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Liverpool land Dominik Szoboszlai, Hungary's great hope

July 2, 2023

Dominik Szoboszlai has joined Liverpool from RB Leipzig for a reported €70 million fee. It's the latest and most important step in the young career of a player heralded as the face of Hungarian football.

Dominik Szoboszlai raises his hand in the air
Dominik Szoboszlai has become Liverpool's third most expensive signingImage: motivio/IMAGO

The marquee signing of Dominik Szoboszlai is the latest stage of Jürgen Klopp's reimagining of Liverpool, who are keen to reassert themselves among England's and Europe's elite after a season of misadventure.

At €70 million ($76.4 million), Szoboszlai becomes Liverpool's third most expensive signing and, for the second time, he becomes the most expensive Hungarian player of all time. On paper, this goal-scoring midfielder has all the attributes to be a success in England: hard-working, intelligent, strong physique, great technique, dead ball specialist. 

"It would certainly be a special experience to work under Klopp. As it would be under Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho," Szoboszlai recently told Hungarian publication Index. "I don't know what they would be able to get out of me. Relatively few footballers are given this opportunity. Only the best. I believe I can reach that level, and it would be great to work with any of them one day."

A wide view of the interior of Budapest's Puskas Arena
The Puskas Arena cost €500 million and is part of a €2 billion investment Hungary has made in football since 2010Image: PA Images/IMAGO

Orban's vision bankrolled by public purse

Szoboszlai is the modern face of a nation that once revolutionized the game. Their golden team of the 1950s, led by Ferenc Puskas, reached the World Cup final in 1954 — the Miracle of Bern — and renowned coach Bela Guttmann pioneered the 4-2-4 formation that reinvented how the game was played, heavily influencing the great Brazil teams that followed.

Hungarian football has fallen on hard times though. Since 1966, they have failed to qualify for 11 of the last 14 World Cups and haven't made it beyond the group stage in the three they have reached.

This underachievement has led to an unprecedented amount of public money being poured into football – and other sports – at the behest of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Since coming to power in 2010, over €2 billion has been injected into the country's sporting infrastructure. There are 12 new club stadiums that have been subsidized by the government and an impressive new national stadium in Budapest, the Puskas Arena, that cost close to €500 million.

The country has also seen new academies pop up, including the Puskas Akademia in Orban's hometown of Felcsut, which has received over €100 million from the public purse since 2010. All coming at a time when Hungarian public services — namely schools and hospitals — are begging for investment.

Dominik Szoboszlai und Zsolt Dominik Szoboszlai
Zsolt Szoboszlai, Dominik's father, has guided his son's career from Hungary to Austria, Germany and now EnglandImage: FC Liefering

Like father, like son

None of this proves that Szoboszlai's rise is a result of the additional investment — on the contrary, his rise is more of a family achievement. Szoboszlai's father, Zsolt, was a professional player himself and played in the top tier of Hungarian football before moving into coaching young players.

The academy that Zsolt Szoboszlai founded 16 years ago, Foenix-Gold FC, is still going strong and is where the young Szoboszlai honed his talent between the ages of 6 and 14, before spending a year at MTK Budapest and then joining the Red Bull system with FC Liefering in 2016 and RB Salzburg two years later. 

According to Foenix-Gold, their core footballing principals are "humility, hard work and passion" and their website openly criticizes the Hungarian Football Federation for the "quality of the training" which "hinders the rise of Hungarian football."

Szoboszlai's path was therefore carefully charted by his father, who was keen to enroll his son into Red Bull's system to accelerate his development.

"If you have talent, you need a good team and a good club behind you, so you can develop," Zsolt told Stats Perform in 2019. "If you don't have these, then you can't develop that fast. For me it is important to have a very good team and a good club behind me, with the feeling that they believe in me. That's the most important thing."

Three years at RB Salzburg followed by two-and-a-half at RB Leipzig has given Szoboszlai the perfect grounding to fulfil Klopp's gegenpressing demands as he embarks on the most important stage of his career.

Szoboszlai could be deployed centrally or on the right of Liverpool's three-man midfield, a role he excelled in within the Red Bull franchise and for the Hungarian national team, for whom he has already played 32 times and scored the crucial goals to send Hungary to Euro 2020, a tournament he missed through injury.

Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku celebrate a goal for RB Leipzig.
Szoboszlai (right) joins Liverpool after seven years in the Red Bull system, at Liefering, RB Salzburg and RB LeipzigImage: motivio/IMAGO

Latest Bundesliga export to England

In swapping RB Leipzig for Liverpool and the Bundesliga for the Premier League, he follows a well-trodden path. Jude Bellingham was the only midfielder to outshine Szoboszlai in the Bundesliga last season, but conquering Germany's top-flight is no guarantee of success in the Premier League, as Klopp knows all too well from having splashed €60 million on Naby Keita in 2018, a player who never adapted after joining from Leipzig.

For every Ilkay Gündogan or Erling Haaland, there's a Timo Werner or Jadon Sancho, and with Manchester City seemingly untouchable in England, there will be some pressure that things click quickly for Szoboszlai at Anfield.

Although Klopp has had his eye on Szoboszlai for some time, this is also an early win for Liverpool's new sporting director Jörg Schmadtke. The German only started in his role on June 1 after four years in the same role at Wolfsburg, and this signing is an indication that Liverpool intend to continue extracting the best talents from the Bundesliga.

Leipzig have received another exciting young talent in Fabio Carvalho in return, on loan for next season. Carvalho, 20, should step straight into the Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku's position while Austria midfielder Christoph Baumgartner, signed from Hoffenheim this summer, will step into Szoboszlai's shoes.

But they are big shoes to fill. Having already outgrown the Bundesliga and become Hungary captain last year at the age of 22, Szoboszlai is on an exciting path. Newcastle, both Milan clubs and Juventus all wanted him but he's settled on Liverpool — and it's a move that symbolizes his personal rise and the ambitions of the nation he represents.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler