Roland Sallai: Hungary forward who has grown up fast with club and country

Roland Sallai has made a habit of scoring spectacular chips and in the last year the Freiburg winger has pulled off the feat against Schalke, Eintracht Frankfurt and, for Hungary, against Russia. It is not only a sign of his impressive technique but also a growing confidence, which he will take with him into the Euros.

“I always try to assess my opportunities when I’m in a certain position and luckily I made the right decision against both Schalke and Eintracht,” he told Nemzeti Sport recently. “I feel confident so I’m relaxed on the field. Maybe a year ago I wouldn’t have tried certain things on the pitch, but there’s so much more I dare to do now. To be able to get that confidence, I had to score and assist goals first.”

And score goals he has. In the season just ended he finished with eight Bundesliga goals, a career-high for the 24-year-old. In addition, two of his four international goals came in two World Cup qualifiers in late March and at the tournament itself he will be boosted by the support of a capacity crowd at the Puskas Arena against Portugal and France.

Maybe there is no surprise that he has got this far. Given the choice as a young boy, Sallai would prefer to watch football on TV rather than any cartoon. But then he came from a real footballing family.

His father, Tibor, won the Hungarian league with Vac in the mid-90s, his uncle Sandor was a highly successful and very popular player in the 1980s, appearing at two World Cups (1982 and 1986), while another uncle, Laszlo, was also a footballer, though not in the top flight. His sister played, too, before becoming a professional handball player.

Sallai took his first steps with Debrecen before moving to Siofok, but spent most of his formative years and started his professional career at Puskas Akademia, where his father (who pretty much raised Roland and his sister alone) also worked as a coach for a while. One of his former teachers described him as a shy, sensitive boy who kept doing extra work after training and truly blossomed when he stepped on to a football pitch.

His progress was remarkable and he once scored more than 100 goals in one season for his under-13 team. While still at Puskas Akademia – and uncapped – he was the youngest player of Hungary’s provisional Euro 2016 squad. He did not make the final cut but soon he earned a loan move to Palermo, then in Serie A. It was not easy and he has admitted that he had to grow up quickly in Italy and learned a lot, especially about the tactical aspects of the game.

As always seems to be the case, the Sicilian club was not the most stable environment for a young player and they went through five managers during the 2016–17 season, which ended in relegation. He still managed to make 21 league appearances and took that experience with him when he moved to Apoel in Cyprus. It was seen as a step backward by many but he won the Cypriot league and played in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Tottenham.

He moved to Freiburg in 2018 and he is improving season by season. During the past three years he has also become an increasingly important player for Hungary. He can play in several positions across the attacking line but is often given a central berth for his country. He is quick and skilful and therefore complements the more conventional centre-forward Adam Szalai very well.

“At the moment I have two outfield players who are consistently performing well, Dominik Szoboszlai and Roland Sallai,” the Hungary coach, Marco Rossi, said last summer. With Szoboszlai out injured there is increased pressure on Sallai and he is considered the main goal threat going into the Euros.

He is ready to take responsibility off the pitch, too. Last year in Germany, as everything was shut due to the pandemic, some Bundesliga players still went to have their haircuts done. Not Sallai. He tried to cut his own hair – with a pretty disastrous result. “I’m planning to wear a baseball cap for the next two weeks,” he told a Sport Tv podcast, during which he also said that his family and a sports psychologist had helped him through a difficult injury lay-off during 2018-19.

Sallai is a mature young man and Hungary fans are counting on him to perform over the next few weeks. The challenge is a tough one, with France, Germany and Portugal in the group, but he is as ready as he can be.