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Hungary’s ‘sweatpant’ veteran Kiraly reaches the big one

Szombathely (Hungary) (AFP) – Gabor Kiraly has been through seven qualifying campaigns for major tournaments — always in his ever-present sweatpants — but even in the darkest moments insisted he never gave up hope on Euro 2016.

“The thought never entered my mind,” said Kiraly, who played a key role getting Hungary to the European Championship finals in France, their first time on the big stage since the 1986 World Cup.

And now, instead of retirement, Kiraly, who turned 40 in April, is setting new records.

Hungary’s final preparation game against Germany on Saturday was his 103rd cap, extending his record as Hungary’s most-capped player ever, two ahead of Jozsef Bozsik, midfielder of the legendary 1950s “Magical Magyars”.

The game did not start well for Kiraly who was beaten after just 59 seconds, but Julian Draxler’s goal was flagged for offside. Adam Lang deflected an own goal and Thomas Mueller got a second — tapping in after Kiraly could only parry a Mario Gomez header to give German a 2-0 win in Gelsenkirchen.

But if he plays in France, the 1.91-metre (6ft 3in) all genial giant will be the first 40-something to play at a Euros, beating the previous golden oldie Germany’s Lothar Matthaus who appeared at Euro 2000 aged 39.

With 800 official games under his belt Kiraly concedes that he is beginning to feel his age.

“I never felt kickouts before but now it takes a few days to fully recover,” he said in an interview in Szombathely, where he returned last year to play for his hometown club Haladas.

Although in the twilight of a 22-year-long career that included spells in the Bundesliga and the English Premier League, his reflexes are still sharp.

A point-blank save from Norway’s Per Ciljan Skjelbred early in the Euro 2016 playoff kept Hungary in contention for their first European Championships since 1972.

– Legwear –

One thing is certain: no matter how hot it gets in France, Kiraly will don his famous legwear, a habit he picked up after a run of wins during a freezing Hungarian winter in 1996.

“I’m not a top model, my job is defending, it’s both a physical and psychological thing, I don’t feel comfortable without them,” Kiraly said, adding that he has “thousands” of superstitions including only driving a Mini Cooper.

In April an opposing goalkeeper marked Kiraly’s 40th birthday by wearing his own tracksuit bottoms.

“He didn’t let in any goals that day, I told him maybe if he had worn them all season, his team might have done better,” Kiraly joked.

Sweatpants are his work clothes only though, he said. “When I see people wearing them on the street, I wonder how they can do such a thing.”

An admirer of Dino Zoff, a World Cup winner aged 40 with Italy in 1982, Kiraly knew from a young age that his vocation was goalkeeping.

“I liked the gloves and getting muddy, but most of all annoying strikers by saving their shots,” he laughed.

Handed his first cap aged 21 against Austria in 1998, after just four minutes he saved a penalty by Toni Polster.

“Little did I know there would be 100 more caps to come,” he said.

On the pitch when Lionel Messi made his debut for Argentina in a 2005 friendly in Budapest, Kiraly also saved a penalty from England’s Frank Lampard in another friendly in 2006.

But his Hungary career stalled for three years after an infamous 2-1 defeat to Malta later that year.

His club CV meanwhile was marked by long periods with Hertha Berlin and Crystal Palace.

Now back with Haladas where he started out in 1993, and, thanks to his experience reinstated as first-choice Hungary keeper, Kiraly says outsiders Hungary could cause surprises in France.

“We hadn’t beaten Norway for 33 years, then we beat them twice in four days, you have to think positively,” he said with a smile.

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