Aged 43, Gabor Kiraly has called time on his career. The Hungarian won't go down as one of the greats, but his longevity and character deserve the same recognition as his trademark pair of tracksuit trousers.
Nobody's ever said the name Gabor Kiraly at FIFA's annual gala when the best footballers and goalkeepers of the world are announced. And why would they? There's no doubt that the Hungarian's a good keeper. But there were, and are, dozens of pros in European football of similar quality — Kiraly can be fairly described as a solid, average professional.
He never approached the levels of players like Oliver Kahn, Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas or Manuel Neuer — all named goalkeeper of the year on multiple occasions. He was never cited, unlike the others, as someone who revolutionized goalkeeping. He never lifted the major trophies amid a shower of confetti at a final. He never played for the top clubs from Barcelona, Madrid, Turin, Manchester or Munich.
A dying breed of footballer
And yet, given the news of Kiraly's retirement, it doesn't feel out of place to talk about the departure of a goalie the likes of which we've never seen before, and may not see again. It feels fair to talk about a "true great" retiring. Kiraly had the quality of greatness but in a different way to his more lauded colleagues.
The 43-year-old always stood out, embodying something different to most players in the stereotypical world of modern football. Kiraly became a fan favorite for the Hertha Berlin faithful, and later a cult figure in much of Germany, as a straight-talker, a witty character, a brand unto himself, and in no small part as "the man in the tracksuit bottoms."
In Kiraly, a man who looked like he'd leapt off his couch five minutes ago in his baggy gray pants, fans saw an ordinary guy in the tainted big-money world of professional football. They saw him as "one of us," someone who looked and talked like a normal person and thus exuded a sincerity that's very rare in football. In the cut and thrust world of the professional game, he excited millions as football romanticism given human form.
"I thank football, which has taught me everything and made me a better person. Every day I fought with honor," the Hungarian international wrote on his website this week, announcing the end of a 25-year career. No doubt Kiraly will have chosen these words with care, but they also feel like they came from the hip. They go beyond your typical footballer platitudes. One last time, Kiraly was able to show what marks him out as a genuine tribune for the people in the professional game, rather than a pampered millionaire trying to pose as one.
To freely interpret his farewell, "football" seems to allude to the people, the fans, the game, the team spirit. Sure, he's also acknowledging the privileges he enjoyed as a well-paid professional, but they don't seem likely to have taught him all he knows or to have made him a better person. Having spent most of his career in Germany, Kiraly's retirement received particular attention in that country.
A regular fixture since 1994
Kiraly came to Germany and Hertha in 1997, a complete unknown, from the Haladas Szombathely club in his hometown on Hungary's western border to Austria. Then aged 21, he quickly matured into first-choice keeper and a cult favorite. His habit of wearing beaten-up, gray jogging bottoms quickly became legendary among Hertha's supporters and soon throughout the league — despite their humble and superstitious origin story:
"Our kit manager at Haladas forgot the black shorts and only had these long, gray pants on hand. I put them on. Wearing them, I then won nine games in a row, and so I never took them off again," Kiraly once said when asked to explain his unusual playing wardrobe.
In the 1998/99 season, Kiraly topped the Bundesliga's stat sheets for keepers, denying more clearcut chances than any other and helping Hertha to a third-place finish and Champions League football. Beloved doesn't do his cult status in the German capital justice.
He finally left in 2004, after seven years and 198 appearances, 12 of them in the Champions League. After his last home game that May, he emotionally donated his trademark trousers to the adoring fans. Quite whose legend was larger — his or his clothes' — will forever remain a mystery. But clothing giant Nike were convinced, putting the "K1raly" range on the shelves for any fan to buy. Who manages something like that without first reaching the very pinaccle of the professional game? Gabor Kiraly.
From Berlin to Munich, via London, and then back home
Kiraly moved from Hertha to join Crystal Palace, and later Burnley. His reputation preceded him and it should come as no surprise that he soon established a similar cult reputation in England. He spent a total of five years in the country before returning to Germany in 2009 — this time to contribute to the 2. Bundesliga with 1860 Munich.
Long before Munich's Lions imploded and sank to the third tier, Kiraly had bid another adoring set of fans farewell. After a brief stint back in London as a back-up at Fulham, Kiraly returned to Haladas where it all began, racking up more appearances as a veteran than he did as a promising youngster in the 1990s.
International football accompanied this globe-trotting club career. On and off, Kiraly has been in the mix for Hungary's number 1 jersey since 1998. His 107 caps are a national record. And his finest hour came towards the end of his career. Euro 2016 was Kiraly's first major tournament with Hungary; already in his 40s, he became the oldest man ever to take to the field in the competition. He pinched this record from a footballing great cut from a very different cloth, Lothar Matthäus (also not a tracksuit bottoms kind of guy), who had held it since Euro 2000.
Even though Hungary were obviously not major players, despite overachieving and reaching the last 16, here again history repeated itself. Once again, Kiraly became one of the stories of the competition. The veteran and his signature sweatpants became stars of the show in France, garnering attention, neutral support and — yes, the word does bear repeating one last time — cult status.
This long career is now at an end. But Berlin, Munich and the Bundesliga will not forget a character who became a "true great" of the game, with the help of some tatty but comfortable clothing.