Even when you are still playing at the highest level, at 37 the spectre of retirement tends to loom large. Yet while most players this age dread the 'end', Zoltan Gera has no fear of staring it in the face – perhaps due to having looked death itself in the eye earlier in his life.
Despite being one of the finest Hungarian players for more than a decade, one who made his mark in the English Premier League and has played in a European final, it was not the footballing greats that young Zoltan took inspiration from when growing up in Pecs. He dreamed of being a criminal, a mob boss who would inspire respect through fear and violence.
"When I was a young kid I had some very dark, difficult years. I idled my time away in the street. I almost committed suicide, literally," he confided to FIFA.com, not ashamed by this past but hugely proud to have put it behind him. As a teenager, he was in such a poor state – his mind and gaunt body so ravaged by alcohol, cigarettes and drugs – that a doctor told him he would never be able to play football professionally.
"But at 16, I changed. Or, rather, God changed my life," continued Gera in reference to a visit to a local church, where a combination of the priest and the singing, smiling congregation members gave him just the jolt he needed. "From that moment, my real life began. I started playing football again.
"I had a difficult childhood, but nowadays I'm thriving, fulfilled, and I have no problems. I'm not happy to have gone through the tough times I experienced, but I tell myself that if I hadn't, I maybe wouldn't have turned to God and towards the life I lead today. I don't look back at the past, I just see how I've changed and I know that if I hadn't done so, there's no doubt I never would've been able to make it in football."
Still ready, willing and ableNearly 20 years on, his second life has allowed him to become a saving grace for others, namely two grand football institutions that had almost given up the ghost. The first, Ferencvaros, added a page to their glorious history books in the early 2000s with a budding Gera pulling the strings, winning two league titles, two domestic cups and the 2004 Hungarian Super Cup.
While these feats earned the midfielder a move to the bright lights of the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion, a dismal decade was in store for the club he left behind. Financial problems led to the first relegation in their history in 2006 and a long struggle first to rise back to the top-flight and then to retake their place among the country's powerhouses. Can it be a coincidence that the **Zöld Sasok (Green Eagles) reclaimed the cup in 2015 and the league crown in 2016 in the wake of Gera's return in 2014?
"It was a good time to come back," acknowledged the star. "When I came back, we had a new stadium, a new owner and the club was stable, with a good squad and a good coach. Returning to Hungary and winning the championship again is a fantastic feeling."
While unwilling to take credit for this renaissance, Gera did insist that he still feels useful in spite of his advancing years and the sceptics who branded his homecoming a form of early retirement. "People ask too many questions sometimes and don't realise that a player should call it quits simply when he doesn't feel up to it any more or no longer has the enthusiasm to play," said the man who featured in the UEFA Europa League final with Fulham in 2010. "But I knew I still had it in me to perform well; the criticism wasn't an issue. It was to myself, first and foremost, that I wanted to prove that I was still up to it, and I've done that."
By helping to add more silverware to the club's trophy cabinets, he has also given the faithful at the Groupama Arena something to shout about again. "Ferencvaros are the best club in the country, the most famous and most widely supported. Dropping down to the second division was a tough ordeal. The fans waited for a long time for the glory days to return and to finally win the league again. Here's hoping that in the coming years we can remain at a high level and be a force in Europe, because that's also part of the club's history."
Ever hungry to fly the flagSpeaking of returning to the continental elite, where Ferencvaros notably stood when they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965 and reached the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final in 1975, this is exactly what Hungary have accomplished by booking their place at UEFA EURO 2016.
"For a long time I thought I would never get to take part in a major international tournament, because we weren't good enough for the last ten or 15 years," said Gera on the subject of his national team, for whom he has been a regular since 2002 and who are still searching for a first FIFA World Cup™ appearance since 1986.
To what does Gera attribute Hungary's revival? "In all this time that I've been playing for the national team, I never thought that we had enough quality to qualify," recognised the Nemzeti Tizenegy (National 11) vice-captain. "But in recent years, we've had a good crop of players, a good generation, and good coaches who know international football. That provided the platform for us to become a settled, organised team. We had a difficult period, but now we're very happy to be going to France, to have qualified for a major tournament. It's a wonderful feeling."
To avoid sinking back into the wilderness, the Hungarians are hopeful that, after gracing the EURO in France, the logical next step materialises and they prosper on the road to Russia 2018.
Gera shares this hope, though whether or not he will be involved is another story. "I'm realistic and I'm not expecting to play in World Cup qualifying," he said, before clarifying: "But I'll never say I don't want to play for the national team. I'd love to keep playing, but I'm willing to accept it if the coach says I'm too old and the time has come to give younger players a chance. I'd have no trouble understanding that. But if I'm called up and I believe I still have something to offer, of course I'll report for duty."
Gera will be pushing 40 by the time the next World Cup kicks off, but having lived through as many rebirths as he has, the evergreen veteran could be forgiven for thinking he can go on forever.