Willi Orban on Hungary at Euro 2024: 'Team spirit – that’s our actual star'

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At 31, this might be one of Willi Orban’s final chances to play for Hungary in an international tournament.

Fitting then, that it should happen in Germany, where everything began for him.

Orban’s father is Hungarian and he has been representing that country since 2018, but he was born in Kaiserslautern, in south-west Germany, played for his hometown club practically as soon as he could walk, and represented the nation of his birth at under-21 level.

In 2015, he joined his current side, RB Leipzig, who were in the 2. Bundesliga — the second division — at that time but heading to the top of the game. In the years since, he has established himself as one of the better centre-backs in Germany; optimistic with the ball and determined to play forward, he was the kind of defender Ralf Rangnick imagined when he first designed the fast, vertical style that is the blueprint for the Red Bull stable of clubs.


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Orban’s country do not carry quite as much strike threat as his club, but Hungary are hardly without talent. Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai and veteran goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi are Leipzig’s past and present respectively, as well as being pillars of coach Marco Rossi’s Hungary side.

They also have forward Roland Sallai (Freiburg), an effective player at international level; midfielder Andras Schafer (Union Berlin) will be vital; and Kevin Csoboth (Hungarian side Ujpest) is a menace in transition. It was for good reason that Hungary went through the whole of 2023 without losing a competitive game.

But Orban is keen to highlight the collective. It is the group as a whole that will matter in Group A, against Switzerland, Germany and Scotland, over the next nine days.

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“If you look at our team, we’re not filled with top footballers from the best leagues,” he tells The Athletic. “It’s crucial to have unity, and that’s how we perform on the pitch. We simply try to make it as difficult as possible for our opponents by adopting a compact, tactical approach.

“It has to be said that we’ve developed well in recent years, but we’re still a team characterised by an excellent team spirit — and that’s our actual star. We’ve managed to do that well in recent years.

“We’ve developed extremely well tactically. We’ve also been able to develop individual players so that they’ve become decent players who now occasionally end up in a top league.”


Orban playing for Hungary last year (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Orban and Gulacsi represent the side’s Bundesliga core, alongside Hoffenheim’s Attila Szalai. Szoboszlai, of course, is now a household name after his debut season at Anfield. But there are others heading that way, including Bournemouth’s Milos Kerkez.

Progress is clear. Despite not qualifying for a World Cup since 1986, when goal difference stopped them advancing from a group also containing France, the Soviet Union and Canada, Hungary have now appeared at the past three European Championships.

“It’s the first time in decades that we’ve qualified directly for a tournament (rather than needing the play-offs),” Orban says, “which is a huge step for us. We’re definitely not favourites in the group, but we’ve shown in the past against the big teams that we’re capable of upsetting them when we reach our maximum performance limit, and that’s what we’re trying to do at the Euros.”

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Away from the pitch, Orban made news in Germany last year when it emerged he was a stem-cell donor. He had been a registered donor since 2017 after a drive led by RB Leipzig, and after being matched with a patient suffering from blood cancer, he gave a donation a few days before a match against Union Berlin. It was the only Bundesliga game he missed that season.

In February 2022, on the day Leipzig were supposed to face Spartak Moscow in the Europa League — a game that was cancelled following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — he joined Common Goal, a network of non-government organisations around the world that uses football for societal change. Orban has pledged one per cent of his future earnings to support the causes under the organisation’s umbrella.

“We often hear that football and politics shouldn’t mix, but that’s not right from my point of view, because football simply is a giant stage for addressing issues,” Orban says. “Every footballer has an incredible reach on social media by now, and we know exactly that young people are growing up with it and that it plays an increasingly important role.

“In our position as footballers, we’re well-off financially, we’re privileged, and so we want to do something to help. We have a large reach and a responsibility, and I want to live up to that.”

Orban is also lending his influence by supporting KickFair, another organisation under the Common Goal umbrella that uses street football to empower children. Football is the draw, but children are given agency by organising teams and tournaments, agreeing on rules, and interacting across social boundaries.

For these Euros, KickFair has been working with thousands of young people in several German cities on a project called Common Ground #24. The children have been taking part in festivals they organised themselves and have been given toolkits to teach them about free speech, human rights and the value of a constitution.

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“It shows children how to hold themselves,” says Orban, “and it teaches them values which football can show the importance of perfectly. Football can package social issues in the right way for young people.”

Campaigning is not the only good example Orban is setting for his peers. His interviews are also notable for references to sleep cycles and meditation. His interest in nutrition and mental recovery is something he has built up around his career, on his own initiative and with the help of Leipzig’s infrastructure.


Orban, left, closing down Manchester City’s Erling Haaland in the Champions League in 2023 (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

“It was important to me right from the start,” he says. “I simply saw it as my responsibility to get the best out of my potential, which is why I informed myself early on about training, nutritional supplements and learning what I could control and optimise. Football is becoming more and more demanding. The games are becoming quicker and more challenging, so it’s all the more important to keep reading and developing those areas.

“You can also see next year with the Champions League reform that it will be even harder. The intensity of top-level football will continue to rise, the pressure will increase, so it’s all the more important for everyone to develop in other areas.

“I’m lucky that the association here in Hungary and my club, RB Leipzig, have unbelievable conditions. We have a huge staff of physios, experts from outside of football and help with pre- and post-training work. It’s getting more and more scientific, but I think it has to be that way when the workload is so high.”

And the workload is not about to ease off.

Hungary start their campaign against Switzerland in Cologne this afternoon (Saturday). Four days later, they are in Stuttgart to face the host nation, in what is traditionally one of the loudest stadiums in the country. It’s a tough task, but not a daunting one: in the past three years, Orban and Hungary have beaten England home and away, defeated Germany in Leipzig, and also won against Serbia, Turkey and Poland.

Orban might well be a thoughtful and sensitive player, but he is the heart and soul of a tough, resilient side.

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(Top photo: Alexander Hassenstein via Getty Images)

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