Home » Szoboszlai is Hungary’s boy-prince – but trying to do everything is unsustainable

Szoboszlai is Hungary’s boy-prince – but trying to do everything is unsustainable

Szoboszlai is Hungary’s boy-prince – but trying to do everything is unsustainable

Dominik Szoboszlai started to sing and his Hungary team-mates followed.

Only their lips moved, Szoboszlai at the front, the majority with arms behind their backs but some with fists on their hearts. Over the advertising hoardings, their black-clad supporters sang the impromptu anthem back.

They held the last note — and then Szoboszlai clapped, the spell was broken, and the Hungarians departed from the pitch. Straight-backed, chin out, the Liverpool midfielder walked off with dignity. The result, a 3-1 loss to Switzerland in Hungary’s opening game of the European Championship, was not immediately apparent — until he reached the touchline, downed a vitamin supplement, and slammed the phial into the turf.

Hungary’s boy prince was crowned captain at 22 in November 2022. In Cologne on Saturday, he became the youngest captain in European Championship history — 23 years, seven months and 21 days.

Captaining Hungary brings inherent pressure. This is a nation with one foot in its footballing past, which produced one of Europe’s greatest- sides in the 1950s, yet one which was unable to deliver a trophy. The national team has, increasingly, been co-opted by Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, a former footballer, into a symbol of nationalism as well as national pride, the notion of reasserting themselves on the continental stage. The closing anthem is unavoidably an extension of that.


There are captains that lead by singing and captains that lead by speaking. Szoboszlai is not the latter.

“Everything was normal before the game,” said right-back Bendeguz Bolla post-match. “He gave a speech, he tried to push us, he didn’t say anything special.”

But there are captains that lead by doing. The issue was, against Switzerland, Szoboszlai tried to do it all. He was not the reason Hungary lost the match — their defensive organisation was rash and disappointing — but he was part of why Hungary could not come back. After going 1-0 down, as Hungary pushed, their captain elected himself as their build-up, creator, and finisher.

“You can only kick with one foot at a time,” said legendary countryman Ferenc Puskas in 1960. “Otherwise you fall on your arse.”

Szoboszlai endured second-season syndrome at Liverpool by the time he had finished his first.

After playing every minute of Liverpool’s first 10 Premier League games and shaping up to be one of the signings of the season, Jurgen Klopp handed him only six league starts after February. There were a few reasons for this — fatigue, a hamstring injury, a league adapting to his style and living up to the sheer heady rush of his early-season spark.

Szoboszlai challenges Yann Sommer (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

“In recent weeks, maybe he wasn’t showing his best side, but it’s absolute stupidity to claim that he is out of form,” said Hungary manager Marco Rossi pre-tournament.

For his part, Szoboszlai tried to remain optimistic. “It didn’t bother me that I played a smaller role at Liverpool,” he told Hungarian reporters on Friday. “At least the chance of injury was lower and I could focus on the European Championship.”

But the moment Szoboszlai left Anfield in May, he donned a mantle. This Hungary team headed to Germany with the most optimism before a tournament since the 1986 World Cup, when they entered as potential winners only to meet a 6-0 humiliation at the hands of the Soviet Union in their opening game. That loss is still part of Hungarian football’s collective psyche.

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As captain, Szoboszlai was running up against history — and Remo Freuler.

The Switzerland midfielder, who has been excellent on loan from Nottingham Forest at Champions League qualifiers Bologna, was in charge of marshalling the Hungary captain. When Szoboszlai led the line, Freuler followed him towards the centre-backs, when he spun out wide, Freuler visibly pointed and passed him over to his wing-backs.

In one early passage, Szoboszlai went down under a firm challenge from the Switzerland No 8 — Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic ignored the Hungarian uproar and allowed their opposition the chance to break.

Once Switzerland deservedly went ahead through Kwadwo Duah, Szoboszlai resolved to change. He is in a difficult position, as this team’s undoubted star. To get some notion of his talismanic status, listen to backup goalkeeper Denes Dibusz: “You have the same feeling about him as when Lionel Messi was at his best.”

Szoboszlai began to roam, away from Freuler and towards his defence, dropping deeper in search of possession, disrupting his side’s build-up. On occasion, he popped up on the right wing, where Roland Sallai was having a decent game.

There is a successful precedent. Last November, in their final qualifying game, Hungary were 1-0 down to lowly Montenegro — before Szoboszlai found the ball twice at halfway, on opposite wings, and created the two goals that secured top place in the group.

But Switzerland, who have reached the knockouts at their last five major tournaments, are better than Montenegro. Here, Szoboszlai was desperate but ineffectual, a butterfly with laden wings.

Hungary’s best moments came when he returned to his notional position out wide — allowing for quality of involvements, rather than quantity. While Szoboszlai is Hungary’s leading player in build-up, he is its best creatively — and that, more than anything, is where this side lack options.

This was proved after 66 minutes, when Szoboszlai had hidden himself on the left, outside Switzerland’s defensive five. This gave him the half-yard he needed to cut onto his right and deliver a cross. Szoboszlai can shape his passes like a yachtsman does his sail — this dropped perfectly into the path of Barnabas Varga to bring Hungary hope. The assist was a reminder that Szoboszlai sometimes needs to be forgotten to be remembered.

That moment, however, was an exception. With one goal needed, Szoboszlai moved up front to search for opportunities and Hungary’s attacking shape was lost. He did not touch the ball, and Breel Embolo sealed their fate.

Szoboszlai is Hungary’s soul, but making himself its brain, heart, and legs as well is unsustainable. Hungary can sing songs of celebration — but Szoboszlai must be freed to do less, rather than more.

(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)