Sunday Story: Róbert Mak

From battling Barça in the Champions League to playing in the Euros for Slovakia, Sydney FC forward Róbert Mak is no stranger to the world stage.

The 31-year-old winger has 73 international caps and helped his country qualify for their first European Championship in 2016 – achieving the nation’s best tournament finish by reaching the Round of 16.

And despite being knocked out by then world champions Germany, Slovakia managed to qualify out of a group consisting of England, Russia and Wales – with Mak grabbing an assist against the Welsh.

We are proud to play for our country

Róbert Mak

“I’m sad we didn’t make it to the World Cup but it is what it is and I’m happy for the Euros,” said Mak.

“The first Euros we passed the group stage so it was really successful. The second we couldn’t make it past but with the national team we are proud to play for our country.

“I was always proud and I was always very happy to go play for the national team. We played some fantastic games, big games in big stadiums. It was really good.”

Mak celebrating scoring against Poland at Euro 2020

Being a key part of the national team setup, Mak mixed it with the best in Slovakia.

“I played with [Martin] Škrtel quite a lot, let’s say five years, six years we played together,” Mak explained. “He was a machine, he was really good and so strong.

“He was our captain, he was the leader and such a nice person. We had so many good memories and I liked him a lot.

“Marek Hamšík as well, he was one of the biggest players in our national team. Then came Milan Škriniar from Inter, [Stanislav] Lobotka from Napoli – so now we have some very good young players.”

Born in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city which sits along the border of Hungary and Austria, Mak grew up playing youth football for the most successful club in the country – Slovan Bratislava.

The winger’s exploits at academy level then caught the eye of Manchester City, giving Mak the opportunity to impress overseas.

“I left Slovakia when I was 15,” Mak said. “I didn’t even finish school in Slovakia, I was missing the last year so it was very difficult to go there.

“But my parents let me go and they signed the papers and said it was a big opportunity … and my father said, ‘If you want to be a good footballer you need to go somewhere where you can improve.’

“And we chose Manchester City and I think this was the most decisive decision of my life in football.”

Developing his trade in Manchester, Mak would go on to win the FA Youth Cup in 2008 but would receive no senior minutes following Sheikh Mansour’s takeover of the club in the same year, leading to a spending spree on new first team players.

However the Slovak would earn a move to then Bundesliga side 1. FC Nürnberg in 2010, playing 80 times for the German outfit.

“At 19 years old playing in the Bundesliga was really good,” Mak said. “It has fantastic stadiums and also with the fans was a really good experience for me.

“I remember we went to Dortmund for the last matchday once and they were celebrating winning the championship and it was unbelievable.

Robert Mak with Zenit

“It was like 90,000 in the stadium and it was crazy. The ‘Yellow Wall’ at the end of the stadium was crazy … that was when [Jürgen] Klopp and [Robert] Lewandowski were there in that really good period for them.

“We also had some good games in Bayern Munich, obviously they were always winning! It was like a derby game for us because we were close to each other.”

After scoring eight goals and assisting seven times for Nürnberg, Mak would make the move to PAOK FC in 2014, with the attacker’s exposure to atmospheres in Germany preparing him for the ferocity of Greek football.

Mak in action for PAOK

“In Greece, football-wise and family-wise we had the best time of our lives,” said Mak. “Living there was amazing, our second son was born there so it was really good.

“We stayed in Thessaloniki which is the second biggest city there. It was by the sea so we had a fantastic city to live in and we travelled a lot in Greece, but the season was so long and we played Europa League so it was difficult to travel a lot. But playing a lot meant it was a really good time in my career.

“The atmosphere at the games were unbelievable. The derby games against Olympiacos were madness, you cannot imagine! The atmosphere in the stadium was one of the best I played in.

“Travelling to Olympiacos was crazy but at that time the away fans were not allowed at the stadium because there was fighting going on so we couldn’t have any fans. But even then the atmosphere in Greece, they are so passionate and some of those atmospheres in the Europa League group stages were amazing.”

Following prolific exploits at PAOK – scoring 33 goals and assisting 14 times in 117 appearances and winning the Greek Cup in 2018 – Mak would make the permanent switch to Russian outfit Zenit Saint Petersburg after a loan spell at the club in 2016/17.

Playing for Slovakia

And after winning the Russian Super Cup with Zenit in 2016/17, the Russian Cup in 2020 and back-to-back league titles in 2019 and 2020, the Slovak would jet over to Konyaspor in Turkey before signing for Ferencváros in Hungary – winning two more league titles and coming up against Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp.

“We played the group stages of the Champions League against teams like Juve, Barça and Dynamo Kyiv so it was a really interesting group!” Mak said.

“The only bad thing was that it was during COVID times so it was empty stadiums. When you play in those clubs’ stadium you want the fans to enjoy the atmosphere, so that was a bit sad.

Mak at the Sydney Opera House

“But it was also enjoyable. I can say throughout all of my career – all the cities, all the teams I played in – it was really enjoyable.”

Now looking to make the most of his time in Sydney, Mak is enjoying mesmerising defenders on the pitch for the Sky Blues as Steve Corica continues to call upon the winger’s vast international experience.