On the latest episode of the Total Waterpolo Podcast, which is now available in a brand-new video format, we spoke to Zsolt Varga, Head Coach of Ferencvaros and the Hungarian national team.
In this episode, which can be streamed on YouTube, Spotify, and other major podcast providers, the 51-year-old shares a wealth of interesting insights. He discusses everything from his introduction to the sport to becoming an Olympic champion, winning the Champions League as a coach with Ferencvaros, and taking on the challenge of leading the Hungarian national team – which he considers to be “the highest level in the world”.
Zsolt admits that after two failed attempts in 1992 and 1996, he was desperate to win gold at the Sydney Olympics. However, as he matured and became one of the more senior players on the team, his mindset shifted:
“I felt that I could now enjoy it, knowing this would be the last time I would go to the Olympics. Maybe the first and second time, I wanted it too much because I was so stressed. In Sydney, we didn’t start well. We lost two times against Croatia and Serbia. We had a really hard game with the USA (10-9). Then we stopped for a day, and I said to the team, ‘Guys, the Olympics start now.’ I had this experience; In 1996, we won the first five games, but if you lose the semi-finals, you lose everything. Nobody remembers if you were good in the first five days. This is what I told them, and somehow they understood this, and we went really well in the last three games.”
After eventually achieving his lifelong dream, the former center-forward admits he felt lost upon returning to Hungary as an Olympic champion:
“There is also a moment when you have some emptiness because you had the goal to arrive. And then, of course, ten years of high level water polo and you’ve worked hard, then there is a moment, what now? After that, you have to recreate yourself again; you have to find a new challenge.”
No one could have known it at the time, but the gold medal in Sydney was just the beginning of something incredibly special: Hungary’s ‘golden generation’. Zsolt was there at the beginning of that journey and reveals that it came as a surprise to him. He discusses the difficulties that the team faced on their path to legendary success:
“After Sydney, it wasn’t just about winning. For a few years, there was a crisis. There is never just one team winning everything. If you see this, I assure you that there are always the bottom, always the low points, always the crisis. And then maybe you will see the results, but it was hard work psychologically, physically, and all the teamwork, the egos, how you manage them, all together it’s so hard, and the golden era was that: up and down, but you only see all the ups.”
After spending a long time away from Hungary, with a four-year stint in Croatia with Mladost, and playing for three teams in Italy over a nine-year period, it was almost time for Varga’s playing career to end. While coaching was always a possibility, the Ferencvaros coach jokes that he never planned to coach:
“No, never! I always saw the coaches – I don’t want this job!”
Varga faced many challenges in the early days of coaching Ferencvaros. In fact, FTC were one game away from being relegated to the second division. “Everybody who starts coaching believes they know everything, they believe they are a good coach. But this is not true,” Zsolt says.
Zsolt’s hard work, gradual improvement, and eventual financial stimulus improved the situation for Ferencvaros to the point where he won his first national championship and the Champions League in the 2018-2019 season. Zsolt believes that a strong work ethic and humility are key to any success. He said:
“I was thinking this is my karma from the deepest points—working hard for years. That’s what I am thinking—I can arrive if I work hard. Of course, you need some luck, some fate that gives you the glory at the end. But you have to work; you have to see everything; you have to be humble. If I don’t spend hours working, looking at videos, If I think I am good, I am not good anymore.”
Zsolt’s success has led to several offers to become the head coach of the Hungary national team. However, he declined these offers until he felt ready. Zsolt said, “Six years ago, there was a possibility when Tamas Marcz. There was a chance to give with him in this direction. But I said to him I am not ready. I hadn’t had a big team or big players, and I had won nothing. I said I am not ready for this; this is really the highest level on the bench of the Hungarian water polo team. I could not do it without experiences and without proving myself, proving to the world that I could win and that I could build a team. I think I was right.”
Last summer, Zsolt became the head coach of the Hungary national team, and he led them to a silver medal finish at the European Championships in 2022. Although they lost in the final, Varga was grateful for the experience. He said, “I think sometimes one lost game can help much more than one game where you are winning because there is a real-time where they don’t want the experience of losing. That’s why I think we don’t have to fear losing.”
Zsolt will leave Ferencvaros at the end of the season to focus solely on the national team’s preparations for the Olympic Games. He is excited to work on developing the team both inside and outside the pool. Zsolt’s goal is to create a a sense of unity:
“My goal is creating one society, one team, but I mean they bring each other when it’s needed. When one player is thinking who is beside him – I am respecting; who is behind me, I am defending; who is the opponent, it’s no mercy. That somehow you are not feeling regret or sorry to leave your family and kids at home to join the team because it’s so good to be together. If I achieve this goal with the team, we have a good chance to arrive at our targets and win. But first, we have to feel that there is respect, trust, and love.”
Listen to our episode with Zsolt now! All the episodes of the Total Waterpolo Podcast are available on all major Podcast streaming services, such as Spotify, Apple Podcasts and YouTube. Don’t forget to head over to www.wearwaterpolo.com and use our discount code ‘PODCAST10’ for 10% off your next order!