Amidst the hype, noises off and glitter of the modern footballing world, Gabor Kiraly stands out as a different kind of player. The 35-year-old Hungary veteran is a very special goalkeeper, specialising in breathtaking if unorthodox saves, and oscillating between calm authority and an explosive whirl of shouts and gestures.
He even has his own trademark, the grey jogging pants he pulls on for matches week after week. And Kiraly, which translates directly as ‘King’, has now also earned a place of his own in the history books.
The keeper, who plays his club football for German second division outfit TSV 1860 Munich, stood between the Hungary sticks for the 86th time in a 1-1 friendly draw with Bulgaria in late February, matching the appearance record held by the legendary Gyula Grosics.
The pair currently share the title of the Magyars’ most-capped goalkeeper and, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, Kiraly made no secret of his pride at the achievement: "It’s an unbelievable honour for me. I’m very proud, and I’m ready to play more internationals if called upon."
Kiraly names Grosics as his personal idol. "Unfortunately, I never actually saw him play on TV, but we are in touch personally. He occasionally gives me hints and tips, and we talk about everything under the sun," said the 1860 Munich crowd hero, revealing a personal connection between himself and the keeper of the revered Hungarian team of the 1950s. "Grosics is 86. We both now have 86 Hungary caps. And Hungary last appeared at the World Cup in 1986. It’s complete coincidence, but it must be a magic number!"
Kiraly, who hails from Szombathely close to the Austrian border, always comes over as a seething cauldron of emotion, swinging from one extreme to another. However, that is merely an on-pitch persona. Away from the field of play, his vast experience shines through in his thoughtful, considered, down-to-earth and thoroughly appealing personality.
He has never driven anything other than a modest, compact car, and he always views the highs and lows of his chosen profession with a sense of perspective. Kiraly’s enormous respect for Grosics comes as little surprise: "I find him amazing." And despite their shared record, the 1860 keeper harbours no illusions of being on the same level as his illustrious predecessor.
Quietly contemplating Brazil
The player, currently second-choice for the Magyars, has spent 19 seasons as a pro spanning his home country, England and Germany, and has learned to take the daily rough and tumble of life at a big football club with a healthy pinch of salt. Targets and goals are always relative, he says, because they are ultimately dependent on the resources and opportunities at hand.
He would be only too pleased to taste life in the Bundesliga again with 1860, but the Lions currently lie eight points off a promotion play-off spot. And as a late bonus in his long career, Kiraly would be delighted to play a part in the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. However, in stark contrast to the era of Grosics and company, Hungary are currently some way off membership of the global footballing elite.
"I keep thinking: Never say never!' But there’s no point always setting unrealistically high targets. The vital thing is to recognise when a situation is important, make good decisions and take your chances,” Kiraly mused. "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 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 keeper’s view of qualifying for the global showdown in 2014 is a realistic one: "We’re in Group D, and we’re not exactly favourites when you consider we’re up against the Netherlands, Turkey, Romania, Estonia and Andorra. But one of the teams will spring a surprise. Maybe it’ll be Estonia – or maybe it’ll be us. Nothing’s impossible!" A trip to Brazil would certainly be a worthy and well-deserved highlight towards the end of Kiraly’s playing career.
Veering between change and consistency
Some 14 years ago, the "King" from Szombathely - incidentally the home town of Leopold Blum, the main character in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses - earned his first senior cap. Hungary beat Austria 3-2 in Vienna, young Kiraly making an instant name for himself by saving a fourth-minute penalty taken by home icon Toni Polster. Spectacular deeds have always been associated with the keeper, but he would not be where he is today without a willingness to move with the times and circumstances.
"The way goalkeepers play has changed a huge amount over the years. When I started, you could still handle back passes," Kiraly recalled. "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." In fact, the only true constant is the grey jogging pants.
But why the trademark attire? "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!" he smiled.