Originally posted to VAVEL UK in 2020.
At first glance, Gabor Kiraly, Hungary’s joint most capped footballer, is an accomplished athlete who has seen it all, and his successes rely solely on his accolades on the pitch, but this is where you are mistaken.
His choice of fashion symbolises his charisma on the playing field but, beneath the grey joggers, there is a man enchanted by a wealth of stories and experiences he has translated into lessons for life.
After a conversation with the Hungarian veteran, you will be hard-pressed to find someone with a personality so sanguine; seamlessly magnetic on the surface and genuinely humble at the core.
Throughout his football career, which spanned across 26 years, Kiraly accumulated 882 appearances between the sticks, blossoming his legacy with pride, playing for his local club, before pursuing challenges in Germany and England.
Early life & Haladas
Born in Szombathely, West Hungary, Kiraly explains, “I grew up like every other normal kid,” a statement that filtered through the conversation as he was eager to underpin his modesty.
Growing up in Hungary’s tenth largest city, some couple hundred kilometres away from the capital, Budapest, proved to be the catalyst for his goalkeeping ambitions. Kiraly elucidated that there were not many football clubs around where he lived, so Haladas became integral to his later fortunes.
The Hungarian also pointed towards his father as the reason for his desire to follow a footballing path. “When you are a kid, you take notice of how your father prepares for the day; when he eats, what he eats, how many times he rests. For me, I saw how he prepared for his football games”, he said.
“In Hungary, at the time, every player would take home a kit bag. It was a really special moment for me when my father used to bring home our local team’s shirt, and of course, just like many kids around me, I wanted to play for Haladas, that’s who my friends played for and who my father played for.”
Gabor Kiraly opened his career chapter at Haladas, where he amassed 96 appearances for the senior side during his first spell. It was at his local club that he forged a progressive upward trajectory, coining himself as a real prospect in Europe.
He said: “I started to play football when I was just five years old, playing for the same club, where my father played, Haladas. Every year I went step by step, age by age and, at seventeen, I started in the professional league where I spent three and a half years at this club. It was at Haladas where I took the experience to get me a move to Hertha Berlin.”
His gleaming gratitude illuminated once again when he spoke about the opportunity that his hometown club gave him. “It was in Haladas where I learnt the basics of becoming a goalkeeper. I am very grateful for the number of opportunities that my local club gave me; I had a lot of experience to improve myself,” he radiated.
Soon enough, it was time for Kiraly to flee the nest in a hunt for a new adventure. After 16 years of service for his local side, Kiraly was yearning for the next best thing. “When I turned 21 I wanted to move to the next level,” beamed the Hungarian.
“That’s why I went to Germany. I told myself, if I only played a couple of times in Germany, then so what, I tried. But what happened was that I played football abroad for the next 18 years.”
At the dawn of Kiraly’s international career, playing for the Hungarian youth team was a chance for him to vindicate his worth. It was during this time, playing against Switzerland and Norway, that he earned himself a contract with Hertha Berlin.
“I played for the Hungarian youth team in games against Norway and Switzerland and the Hertha Berlin assistant coach was there watching,” he illustrated.
“After the game, he told me he wanted me to come to Berlin as a trialist. After three days of training, they made their mind up and signed me; this is where my career in Germany started.”
On July 1st, 1997, Gabor Kiraly made a tough decision, by signing for Hertha Berlin. This was a giant leap for the 21-year-old, who turned over a new leaf in his career, one that would catapult the uncharted youngster into a whirlwind of stardom.
The German culture and football were foreign to the Hungarian, but it was in Berlin that the shot-stopper was able to express himself; exhibiting his potential.
Over the course of seven years in Berlin, Kiraly made over 250 appearances, competing against domestic giants in the Bundesliga and European heavyweights in the UEFA Champions League.
Still finding his feet in his new home abroad, Kiraly remembers his Champions League encounters “Coming very quickly.” Despite this, it seemed that he relished the occasions, collecting memories he added to his repertoire along the way.
“When you’re young, you need to take every experience slowly, but this experience came very quickly; it put a lot of pressure on me of course. But this was the same in the Bundesliga, there were a lot of brilliant players in the league, and the Champions League had the likes of AC Milan or Barcelona or Chelsea,” confessed Kiraly.
“To play under this pressure, it’s difficult for a 22-year-old player. I didn’t have the same experience as I had when I was 28 or 29, but this is my career, you can’t choose when moments like these happen. However, I learnt a lot during my seven years in Berlin, I am always looking to better myself and my time in Germany helped me do just that.”
Certainly, just like any charismatic character you meet, they have an endless stream of stories to tell, this was no different when speaking to Gabor Kiraly. The stories he recounted of his experiences in the Champions League were among the best.
“I remember playing against Barcelona in Berlin, and there was a lot of fog,” he reminisced infectiously. “The fans could hardly see the game. for the whole night, I couldn’t see the opposition goalkeeper, but at the end of the match, we swapped shirts. I still have the shirt now, it serves as a memory of this funny game where myself and the other goalkeeper stood on the same pitch but didn’t see each other until after the final whistle.”
Kiraly’s fond recollection didn’t stop there though, as the former international goalkeeper spoke about one of his favourite moments as a footballer for Hertha Berlin.
The veteran recalled, “I have so many memories from so many different matches though; playing at the San Siro, where my father has played before, was a special memory for me too. I am very proud to have played against so many great teams.”
Unsurprisingly, Kiraly verbalized his appreciation for the city of Berlin, and the experiences he added to his progressive learning curve – but soon enough, it was time to call it a day in Germany’s capital.
In the summer of 2004/05, the Hungarian seized the opportunity to move again, this time to South London. It was Kiraly’s time to bestow the Premier League with his distinctively eccentric style and grace.
Upon the conclusion of the 2003/04 season, Crystal Palace had won promotion to the Premier League, after Neil Shipperley’s goal was the difference between Palace and West Ham in the First Division play-off Final.
It would be the Eagles first appearance in the top flight since 1997/98, so it was expected that not many foreign players may have heard of them. However, this was not the case with Kiraly, who had heard about the Croydon club long before his arrival.
“In 2001 I bought a PlayStation and I played as Crystal palace on this football game I had. I was more of a player than I was a fan so I didn’t know too many teams, but Crystal palace was one of the English teams I did know before moving to England,” Kiraly marvelled.
“Every time I moved to a new club, I would read stories about the team I was moving to, and everyone used to talk about the Premier League. I always said that if I got an opportunity to play in England, why not.”
From the outset, Gabor Kiraly faced stiff competition for the club’s number one spot. In the same summer that he arrived, Argentine Julian Speroni was brought in by Iain Dowie too.
The goalkeeper position was a void in the Eagles’ lineup that needed filling, and the acquisitions of Speroni and Kiraly proved to be excellent choices. Iain Dowie’s allegiance to Palace resonated through his goalkeeping options, who went on to make 475 appearances for the club respectively.
It was the Argentine who was initially installed as the first-choice keeper. Kiraly made his debut for Palace in the League Cup game at home to Hartlepool United where his performance, along with the poor form of Speroni, resulted in his promotion to the first choice in Palace goal.
The two goalkeepers went on to manifest a life-long friendship that exuberated beyond the pitch. “I always keep in touch with Julian, there’s always a good connection between the goalkeepers, wherever I went, whether it be England or Germany, or anywhere else, I always had a good relationship with the other goalkeeper because we worked for the team.”
“Julian is a great person and we understood each other from the start, this is why we worked so well together and that’s why we are still in contact,” Kiraly waxed lyrical of his goalkeeping counterpart.
Kiraly played the majority of Palace’s first season back in the Premier League, under the stewardship of Iain Dowie. He explained his relationship with the manager with pride, as usual.
“Iain Dowie, he was a Premier League player and he played for Crystal Palace, that’s why we all had so much respect for him,” he expounded. “He was very important to me, so was Mike Kelly and Tony Burns, two great goalkeeper coaches.”
Unfortunately, in his first season, Kiraly played a significant role in Palace’s relegation from the top flight in 2004/05, condemning the rest of his days in SE25 in England’s second division.
Despite this, Kiraly had confidence that the team he had joined was a good one, suggesting that “At that time, I felt the team was very good, we respected each other, we wanted to work for each other. But, most importantly, I learnt a lot in my time working under Iain.”
Kiraly emphasised further, “There were a lot of players who had played for their national sides, for example, Tony Popovic from Australia. We also had a lot of players with experience and Andrew Johnson was a big player in the squad. Dougie Freedman was also a big member of the dressing room, I was so happy to join this squad.”
Challenging the notion that foreign players lack loyalty in the English leagues, Kiraly stayed at the club throughout tough times with the Eagles.
He insisted: “I wanted to play for Crystal Palace, I wasn’t at the club just because they were in the top flight when I arrived. Firstly, I didn’t care that Palace got relegated and secondly, I wanted to show my dedication to the club. I wasn’t too bothered that I wasn’t playing at the top, because I love Crystal Palace and that’s why I wanted to stay at this club.”
Under Iain Dowie and Peter Taylor, Gabor Kiraly would go on to make 104 appearances for the Eagles, eventually leaving the club at the end of the 2006/07 season, after a few loan spells to the likes of Fulham and Aston Villa forced the Hungarian to consider a change of scenery.
The Selhurst Park fan-favourite would return in the summer of 2019 to watch on as his adopted south London club limbered up to burst into their seventh consecutive top-flight season; something near unimaginable in his time.
Crystal Palace invited the Hall of Famer as a guest to SE25 as they took on Hertha Berlin in a pre-season friendly. “It was a very funny feeling because they were two massive clubs in my career, it was my first club in Germany versus my first club in England.”
He added: “At that time, Dougie Freedman was the board director, my former teammate, it was a proud moment for me, a big highlight.”
Looking back on his days in south London clearly brought back a lot of memories for the goalkeeper, he had so much to say, his overwhelmingly grateful character shone through over the phone.
In one last statement to the club, he called home, Kiraly gleamed: “Crystal Palace is like a family and I love family. The fans always stand by the team. I will never forget that the fans always supported us, even in tricky times.
“The club has an emotion and a family, I am always keeping myself updated with what palace are up to and how they’re doing because I was a part of the club’s story.”
The story behind the grey joggers
Although he was known for his fashion statement before his time in England, it was his charisma during his Crystal Palace days that Kiraly earned himself a reputation through his grey joggers the most.
The Hungarian explained that it was normal to see goalkeepers wearing grey joggers in his hometown. “I started to play with grey joggers in Hungary in 1996 and, during that time, the goalkeepers were given two pairs of trousers, one grey and one black.”
His story behind his decision to wear joggers for games stems from superstition though: “One day the black ones weren’t washing because the machine was broken, so I had to wear the grey pair for our game.
“We won that game and I thought maybe it was the joggers that brought me luck. I wore them for the next game and we won again, without conceding any goal.”
Kiraly added: “I went nine games in a row without losing in these grey joggers and only conceded twice in that run, it confirmed to me that the grey joggers brought me luck.”
Gabor Kiraly had simply fallen in love with the grey joggers, something that became evident when his usual pair ripped during his debut for the Eagles.
During the game against Hartlepool, Király was forced off when his joggers were ripped on one side, and his backup shorts were insufficient in providing heat to his legs during the game. He remained out for three matches whilst he located a pair of backup shorts fit for use.
The comedic saga of Kiraly’s close-knit relationship with grey joggers continued to gather pace, when he chose to play in shorts at Stamford Bridge, eventually resting his case of superstition when it didn’t quite go to plan.
“Over and over again I was told I should play in shorts, so I did, at Stamford Bridge. This was a bad idea, I let the ball through my legs and we lost that game,” Kiraly laughed.
“I told Julian after the game that I would never play in shorts again. Of course, the mistake was my technical fault, but it was enough for me to decide not to wear shorts again, I was most comfortable in long bottoms.”
His fashion enigma became his showpiece on the pitch, everyone wanted to see ‘the goalkeeper in grey joggers,’ a symbol of his infectious passion to entertain.
The grey joggers would serve as a career-defining statement when the keeper made the trip to the 2016 Euros in what would become a swan song late in his career.
Hopefully, after reading his story, you will understand that Gabor Kiraly is a larger-than-life character, and his grey joggers form just a small fraction of his efficacious career.
Hungary – Euro 2016
The European Championships are one of the biggest stages in world football, and Gabor Kiraly’s unconventional playing style, at the age of 42, became the centre of attention in the 2016 edition.
It was the first time that Hungary had reached the Euros in 44 years, emphasising greater importance to the people of Hungary. Not only was it a valuable competition for the fans, but Kiraly had become the oldest player to ever play in the history of the competition.
Kiraly also embedded himself in Hungarian football history, becoming the country’s joint most-capped footballer. The 2016 Euros served the purpose of one last hurrah for him.
“I never thought about my age, when I was 35 I asked a lot of people how long I had left. Everyone told me that I would feel when the time was right to finish my career, just enjoy the game, enjoy the experiences,” Kiraly expressed.
“I trained as hard as I could even if I was at a lower club, my hometown club again. The Euros in 2016 presented me with an unbelievable opportunity in my international career.”
The Hungarian first-choice goalkeeper entertained the world during Hungary’s Euro fixtures, paying homage to Thierry Henry with his fake shot passes, and throwing the ball through his legs, resulting in a circus-like performance for everyone to enjoy.
“I got a lot of feedback from my performances at the Euros, everyone took an interest in the Hungarian international team in that tournament,” he glimmered. “They were surprised by my performances, I just want to enjoy my life, I want to enjoy my football, life always moves forwards and you have to take every moment with you, not just the good ones because you learn from every memory.
“From every situation, you have to learn what you have to do in the future and what you need to change in the future.”
The Hungarian national team topped Group F in the competition, achieving an unbeaten record in the group stages. They had beaten Portugal and Iceland to the punch, topping the table, and booking themselves in the Round of 16.
What awaited them was a star-studded Belgian team, who was on the ladder towards a successful future, with names such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne stealing the front pages of the newspapers.
Hungary were left to wallow in a 4-0 defeat, but Kiraly insisted that the overriding feeling he experienced was pride. He declared that “We enjoyed the tournament. This was the big stage and I was so proud to have reached the tournament, I wanted to take every feeling with me.”
Just like he had done so often throughout the conversation, Kiraly affirmed that he played for the enjoyment rather than the competitiveness. He claimed: “We were not unhappy about losing, we were proud of what we had achieved up to that point.
“The fans wanted to see the team spirit and the team fight. We showed our determination, we knew they were a better team than us, but we never gave up, this was the most important thing for the Hungarian fans.”
He insisted that the best story from the final chapter in his football career was when he arrived in Budapest after the Euros. “I remember arriving in Budapest after the Euros and 15,000 people gathered on the streets, celebrating the Hungarian national team. The emotion and feelings I had that day, you never forget it.”
It was a tournament that no one in Hungary will ever forget and Kiraly played a significant role in entertaining the industry, proving his personality exuberated beyond his eye-catching saves.
The end of the Euros signalled the conclusion of Kiraly’s 26-year journey from Haladas to Berlin, to London, and back again. The man behind the grey joggers lived a football career worth reminiscing.
At first glance, Gabor Kiraly, Hungary’s joint most capped footballer, is an accomplished athlete who has seen it all, and his successes rely solely on his accolades on the pitch, but this story has proven otherwise.