László Istenes: Mr. Chairman, the 2023/24 season will start in a matter of minutes. We’re also putting the finishing touches to the arena. This is a time to take stock and review matters with some things in the academy environment remaining constant and others changing. Let’s start with the constants. Where do you see the Puskás Academy today?
It’s very important not to lose sight of one’s goals. Football is seductive: a new championship comes along and you’re caught up in it like in a treadwheel. Perhaps this is fine for the big teams, who have no other objective than to finish as high as possible in their league. But an academy is always different, and we’re an academy. An academy has objectives beyond short-term placings: let’s say they’re long-term, or – to express it a little pretentiously – historical. So in short our job is to produce players for Hungarian football who can help us get back to the top of the world. And we do that through a Puskás Academy. So before every league season we at the Puskás Academy have to keep our own goals in mind as far as the first team’s concerned, because it’s not only a first-division team, but the academy’s team. One has to clarify the objectives every year. I’m the founder of the Academy, and I don’t get involved in the operational work. But I’m like a good parent, who feels a responsibility to help his children while he’s alive, and who worries for them and tries to help them. This is why I take the opportunity twice a year – before the start of the summer session and the winter/spring session, to sit down with everyone. This time I’ve just finished a long conversation with technical director Balázs Tóth, and I’ve talked to all the new coaches who have just arrived at the Academy. This is partly to get to know them and to find out the personal ambitions of the ones I already know, so that we can match them with the Academy’s goals. Now, as far as the championship is concerned, I repeated to Balázs the single goal in terms of finishing that we have every year: not to be relegated. So the primary goal of the Puskás Academy is to avoid relegation. This is a big thing! It’s a big thing because meanwhile we want as many home-grown players as possible playing in the team. And it’s very difficult to stay in Division One if you combine the two objectives of staying up and having as many young home-grown players as possible; because the nature of the Hungarian championship is that among the twelve teams there are sometimes 3, 6 or 9 points between relegation and fifth or third place. This could be decided in just two or three games. So it’s very easy to get relegated from the Hungarian first division: you can think you’re fighting for a top spot, and then suddenly you’re in the relegation zone. As an academy it’s particularly difficult for us to integrate youngsters in such circumstances, and it requires a lot of courage from the coach, great boldness. That’s why we’ve kept Zsolt Hornyák for such a long time: he best combines this “non-fatal risk-taking” type of coaching approach, trying to integrate as many youngsters as possible into the team, while not risking our membership of the division. This is a very difficult coaching task. And I’m glad he’s staying and working with us for at least another year, and then we’ll see. We’ve achieved good results with him. So that’s the most important thing. In terms of stability, the second important thing is to keep the Academy running like a machine, with youngsters coming in, starting school and training. And one should never lose sight of what their abilities will be in the end when they leave here four or five years after their first arrival. While we’re talking about young people, the Academy’s motto applies: we’re educating people, we’re educating good people who are also good footballers. So the years from 14 to 18 are probably the most difficult period in a person’s life, and we all remember our ups and downs from that time; then from 18 to 19 it all comes together. You know, school, career choices, girls, the team; so it’s all mixed up and it’s very difficult to find your own way. To do that, we need to help young people – not by making decisions for them, because then we haven’t helped them, and they’ll still be children when they grow up; but by helping them to make the decisions that will guide their own lives. This all forms part of the ongoing tasks here at the Academy.
Perhaps the zest, the fruit, the meaning of all this is that the academies are producing talented young people. How do you see the possibility for this in the coming year, and even a little bit further, in the light of what is happening? We have our (Dominik) Szoboszlai; we have many sold-out national team matches; and in the meantime Ferencváros has been eliminated by a semi-professional team in the qualifying round for the Champions League.
Yes, the most important thing is not to forget, not to lose sight of the fact that in Hungarian football we have problems: serious, structural problems. So a lot of things are better than they were; but, as they say in Vienna, everything’s very good, but nothing’s in place. Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but a lot still isn’t in place. As someone who founded an academy, I can say that one of the biggest professional problems in Hungarian football today, which cannot be separated from the country’s cultural state, is that children arrive here at the age of 14. And according to football literature, by the age of 12 many skills are developed that cannot be developed later. So for the whole of Hungarian football today the biggest professional challenge is training children up to the age of 12 or 13. In our time we didn’t really need to talk about training, because we ran in the fields, jumped in ditches and climbed trees; so that way of life developed our physical skills and presented us with decision-making situations which meant that by the time we were 13 or 14 – by the time we reached secondary school – we were already serious young people. Hungarian football today isn’t helped by the mummy hotel, the pampering that’s typical of so many parents in Hungary, all the gadgets, and the world of extra private lessons that’s part of the modern world. So in this cultural environment Hungarian football would need to create its own special island, with hundreds and thousands of small clubs and children’s teams and tournaments. And this can’t be organised from academies, nor even from clubs. This is actually the great challenge, the historic challenge, for the Hungarian Football Association: it focuses on the top and the bottom, because the clubs are fine, thank you very much, and they’ll sort their own lives out. The Hungarian Football Association, you see, has to deal with the national teams and with the bottom, with competition and training up to the age of 12 or 13 – made more difficult by this cultural burden I was talking about. And at national team level the results are coming, so everyone’s saluting the Hungarian Football Association, and with good reason. Down here we have a lot of work to do. It’s less spectacular, there’s no limelight, less recognition, harder work; here we have to deal with tens and hundreds of thousands of young children, aged around 12, to give them a way of life and a lifestyle from which the more talented ones can then progress to the Academy at the age of 14 – because we work with material that’s brought in. But even so, I have to say that it would be wrong to pass the buck: we, the academies, are ultimately responsible for the abilities of the players who leave here at the age of 18 or 19. It doesn’t matter that we get children who aren’t sufficiently prepared at the age of 12 or 13. This shouldn’t be an excuse for the Academy to downplay its own responsibility: we have to bring out the best in those who come to us.
Most criticism of academies is that there are few Hungarian home-grown players in the first team. Do you think it can be an achievable goal for 50 to 60 per cent of the teams, of the first teams, to be Hungarian – sorry, home-grown players?
If we abandon that goal, then there’s no point in the whole of football, in Hungarian football. Because Hungarian football isn’t part of the entertainment industry. Football is more serious than that. Football is our life, it’s part of our life, it’s part of the life of the Hungarian people, and it’s part of our national identity. So we don’t want to be entertained while clapping in the stands cheering on all sorts of skilful players who have flown in from far away: we want to see our own children. We want to see Hungarian children, the Hungarian national team, Hungarian club teams. If we abandon that, then there’s no point in football – Hungarian football – as a whole. So we must never give up on that. What are we doing here at the Academy? What we’re doing, what Zsolt Hornyák should achieve, isn’t an easy task: to have very good foreign players who are of a quality such that our own players and those coming out of the Academy can look up to them, want to emulate them and learn from them. So half of the team should be very high-quality foreigners, but the other half of the team should be home-grown youngsters. Now here the coach has managed to set this up to a large extent. Last year we always started with four or five home-grown players, with one or two more coming in as substitutes, and so we saw at least six home-grown players on the pitch every week. That’s not bad! One can go up to seven or eight, we’ll see how our youth coaches work and how many youngsters they can send up. But I repeat: the risk is high, because you can lose two or three games and find yourself dropping from the top places to the relegation zone. And then everyone who’s seen a football club knows that the panic mechanisms kick in, and if you can’t get a grip on the situation in a week, by the second week you’re finished – you’re out. How many big teams have we seen in that situation in recent years! What makes it even more difficult for the Academy is the fact that the home-grown youngsters are taken abroad. So our best players are abroad. If they were at home, we’d be in a title race with Fradi (Ferencváros). So now if we were to suddenly put together an “All Star Puskas”, I’d say that Balázs Tóth could be in defence, Szoszó (Roland Szolnoki) would be on the right, the national team player Joe Nagy on the left, and on the left side of the defence would be Márk Tamás, who’s just signed a contract somewhere, maybe to Azerbaijan from Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe. Csabi Spandler is currently playing for Videoton, but he’s a home-grown central defender. We’d have our home-grown Scholes, Donát Zsótér, to name another one, there would be Gyurcsó, Tomi Kis has just left, but Gyuszika is here and there’s Sallai, who’s playing in the Bundesliga. So if they were all here we wouldn’t need a single foreigner, and the “All Star Puskás Academy” would be in the running for the title. But our best players are being taken – and it’s not a bad thing that they’re being taken, because Hungarian football needs its best players to be given more pressure and more challenges in the top leagues, so that they can serve the national team. But that means that we have to integrate 17-, 18- and 19-year-old hopefuls into the team, which is always a huge risk. This is pretty much the maze of problems or minefield that Zsolt Hornyák has to lead the first team through.
Mr. Chairman, a few days ago the methodology centre – which brings together twenty-two teams from Hungary and beyond the borders – moved from Felcsút to Budapest. It’s under new leadership, with Ádám Schmidt, Ádám Szalai and Dezső Liszkai, the former director of our academy. What was the reason for this?
The location of the work done by the methodological centre will remain here, but the offices have gone to Pest. So really we’ve divided the Puskás Academy from the specialist staff responsible for running the flagship national academies. It was a difficult decision. I’m not alone in my philosophy of distrusting bureaucracy in general, especially when it comes to sport. In general, it’s good to be distrustful of bureaucracy; but this is particularly true in football, because, after all, you can’t do football in the federation or in the ministry. Football must be played on the pitch, in the clubs. This isn’t easy to understand for those who are involved, whether in the federation or in the ministry. But we must realise that we’re not football authorities, neither is the federation, nor is the ministry, but we are a service centre. Of course some order needs to be kept, there are championships to be run, there’s refereeing, disciplinary procedures and so on. But overall, our job is to provide a service to the clubs and help them have good teams, because football is in the clubs. There’s never been a Champions League in which the Hungarian Football Association has entered a team named “Hungarian Ministry”. So it was a difficult decision, because I liked having the Puskás Academy and the methodological centre for quality assurance in academies in the same place. But it was killing us: the Puskás Academy was slowly being overwhelmed. The work with Hungarian teams from beyond the borders was here, there was the methodological centre, which was supposed to help the work of ten Hungarian academies, and then there was our own academy. I saw that this had become too much, and it was interfering with the work here. So I sat down with the Director Dezső Liszkai – the all-powerful, I don’t know what to call him, Mr. Liszkai the mover and shaker – and we reviewed the situation and came to the conclusion that it was better to separate all this. And since he’d done this work over the years, it was logical to keep it in his hands. We lost two or three very good people because he took two very good people with him, and that created a nucleus there in the ministry; and now I see that Ádám Szalai has been signed up. I think that is at least as big a signing as Dominik Szoboszlai. So, one of the signings of the year is here in Hungary. They’ll be the ones who will help the academies, so we can deal with our own teams.
We started this conversation with continuity, and we’re ending it with change. Balázs Tóth took over the Academy alongside the first team. What do you expect from this?
I was of the opinion that if we have to separate the methodological centre of the academies, the work with Hungarian teams from beyond the borders and the Puskás Academy, then we should solve an old problem here, because things had emerged backwards. So first there was the Academy, and then came the Division One team. Therefore the professional expectations of the Division One team weren’t reflected in the Academy, because the Academy had its own youth training elements. This is right, but it’s healthy for there to be a constant professional challenge from above, from a Division One team, with quality control and the possibility of failure and mistakes being revealed there. That’s when we see what is good. But for us it was different. And in our work over the last two or three years it was a disadvantage that this system for comparison hadn’t been established. And now that we had to adjust our operating system anyway, it was good that Balázs Tóth, the technical director, took on this task. I’d already spoken to him about it earlier. Balázs is very good. I don’t know if you remember him, but he was a midfielder with fantastic tackling ability. So he made life difficult for the opposition, and if he got within thirty metres of goal and let fly from there, then goalkeepers had problems. So Balázs is a canny operator, as befits a tackling Number 6 in midfield, only taking as many risks as are absolutely necessary and being confident of handling matters without error. So he slowly came to the realisation that he had to take over the Academy’s technical supervision, and finally he reached the point at which he could agree to do so. That is why the Fradi incident is important for us. It’s a great lesson, because inexplicable things are always happening in football. So anyone who thinks – whether as a manager, a technical director or a coach – that he can always keep everything under control, that he can exclude certain possibilities from the life of his team, misunderstands football. Football is like life: something always happens, something unexpected happens that you hadn’t thought about – even something you can’t explain. Because say what you like, I read the analyses, that as a consequence of Fradi’s spring season it happened that… Come on, how could it be a consequence of any bad spring season that we conceded three goals at home against a team from the Faroe Islands! This can’t be explained! Theres no correlation there. Here we see that there are inexplicable things in football. And that’s what happened with Fradi. The lesson for Hungarian football – because Fradi will solve its own problems – is that it’s not good that we only have one internationally ranked team. Because if it fails – and this can always happen in football, as we’ve seen – then we’ll be left without a serious, major team for the whole of the autumn and spring. So the failure of Fradi highlights one of the big problems in Hungarian football, that there can’t be just one Fradi. We need one or two more teams with budgets, player quality and international standing similar to Fradi, so that if one or two fail, there’s always a third that will carry on. And in Hungarian football at the moment this hasn’t been solved. Hungarian football has been able to put only Fradi in a position where it has the capital, the fan base and the facilities to get back into the top thirty football teams in Europe – and now it hasn’t managed to do that. But there must be at least one more team capable of doing that – and it would be best if there were two. At the moment we’re going in the wrong direction, because Videoton is out. Videoton was, at various times, alongside, instead of, or after Fradi: a team that could stand its ground internationally, guaranteed to reach a certain level. But somehow the Hungarian football world has to grow at least one more international-level team of its own, so that the failure of the single Ferencváros doesn’t hurt so much – and even for someone like me, who isn’t a Fradi fan, it hurts.
When they’re playing it’s fitting that everyone should be a Fradi fan. Sorry, but I have just one more question – because you’ve put the ball at my feet. The aim is for the Puskás Academy to be one of the teams that you’ve referred to. So is it the job of Zsolt Hornyák and Balázs Tóth to get Puskás Academy up to that level?
No, we can’t do that. For that you need historical roots, you need a great tradition, you need a great club: a Debrecen, a Újpest, a Kispest, if they hadn’t been relegated. Or a Győr, if they were in better shape – and let’s not forget that once they were in the last four of the Champions League, but few of us remember that, only old people like us. So Győr also has a great international tradition. So someone from the big clubs will have to come forward. Puskás can’t do that. Puskás has to fulfil the mission, which is already demanding all our efforts, to bring in as many talented youngsters as possible with excellent educational and technical backing, the best quality knowledge, great former footballers, and some individual training taking us through Division One, the national team and the great international championships. We work with fantastic people here. Just look at the ones I was able to talk to this morning: Mr. Vanczák has 79 international caps; Zsolt Laczkó was in Italy, and he has more than 20 caps; Gyuri Sándor was always a brilliant midfielder in Hungarian football, and if there’s anyone to learn from, it’s him; then there’s Attila Polonkai and Tamás Vaskó, who’s just joined us. So we have very serious people. And, of course, Péter Horváth has supplied the Academy with its technical philosophy and framework for, well, almost two decades now. So we have a very strong team. We’re good at that. No international ambition comes out of this. Sometimes we qualify for some international cup, but it doesn’t lead to the ambition that we should be able to compete on the international stage on behalf of Hungarian football. Sometimes we can have one of those years. So we might have three or four very talented youngsters, we might be able to integrate them, they might be a good mix with the foreigners, and then we might go one or two rounds in international cups. But in the long term, Puskas should not be seen as an internationally recognised club, but as a place where we can rely on players who are well prepared, have a strong mentality, a strong spirit, are well trained and continue the best traditions of Hungarian football. We can do that, and we shall do it.