourth-place finish at the Universiade was a cause for optimism by Máté Leiszt's team, which also included Anett Németh, Zsófia Gyimes, Gréta Kiss, and Fruzsina Tóth, who is preparing for her third European Championship next year.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the qualifiers were held in 2021, three months before the start of the European Championship. The team of newly appointed captain, Jakub Gluszak, who won the championship and cup gold with Vasas, had no difficulty in qualifying. In fact, after six years, they advanced from the group stage of the Serbia-Bulgaria-Croatia-Romania co-hosted continental tournament, with eventual silver medalists Serbia stopping Hungary in the round of 16.

We could be pleased with the success achieved, but the picture is only complete if we add that only Slovakia could be outclassed in the group stage.

This year the national team has a new head coach. Andreas Vollmer had no problem leading the team to its fifth consecutive European Championship, as the group was also favorable, just as in the previous season. However, they had to say goodbye to another battle-hardened squad: Zsuzsanna Király-Tálas, Ágnes Pallag, and Rita Molcsányi all set to drop the national team jersey.

The most important question is: what can we expect from the Hungarian team in the future? A lot depends on the youth players as we need to build a strong squad that can compete in the top half of the midfield. The team needs icons and characters. The World Cup and the Olympics are still a distant dream, we need to "occupy more space" on the map of the sport to have a real chance of competing in the qualifiers.

Anett Németh has already shown at the 2019 Universiade what a talented player she is (Photo: Imre Földi)
Andreas Vollmer: I will build a competitive team for the Europeans

Andreas Vollmer has had to overcome many difficulties since his appointment in March, but he is of course very happy to have qualified for the European Championship with his team.
– The tournament ended with a happy ending, do you agree?
– Fortunately, it was not only a happy ending but also a happy beginning, as we won three games in Portugal," said head coach Andreas Vollmer with a laugh. “I'm happy with my players because they did very well in the match last Saturday and the atmosphere in Békéscsaba was great.

– You could see that the players were very tired by the end of the qualifiers. How difficult was it to get the girls on the court?
– Yes, it was not the easiest period of our work together because like a balloon, we had let some air out at the end. Despite this, Greta Szakmáry's performance was perfect, it's amazing that she can play at such a high level even at the end of a qualifying series.

– Speaking of periods, which was the most difficult part of the last three weeks?
– The days after the match in Cyprus, which is interesting because it was the match that decided whether we would qualify for the European Championship. The difficulty was that we had to wait a week for the next match against Ukraine. Our goal was to beat them, but it is difficult to impress the girls when we have already achieved our main goal of qualifying.

– Almost all of the team managed to get through qualification without any injuries, only Kinga Szűcs' dental problems seemed to be a major problem. She did not travel with the team for the last three matches. How big of a break was her withdrawal?
– Unfortunately, she developed severe symptoms between the two matches against Cyprus, which meant she was unable to continue in the qualifying round. She was in the stands for both of the other home games, though. She proved her fighting spirit in the European Golden League earlier this summer.

– You were appointed head of the women's national team in March. How smooth have the last six months been?
– We knew that it would not be easy, because we had to manage with almost completely different players in the first and second periods. I could see that the players who only joined for the second part were playing volleyball at a higher level, but we still had to start from scratch. The side hitters had more experience, but we had two new liberos in the summer, and we were a bit short in the center, so we didn't know at the beginning of the preparation what we could expect in the first match.

– And what can we expect next year, when will the team start preparing for the European Championship?
– Much earlier than this year! There are quite a lot of details that we haven't really worked out, but next year I definitely want to take the time to do that because I'm going to build a competitive team for the European Championship. We have to work very hard because everyone else will be doing the same!


Gréta Szakmáry (Photo: Péter Kovács)
Jan De Brandt was appointed head of the women's national volleyball team on March 5, 2014, and after 28 years he not only led the team to the European Championship but also won the European League with his team.
"When I arrived in Hungary in 2014, the women's division was not at the same stage as it is now: few people believed in success, despite the great potential of the team. With the right attitude and a professional program, I gave the Hungarians renewed faith and strengthened their talent. I can still remember the second leg of the 2016 European Championship qualifier against Romania, which we won 3-1 in Érd. The continental tournament hosted at home was a transitional period, and the absence of two key players, Edina Dobi and Dóra Horváth, could be felt, which was also responsible for the lack of success. I think that for the Hungarian national team the World Cup and the Olympics are a distant dream for the time being, the goal should be to strengthen its position in the European Championship as much as possible," Jan De Brandt told our newspaper.
Gréta Szakmáry (Photo: Péter Kovács)
She is a three-time Hungarian champion and cup winner who also won the championship once with German club Schwerin, the German Cup twice and the German Super Cup four times. Hungary's current top volleyball player, Gréta Szakmáry, played last season for Turkish topflight club Aydin BBSK and could make her debut in the world's top league with Italian team Cuneo this season. It's been more than ten years since she first put on the national team jersey in May 2012, and she has seen countless battles for the national team over the past decade. If she makes it to next year's Belgium-Estonia-Germany-Italy co-hosted European Championship, she will have played in five continental tournaments in a row.
"I have a lot of memories from the last ten years, but the most memorable one is when we qualified for the European Championship after twenty-eight years. Not to mention the fact that we beat Azerbaijan to advance from the group stage and finished 12th in the 16-team field," recalled the captain.
Rita BOKORNÉ LILIOM, capped 114 times: “It was a big boost for the national team when we started playing in the European League in 2011 as it gave us more international experience. Later on, Jan De Brandt arrived at the best time because he put together a team that already had a strong foundation and "just" had to make the most of it. The current national team needed a trainer with Andreas Vollmer's spirit because the team can move forward with him. Back then we always played with our heart, and it's good to see that the current team has that same attitude.”
Renáta SÁNDOR, capped 95 times: “The first boost seven years ago was very important because that was the time when the generation that laid the foundations for the Hungarian team to participate in the European Championship again after twenty-eight years had grown up. From there, the machinery was set in motion. The fact that Budapest was also the host city in 2019 helped a lot, so the girls were able to compete in the best of the best without having to qualify. My age group did not play in a junior continental tournament, unlike the ones before and after me. Later on, the 2015 squad was assembled from these three generations.”
“When I was the head coach of the women's national team, we submitted a plan to the Hungarian Volleyball Federation to join the European League series as we would have five or six more matches to gain experience. Luckily, we were given the opportunity, but only the women, not the men. Not in the first year, but in the second year we were successful with a team that included Dóra Horváth, Edina Dobi, and Rita Liliom. More and more of them went abroad to more prestigious leagues, and their experiences there also had an impact on the Hungarian national team. In 2014, Jan De Brandt's new approach was necessary for the women's national team to set off on the path it is on now. Now we have to think again about where to go next because every two or three years a national team has to renew itself. It is clear that the squad is a bit 'old' and although rejuvenation has already started, it is a long process. We need young talents who can try themselves out abroad and then bring their experience back home," said Zoltán Jókay, former head coach of the women's national team.

Translated by Vanda Orosz.