Zsanett Jakabfi interview: Hungary like Die Wölfinnen – Fuel that fires Wolfsburg’s flexible flyer
From village beginnings, Zsanett Jakabfi found she had more than a taste for the city. The versatile Hungarian international with a penchant for a scoring blitz here and there has seen trophy after trophy during almost a decade at VfL Wolfsburg, but what else is there to discover about the ever-dynamic threat? Die Wölfinnen’s number three shared a little more of what makes her heart sing.
She has been the clinical difference in certain crunch encounters, was the UEFA Women’s Champions League’s joint-leading scorer two seasons ago, and is also her country’s standout name. There is, though, a strong case to say that Zsanett Jakabfi is one of VfL Wolfsburg’s valued players the wider women’s football audience knows least about.
That is perhaps due in part to representing a nation that largely flies under the radar, with Hungary yet to bridge the gap to the established sides in Europe. Devoid of quality, though, they are not, and Zsanett is a footballer with a range of attributes; a livewire performer, eager and skilled, and often with composure when an opening arrives.
She was just a 19-year-old when Wolfsburg signed her from MTK Hungária, and over nine years, plenty of goals and a gleaming trophy haul later, she remains in the green and white. Just one effort shy of double figures in the Frauen-Bundesliga last season, she has been playing her part in a team that has blown away all competitors so far, as well as securing last-eight places in the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and Champions League.
Zsanett has found a home in Lower Saxony, effectively spending all of her adult life with Wolfsburg. It was far from city beginnings in the south west of Hungary, however, as she recalls.
“I grew up in a small village near Lake Balaton, in Somogyvár. I loved being outdoors and enjoying nature.
“I went to school there and had a nice childhood overall, but village life was not right for me. At the age of 14, I moved to Budapest; I like our capital very much.”
While Wolfsburg’s silverware-laden era was only in its infancy at the time, Zsanett came to the club having already seen a smattering of success at close quarters. Budapest-based MTK Hungária lifted the Női NB I title in 2005, a league at that time dominated by fellow capital club Femina.
She was just 15 then, but would truly get to know in later years what domestic and even continental supremacy demands, as well as what it feels like to bathe in. In the past decade, she has won two Champions Leagues, four Frauen-Bundesliga titles, and has lifted the DFB-Pokal five times.
In the latter competition, Zsanett came up with both goals in the 2-1 final win over SC Sand in May 2016 and has become a mainstay at the club. Those around her are keenly aware of all she brings to the table, with Ralf Kellermann, long-time coach before becoming sporting director, stating she was like gold to them.
For any player, though, a move to a different club casts you in the role of the new kid, and how is that kid generally welcomed? By letting awkwardness and discomfort team up like a deadly strike force of course, as the player is tasked with singing for their new colleagues.
Although it has become customary in the modern game, Zsanett is forever grateful she slipped through undetected on that one.
“Thank God I never had to sing,” she said. “I do not have the most beautiful voice.”
“When I was younger, I liked to sing along with ‘Wannabe’ from the Spice Girls, without knowing the lyrics.”
Like success, music has been a constant in the Wolfsburg ranks through recent seasons, forming its own little corner of the team unity. Various players from the She-Wolves have detailed their experiences of it on here, with schlager quite the consistent presence – maybe it is every bit as important as sports science, coaching and high-level talent!
With more rhymes than Busta and more chirp than a cheery nest of robins, the novelty pop genre is hard to ever really be too far away from in Germany, much to the displeasure of some. Die Wölfinnen club captain Nilla Fischer said in her interview that she would take on a schlager song with Swedish colleague Olivia Schough if she ever had to record a cover version of a tune.
Belgian forward Tessa Wullaert, meanwhile, told how the team celebrated their league and cup double by going to Mallorca, and she now has all the schlager songs they listened to on her phone. Infectious hits aside, you can typically hear r&b, pop and hip-hop coming from the Wolfsburg speakers on a match day, and as Zsanett explains, it is a smooth transition when she joins up with the Hungarian squad.
“In Wolfsburg, our Swiss player Noëlle Maritz does the changing-room music. In the national team, we alternate, and sometimes even German music is playing.”
Past team DJs Lena Goeßling and Selina Wagner have also featured, while Swiss star Lara Dickenmann described the ‘weird looks’ her choices would sometimes draw from her teammates! A person’s world of music is bespoke, and a vehicle for expression, sanctuary and release.
There is nobody else who has an identical collection and listening history to yours; even those who sway toward the same genres and artists will have stumbled upon songs you have not, and vice versa. Zsanett can spend time away from music, but appreciates how it remains for whenever she should need it once more.
“I think every human being knows how to be understood through music. There is a song for every mood, be it motivation, heartache, or just for concentration or relaxation.
“Personally, I do not always listen to music every day, but when I feel like it.”
There as a source of calm and shelter, a magic melody can also light up the buoyant times, and serve as a permanent reminder thereafter. Zsanett has earned and enjoyed many of those at Wolfsburg.
It is never nearly the same feeling celebrating a league or cup success when you have been taken out of the action by injury, and Zsanett had to contend with that during an extended lay-off in 2014, when she also missed the Champions League final win over Tyresö FF. Nevertheless, she was at the topsy-turvy 4-3 comeback in Lisbon, and right there amongst the celebrations, regardless of the pot on her foot and the crutch that accompanied her.
Although so much harder to contend with when your personal role is diminished, sharing in those moments together is huge, and as Zsanett reveals later on, she places optimum value on the compassionate human spirit she has felt the warmth of from certain teammates along her way. When she scores, she relishes the moment, as Chelsea found with triple impact in the Champions League just over two years ago. A little upbeat bounce can also be seen in her most favoured listening of the moment.
“I prefer to listen to Jason Derulo, and in general, just the current hits. Currently, ‘Goodbye,’ by Jason Derulo (and David Guetta) featuring Nicki Minaj (and Willy William) is my favourite.”
Former Hungarian national team coach Attila Vágó shared his belief that Zsanett is the proof of how Hungary can produce world-class players. She recalls a time as a kid watching her father play, and hearing one of his friends comment on how well he had played.
The young Zsanett remembers stopping to think how much she would love her daughter to one day look on and say that about her. Of course, in such tender years, we place no real limit on our life ambitions – why not be a footballer, who sings, and just maybe is an astronaut and a vet as well?
In those days of beautifully untrammelled wonderment, football was already the fulcrum for Zsanett, but whose songs were pumping out from the CD or cassette player (she is a 90s kid after all…)?
“I cannot remember my first album, but I remember I always enjoyed watching VIVA TV or MTV. At that time, I found Bro’Sis, S Club 7, Blue and Westlife cool.”
She grew up with strong English-language influence in her pop music, though Bro’Sis, an r&b-tinged group who incidentally featured ex-football prospect Giovanni Zarrella, came together on Germany’s version of reality show Popstars. Music can undoubtedly make a difference in building familiarity with a language, even if there are some lyrics that perhaps wouldn’t be best to directly copy into your everyday vocabulary!
As well as the English/German-speaking mix, Zsanett remembers one Hungarian group – a pretty internationally-popular one at that – she saw live once upon a time.
“I’m not really the concertgoer, although when I was little, I visited with my parents a concert of the Hungarian band Neoton Familia. That was actually the last time I went to one.”
Utilised in different roles, Zsanett says she is comfortable whether out wide or more central. Wolfsburg certainly have not been short of firepower during her time there, from Martina Müller through to Alex Popp, Pernille Harder and Ewa Pajor, but Zsanett has always been a threat up Die Wölfinnen’s sleeve.
She has struck in league wins at Borussia Mönchengladbach (7-0) and Werder Bremen (3-0), as well as claiming a hat-trick in the 9-0 at FC Forstern in the last round of the DFB-Pokal, having scored a round earlier at Hannover 96 (11-0). Adept at breaking the deadlock in a match, she currently sits at joint-29th in the all-time top scorers in the Frauen-Bundesliga, with 47 goals to her name.
Her tally of nine last season put her at joint-fifth in the league, and last May saw her rack up four in the 5-0 win at Werder Bremen, as the Green-Whites marched towards the title. At Stamford Bridge, where she had started Wolfsburg’s 1-0 win over Lyon in the 2013 Champions League final, her predatory instinct was on display in the last-32 tie with Chelsea two years ago.
She nipped in to lob Hedvig Lindahl with Claire Rafferty trying to shield the ball, then netted a back-post header, and later pounced from the edge of the six-yard box to complete a hat-trick that the Blues would not recover from in the tie. There was also the four to largely brush Eskilstuna United aside in the next round in Sweden.
It stands to reason that of the players she was able to watch on TV, one of the early-2000s’ elite European striking talents, excelling then in the blue and white of Deportivo La Coruña, most captured her imagination.
“I really liked Diego Tristán back then. In the beginning, football was a hobby for me.
“I enjoyed watching my dad and always wanted him to teach me tricks. Later, I played with the boys in school.
“As I got older, I switched to the girls’ team at my school.”
On that point, girls being able to play alongside and against boys for a number of years as they develop is a subject that has been discussed on many occasions. A lot of figures in the women’s game favour it, and just this week, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes expressed her support on Sky Sports programme The Debate.
For women’s football back home, Zsanett is unquestionably a leading light, honoured as Hungarian Women’s Player of the Year multiple times. In the recent World Cup qualifying phase, she was on target in their solitary win, over Croatia, as well as in heavy defeats to Denmark, with Hungary coming 4th in a group that Sweden won.
Key players for the national team include Fanny Vágó, who plies her trade at Austria’s SKN St. Pölten, and Henrietta Csiszár, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, though the majority are domestically based. Budapest will host next year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final, at the Groupama Aréna, and while not going into detail, Zsanett expresses, like so many around the world, her desire for further backing for the women’s game in her country.
She was also asked to highlight some of the players from her national team career who have been notably impactful and worthy of a little more focus.
“I think there should be more promotion of the talent in Hungary, or better financial support for us players.
“Anita Pádár – she is a record international and was a very dangerous striker. We get along very well; she is a really nice person.
“Réka Szőcs – she is our current goalkeeper. In the game, she radiates a lot of calmness and her size is a clear advantage.
“Angéla Hummel-Smuczer – she was captain of the Hungarian national team for a long time. In the game, she has always fought a lot for the team.
“She was a very tough player. We shared a room for years as well and I admire her honest nature.”
Lyon await Wolfsburg in the last eight of the Champions League in March, after the Green-Whites ravaged an Atlético Madrid side 10-0 on aggregate, despite the Spaniards knocking two-time consecutive semi-finalists Manchester City out in the previous round. It sets up yet another high-stake showdown with the French champions, in a repeat of the 2013, 2016 and 2018 finals, as well as the 2017 quarter-final.
While Zsanett was an unused sub in May’s Kiev final, she knows what it is like to be completely out of contention, with a four-month knee injury lay-off last year one of the harder spells in her career, but not without its learning to offer, she says.
“Yes, a long injury break is always difficult. It helped me to remember that you cannot change the situation, but you can do something for your recovery and comeback every day.”
In a similar sort of way (perhaps) to Arsenal’s 5-0 win at champions Chelsea in the FA Women’s Super League, Wolfsburg’s Frauen-Bundesliga thrashing of Bayern Munich by the same scoreline this season was an emphatic message. Eight wins from their first eight games has them seven points clear of Bayern in 2nd at present.
Competitive fire accounted for, it is also a cosmopolitan side Zsanett plays in, with teammates coming from Germany, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Norway, America, England and Poland. She enjoys soaking up such a cocktail of cultures, and what her surroundings have to offer her overall.
Match day is also not the only time she looks forward to getting stuck into a game.
“In my spare time, I like to go to the movies, meet my friends or go out with my teammates. I also like playing PlayStation.”
In a memorable goal against SC Sand, six minutes into the aforementioned 2016 DFB-Pokal final, Zsanett showcased the adventure she can stir into her game. Taking Ramona Bachmann’s pass, she cut in off the left before chopping between defenders to score. Such play is always roundly appreciated, and all the more in the scenario of this final question here.
Earlier, Zsanett picked out some of her compatriots, and if she was combining them with a selection of her club teammates, who would she throw into the mix for a small-sided game? As regular readers (surely there’s one of you out there…) will know, this last question is about the interviewee selecting current or former colleagues they would be confident enough to have alongside them in a 5-a-side game.
So, as Zsanett already has three from Hungary on her fantasy team sheet, she went for three more here for good measure.
“Nadine Keßler (midfielder) – for me, she was a really outstanding player. Her technique and understanding set her apart.
“Together we won the treble in 2013 and the double in 2014. Conny Pohlers (striker) – her cold-blooded nature in front of goal served our team very well.
“Even off the field I was able to learn a lot from her as a person. It was a lot of fun to play with her.
“Navina Omilade – she was a central defender here. Her calmness and play on the ball made a big difference.
“We also lived together for a while. She is a great person.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
You can also like the Facebook page!