The German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld once sneered: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat: you lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” Try telling that to Gabor Kiraly.
It’s not just that he wears tracksuit trousers, it is that he is tracksuit trousers; tracksuit trousers and triumph. Defeat? Lost control? Get out of here with your sunglasses and ridiculous gloves, Karl. Kiraly is a winner, one of the stars of Euro 2016’s opening week, a record-breaker and an icon.
The Hungary goalkeeper may look like a bloke who was walking through the park with his dog and got persuaded to bail out a Sunday league team after the usual guy failed to turn up one wet morning, hastily handed a goalie top and someone else’s trousers, a size too big; he might look like someone from another age, might even be from another age, still here 23 years after making his club debut, but he has become a national hero. An international one, too.
The oldest footballer to appear at a European Championship at 40 years, two months and two weeks, Kiraly is a throwback who has become a cult hero. The problem is that “cult hero” can sound dismissive, patronising, and it was hard to avoid the feeling that he probably thinks so, too. Asked about his tracksuit trousers in Bordeaux after Hungary’s first game against Austria, he replied: “Next question.”
Which was understandable. After all, he had just broken a tournament record and had been a huge part of a special night. Forget trousers, let’s talk history. So long has it been since they were a footballing power, no one is alive from the great Hungary side of 1954 and for the first time in 44 years Hungary were at the Euros – and they had only gone and beaten Austria.
They had got there in the first place thanks not least to Kiraly’s play-off performances against Norway, when he became the second player in the country’s history to go over 100 caps and then went home and told his kids to forget celebrating: there is school tomorrow.
Hungary face Iceland on Saturday and the achievement against Austria was gigantic, the moment magical. “Sweet,” Adam Szalai, who scored their first goal in a 2-0 victory, called it. He did not know why but he leapt into the stands to celebrate with supporters. “The fans here had waited so, so long. And back in Hungary, everybody stopped for a few hours too,” the midfielder Zoltan Gera said.
Hungary had waited 44 years to make it to the European Championship. Kiraly had waited 18 of them, since his international debut. Now he was celebrating too, the inevitable focus of attention.
How could he not be a cult hero, this Bon Jovi-loving, Mini-driving, roly-poly performing, muddy-kneed goalkeeper with the hint of a belly whose career stretches all the way back to the last century and takes in Haladas and Hertha Berlin, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, Burnley and Bayer Leverkusen? The man who had Fulham fans turning up to games in his trousers and 1860 Munich’s club shop selling them?
Kiraly wore tracksuit trousers because of the hard surfaces. Originally they were black, but one day there were no clean pairs available so he wore a grey pair instead and he has never gone back. It became a superstition. He still has the original pair somewhere, full of holes, but they have long been left behind. There have been hundreds of them – all of them, by his own admission, a size too big, all the same – and they became his trademark. Quite literally: Kiraly brought out his own range.
There are no seasons, no new collections, just the same model year after year.Kits have changed since he started, and football has too, all tight tops and lean bodies, but his has not. Some things in life are constant. But surely he wears shorts sometimes, right? In training, at least. “No, never,” the striker Tamas Priskin said. He is not joking.
“He will sleep in them,” Gera grinned. “He has lots of superstitions, not just that ‘pyjama’. He also has this basketball shirt he always wears: black, No13. And other things. A [T-shirt] with a tiger on as well. Always. So you can imagine when it’s 40 degrees...”
If the kit has not changed, nor have the saves, as Kiraly proved against Austria where he was decisive again, on a historic night. And listening to his team-mates, the admiration is genuine. “He is so charismatic,” Gera said. “When you see him you don’t feel scared because you know he will do his best all the time. He has got 103 games for the national team. He was already in the team when a lot of the younger players were children.” It is no exaggeration: Kiraly has team-mates who were not born when his career began.
“It is important for those players to see how he is in training, how he prepares for the games, how he conducts himself in matches, how he plays the game,” Priskin said. “It is very good for them. And he is very important for the team. He is a hero for me and I am honoured he is in our team, and it is even better that he had a clean sheet against Austria.”
Clean sheet, muddy knees. “I have used the [tracksuit trousers] for the last 20 years, and I have explained in a lot of interviews why I use them,” Kiraly said. “I’ve been in football for 24 years, this isn’t the first year. But it’s a famous tournament so maybe that is why people are looking.”
Yeah, they’re looking all right. And so is he. Looking good.
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