When Zoltan Stieber was about 14 he left his small village in western Hungary to play club soccer about 120 miles away in Budapest, where the competition was much better.
“It wasn’t any easy time. I really like my hometown, I love to go back there,” he said. “For the future of football there was no chance (for me) to develop.”
When Stieber was around 16 he bid adieu to Hungary to play in England for Aston Villa, and a few years later he departed for a lengthy tenure with a pro league in Germany.
Midfielder/forward Stieber, 29, is now in his second season with D.C. United, which, with five games left this month in the regular season, boosted its playoff chances with a 5-0 drubbing Saturday night at Audi Field over Montreal.
Stieber’s story is like thousands of young, professional Hungarians who have left their homeland for better opportunities in western Europe or North America.
A fixture on the Hungarian national team, he is living with his fiancée, Kinga, who is from Budapest, in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C.
“I wanted to experience something different. I was in Germany for 10 years. Fortunately I was able to come to D.C. United. I was very happy about it,” he said, sitting in a room at Audi Field after a recent practice.
What makes his travails unique is that Stieber is one of the few Hungarians to play in a pro sports league in North America, be it football, basketball, baseball or soccer.
The only Hungarian to play in the NBA is Kornel David, a teammate with Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. No natives of Hungary have played in the major leagues, though former pitcher Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky had grandparents who were born there.
Many American football stars from the 1970s have Hungarian roots, including Joe Namath, Larry Csonka, soccer-style kickers Peter and Charlie Gogolak and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
Charlie Gogolak was born in Hungary in 1944 and moved to the New York state with his family after the 1956 Hungarian revolution and was a kicker for the Redskins from 1966-68.
Stieber is one of a handful of Hungarians in Major League Soccer, including national club teammate Daniel Salloi, and Krisztian Nemeth of Sporting KC.
Stieber grew up in Sarvar, a town of about 15,000 near the Austrian border, hearing stories about Hungarian soccer from his father and a grandfather.
Hungary used to be a world power in soccer — not bad for a country about the size of Indiana with a population of only 10 million.
The “Magical Magyars” were second in the World Cup in 1938 and 1954 and performed well in the Olympics for several decades. The 6-3 win over host England in 1952 in “the match of the century” is still talked about from the cafes of Budapest to the famed puszta — or plains — of southeast Hungary.
Stieber’s father started a team for his son and his kindergarten classmates. Stieber played several years in his hometown, moved east to Budapest and then left for England.
“It wasn’t easy. I always had that target on my head: I wanted to be a professional football player,” he said, using the European term for the sport. “It is obviously not easy to leave the country. I could not speak any English at that time. It was quite difficult, but at a young age you pick (English) up quite easily.”
When Stieber played in England he was asked repeatedly about Hungarian soccer legend Ferenc Puskas, who died in 2006 at the age of 79. As a young boy Stieber met Puskas in Budapest.
Stieber was about 14 or 15 when he went to Manchester, England, with a youth team. He just missed seeing Wayne Rooney, who joined the famed club a few years later.
The Hungarian, who has five goals and seven assists for seventh-place D.C. United (10-11-8) though he didn’t play Saturday, was obviously happy when British star Rooney joined the team this summer. And so is veteran coach Ben Olsen, the University of Virginia product.
“There is a certain moxie about this group. Wayne brought some of that,” Olsen said after Rooney had two goals in the win Saturday. “I like this group’s mentality.”
Stieber and Rooney have watched some Premier League matches on television in the training room. Now the two Europeans are trying to bring a playoff berth to D.C., which needs to finish in the top six in the conference to do that.
“He has given the team so much advice, on the pitch and even off the pitch,” Stieber said. “He has been great for us.”