European football fans might know Hungary and Red Bull Salzburg’s Dominik Szoboszlai for the highlight-reel goals he quite frequently scores with his thunderous right foot.
A 20-yard curler against Iceland, a long-range rocket that stunned Lokomotiv Moscow and a beautiful one-touch strike against Atletico Madrid have all racked up plenty of online views in the past few weeks.
But Szoboszlai, who has been linked with Arsenal, AC Milan and RB Leipzig and will line up against European champions Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday, is much more than just a man for the viral moments.
The 20-year-old is a versatile and intelligent attacking midfielder who has already had to overcome obstacles in his young career.
In the national team at 16 – but out of Hungary
When Salzburg, renowned as one of Europe’s most prominent talent factories, sold Erling Braut Haaland and Takumi Minamino in January to Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively, many expected that, this time, the club would be unable to recover from such a loss of quality.
But then Szoboszlai took over Salzburg’s attack and quickly became the club’s latest sensation, particularly shining in the Champions League with four goals in five games this season, including qualifiers.
It was reported that Szoboszlai’s father Zsolt, a former striker who played for various Hungarian clubs throughout the 1990s and 2000s, wasn’t fond of the Hungarian youth system and decided to train his son himself, perhaps accelerating his route into Austrian football.
“He always demanded a lot more from me than from all the others. He knew that I had to work more,” Szoboszlai remembered.
“I was on the field with the ball for hours every day.”
The work paid off, as the Hungary national team called him up at the age of 16.
And while many in his home country believe he could be the next national superstar – someone cut from the same cloth as legends like Ferenc Puskas and Lajos Detari – he is being made in Austria.
Szoboszlai’s rise has become, in some ways, a political issue in Hungary, given the country’s and prime minister Viktor Orban’s investments in football. Supporters of Orban hold Szoboszlai up as the proof that the plan is working, while critics point out he essentially grew up independent of the system.
“I’ve learned almost all I can at [Salzburg’s] academy,” said Szoboszlai. “When I came from Hungary I had talent, but without the work at the academy, I wouldn’t have come this far.”
“We are primarily looking for players between the age of 16 and 19,” Christoph Freund, Salzburg’s sporting director, explained. “At that age, the chance is higher that they come to Red Bull Salzburg and don’t go to an international top club.”
A physical and attitude change
While Szoboszlai has certainly become one of the success stories of Salzburg’s academy, things didn’t go well right away.
After a stint at FC Liefering, a second-division side which essentially serves as Salzburg’s reserve team, he was promoted to the first team, which was coached by Marco Rose at the time.
Rose wasn’t sold on the attitude Szoboszlai showed early on.
“When I came up, I thought I could simply continue in the way I did before and that the way I was playing would definitely be enough for the top league,” he admitted.
During the pandemic-induced break this year, he hired Shane Tusup as his personal coach. The American, who revived the career of Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Katinka Hosszu, was involved in transforming Szoboszlai’s physique as well as helping in mental preparation.
When last season resumed, Szoboszlai scored seven goals as Salzburg won the championship in July and he recently put himself on the international map with a stoppage-time goal against Iceland to catapult Hungary to next year’s delayed Euro 2020 finals.
Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch often uses Szoboszlai on the left wing because he can cut inside and shoot with his strong right foot, but he seems to prefer to play in the centre as a play-making number eight or number 10.
“He has grown from a prospect to a real professional and, despite his age, has become a mature personality,” Freund said.
“His technique and his confidence in his qualities are outstanding.
“But he can also defend intensely and work very hard. He has really improved physically in the past few years.”
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A move in January?
Szoboszlai has named Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Neymar as three players he looks up to. He would love to play alongside the latter one day, saying: “I believe I could get on well with him on the pitch.”
It seems unlikely that Szoboszlai will be playing with Neymar at Paris St-Germain next season.
A transfer to another top European club, however, could happen in January. Even Marsch has admitted he expects to lose Szoboszlai very soon and his deal with Salzburg reportedly contains a release clause of 25m euros (£22.5m).
RB Leipzig are potential buyers, simply for the fact Leipzig and Salzburg have a strong relationship through Red Bull. Arsenal, AC Milan, Bayer Leverkusen and a few others have also shown interest.
Szoboszlai himself is looking to take the next step in his career, just as he did when he went to Salzburg’s academy as a teenager.
“Money is not the most important thing to me,” he explained. “When I’m able to play, then the money comes automatically.”
In all likelihood, he will go to the Bundesliga first to gain even more attention and then, whether within Germany or further afield, moving on to one of Europe’s very top tier of clubs.
Szoboszlai has seen how well his former team-mate Haaland has fared at Dortmund after his move. Now he wants to do the same. And Salzburg will cash yet another big cheque.