As Hungary celebrated its EURO 2016 qualification success, songs of an unlikely hero were sung in honor of Gabor Kiraly, the 39-year-old goalkeeper who was proclaimed the nation’s best player and chosen for the tournament’s top eleven team. For almost half a century, Hungary has been waiting for a chance to play at a European Championship and they have managed to do just that after securing a two-leg win against Norway in the playoffs. This was considered an upset by some, especially considering the fact Hungary hadn’t managed to beat their Scandinavian opponents in in the teams’ last nine encounters. But Hungary doesn’t mind – the entire nation is chuffed to bits. The man behind it all is a true veteran, with almost four decades of life experience under his belt. Oftentimes, he wasn’t even the first-choice goalkeeper in his club, but now the time has come to discuss the legendary tracksuit-wearing Gabor Kiraly.
If you take a look at all the clubs he’s played for, you may notice a circular pattern. Kiraly currently plays for Hungarian side Haladas, where his career began in 1993.
“The way goalkeepers play has changed a huge amount over the years. When I started, you could still handle back passes,” Kiraly once said for an interview with FIFA.
The Hungarian keeper appeared in 10 Champions League matches with Hertha Berlin, faced the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard (among others) during his time in the Premier League and is now about to become the oldest player ever to compete at a EURO.
Kiraly is known for a lot of things – yes, he is an able and somehow still acrobatic goalkeeper, who is also prone to making huge blunders – but what makes him famous are his sportswear preferences. The 39-year-old has worn his tracksuit bottoms on goal ever since 1996.
“I’ve played in them since I was with Szombathely in 1996. On one occasion, the black ones hadn’t made it into the wash, so I had to wear grey. We then went unbeaten for our next eight or nine games and saved ourselves from relegation, so wherever I’ve gone since then, they’ve been my lucky charm. That’s not going to change now!”
Kiraly hasn’t ever let the fact he was regularly the second-choice keeper in his clubs get to him. “The most important thing is that you keep pushing yourself to deliver top performances. After that, you have to be prepared to adapt to new situations all the time, and remain open to change.”
On his international debut, Kiraly saved Toni Polster’s penalty against Austria as Hungary beat their neighbors 3-2. The flashes of brilliance have always come at all the right times for the veteran, just like this performance against Arsenal, for example.
Even though Hungary can count on Liverpool’s Adam Bogdan, Kiraly is still the undisputable No. 1 for his country. Critics insist that Gabor owes his clean sheets to the formidable defensive line in front of him, that he can’t deal with crosses and is generally an unreliable option to have on goal, but his latest performance against Norway – his 101st cap – made sure everyone knew just how good he can be.
The chemistry is working for the Hungarians right now and everyone is looking to Kiraly to guide the talented national squad to a respectable EURO 2016 performance, something the goalkeeper had been dreaming of for years. Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Kiraly demonstrated his never-say-die attitude:
“I keep thinking: Never say never!’ But there’s no point always setting unrealistically high targets. The vital thing is to recognize when a situation is important, make good decisions and take your chances. Hungary have repeatedly come up just a little bit short recently. But now we have a handful of players who’ve picked up many years of experience abroad and are bringing home elements of different footballing cultures. We’re keen to learn, and hope to draw encouragement from a series of small steps.”
The time has come to shine for the man whose initials are G.K. and there probably isn’t a neutral football fan out there who is not excited by the story of this enthusiastic tracksuit wearing legend. We’ll be sure to follow up on it when EURO 2016 kicks off.