Professional football has had several powerhouses since its early days. The great Uruguay side of the 1930s, then came Brazil, West Germany and so forth. Amidst them, in the ’50s there was one other Titan of the game, Hungary. Known for their stylish football, the 1954 World Cup runner up was the first advocate of what we now know as total football. The likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and several other key players made up the ‘Magical Magyars’. Since those glorious days, there have been but a few Hungarians who have managed to make a name for themselves outside their country of birth. One of the most significant of those is former West Bromwich Albion midfielder, Zoltán Gera.
One of Gera’s finest moments came as recent as 2016. The then 37-year-old became the oldest goalscorer at the European Championships when he scored the opener with a terrific half-volley from 25-yards with his weaker foot. It was a goal that you would almost always see from the midfielder in his youthful days, however, it had all the more significance in that 3-3 draw in Lyon, France. The goal would be later voted as the goal of the tournament in an online UEFA fans poll.
Early days in Hungary
Born in the city of Pécs, Hungary, Gera started began his professional career in his home country at Harkány SE. He remained there for one year, before signing for the club of his birth city Pécs Mecsek.
Over the course of a three-year-spell, the young Magyar had impressed scouts enough for major Hungarian side Ferencváros to pick him up on a free transfer. That is where he would his mark as a professional young footballer. At a club which has a tradition of harnessing great talents. Legends like the great Florian Albert, Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and László Kubala are some of the notable former players.
Gera’s spell at Ferencváros would be blessed with silverware. The Hungarian midfielder won several trophies including the Hungarian league title, the Magyar Kupa as well as the Szuperkupa between 2000-2004.
The West Brom switch
A national team call-up happened for him while playing for the Green Eagles, clubs around Europe were starting to take notice. This is when the English Premier League came calling for Gera. He ended up signing for Bryan Robson’s Baggies in 2004, this would turn out to be a key turning point in his career.
Blessed with brilliance in both his feet, Gera hit the ground running in the West Midlands. His first start was against Tottenham Hotspur in a 1-1 draw. Gera’s very first goal came in that match as well, opening the scoring three minutes after the game started. Picking up the ball between centre half and full back and smashing the ball past Paul Robinson, it was a memorable first.
Gera was six feet tall and slightly lanky and was expected to struggle with the pace of the Premier League. However, he proved his doubters wrong with some stellar performances throughout the 2004-05 season. That first goal saw the introduction of his iconic celebration, cartwheeling and back-flipping in joy.
Baggies fans loved Gera and you could see why. The Magyar from Pécs added a different dimension to Robson’s side and was the centrepiece of their attack. “Gera! Gera! Gera!” the fans would scream in joy, the Hungarian was seemingly living the dream. Unfortunately, West Brom was struggling with relegation for the most part of the season.
Second season troubles
It all came down to an anxious and tense final day clash against Portsmouth. In the game, it was Gera’s cross that created the opportunity for substitute Geoff Horsfield to give the home side the lead. A moment of pure relief followed by ecstasy for the Baggies fans at the time. They had escaped relegation on the final day of the season.
The second season was particularly difficult on the Hungarian. The number of games he played in the previous season took a toll on him, which ruled him out of a number of games during the 2005-06 season. A Hernia operation during the season was also a major factor in Gera missing games. Eventually, West Brom‘s troubles got them and they were relegated to the Championship.
However, Gera and the rest of the group at the club was determined to get back to the first division. They did so in the 2007-08 season, however, West Brom’s Hungarian had decided against a contract extension and departed for Fulham in the year 2008.
Gera and Hodgson – Chapter One
One of the main reasons for Gera to join Fulham was the persuasion of Roy Hodgson. The Hungarian was part of a solid group of players that Hodgson had assembled. It was a combination of players from all over Europe as well as English homegrown players. The squad was full of experienced men that Hodgson knew he could count on.
Gera settled in straight away, scoring against Manchester United in a 2-0 win after coming on a substitute. It was a great goal of composure and skill, two hallmarks of Gera’s style of play. A cross from the right from Paul Konchesky reached his feet. Gera then hoisted the ball up in the air with a flick and a scissor kick past Edwin Van Der finished the game for the Cottagers.
The following season would be one to remember for all connected with Fulham. Although the club finished 12th in the league and had an early exit in the FA Cup, they reached the final of the UEFA Europa League.
It was a historic achievement and one that couldn’t have happened had it not been for Gera’s brilliance. The round of 16 clash against Juventus is a memory that stands out for most. After losing 3-1 away in Turin, not many had expected Hodgson’s men to go through. However, Craven Cottage’s atmosphere created an occasion like no other. David Trezeguet opened the scoring for the away side and made it 1-0.
It was 4-1 on aggregate after three minutes, but Gera and his mates had different plans. Konchesky’s cross found Bobby Zamora free inside the box, his half volley was the first of a sensational comeback.
Gera’s moment at the Cottage
Juventus captain Fabio Cannavaro was sent off for a challenge on Gera just outside the penalty area, another memorable incident from the game for several Fulham fans.
The game went on as Fulham looked to grasp the initiative and they did so when a cross from Simon Davies found Gera in the box. The Hungarian smashed the ball into the roof of the net to make it 2-1 as the game neared half-time.
Three minutes into the second half, it was Gera again. This time, converting a penalty after Brazilian Diego handled the ball from a Damien Duff cross.
Fulham completed the comeback in emphatic fashion when Clint Dempsey chipped the ball into the back of the opposition net leaving goalkeeper Alexander Manninger stranded.
It was a glorious night in London and one to remember for Gera. He would go on to score another important goal against Hamburger SV which sent Fulham to the final. Although they ultimately lost the game, plenty of Fulham fans will remember that European campaign for the special moments and performances that Gera produced.
Reunion with Hodgson at West Brom
After an uneventful 2010-11 season, Gera decided to return to the Baggies, thus reuniting with Hodgson. The happy reunion did get off to the best start as he lost his first start of the season against Arsenal, a 3-0 defeat for the Baggies.
In the following game against Tottenham, West Brom lost 3-1, Gera was injured during the game. His injury kept him out for 9 months of that season, at a time when the club could’ve really used his experience and skill in battling for mid-table spots. However, when Gera returned he made sure that all of West Midlands heard about it.
West Brom’s Magical Magyar returned in a fixture against Hodgson’s old side Liverpool and opened the scoring in emphatic fashion. A corner for the home side was deflected away by the Liverpool defence and the ball fell at the feet of Gera, who then smashed a volley from all of 25 yards out to give Hodgson’s men the lead. Even at the twilight of his career, Gera was at the centre of his team’s display on an important day.
The game ended in a 3-0 victory for the home side, it was a moment to savour for Gera who would then remain injured for the rest of the season. Despite signing a new contract with the club, the Hungarian would return to his homeland in 2014. In doing so, he thus closed the chapter on a memorable decade in England.
Return to Ferencváros and highs with Hungary
Life had come full circle for Gera when he returned to Hungary in 2014 at Ferenc. The then 37-year-old helped his side to league title in 2016 as well as scoring the winning goal in the Magyar Kupa Final. The winning goal was all the more special because it had come against archrivals Újpest FC.
2016 was a particularly great year for Gera at club level as well as with Hungary. At Euro 2016, the Hungarian national side were drawn in a group with eventual winners Portugal, Iceland and Austria.
Hungary’s unbeaten group stage campaign saw them top the group with five points. The 3-3 draw against Portugal was a historic result for the Magyars. Gera was the vice-captain for the national team at the time and was at the centre of attention in that draw thanks to his unforgettable goal.
It felt like a classic Gera moment when the ball landed up towards him after a corner. The Portuguese defence did not clear well and the ball landed up near Gera. He then chested the ball for control and struck a clean volley from 25-yards out past Rui Patrício in goal. It was like he had turned back the clocks and Hungarian fans witnessed their veteran star seize the moment with the same energy as he did when he was 21.
Even though the Magyars exited the Euros after a 4-0 defeat against Belgium, it was a memorable year for Hungarian football.
Gera continued to play for Ferenc and eventually announced his impending retirement in 2018. Thus closing the curtains on a career that had seen the highs and lows of professional football.
Of all the things that can be said about him, Gera will always remain the Magical Magyar of modern Hungary.