Zoltan Gera – The Gangster Who Put Hungarian Football Back On The Map
In the sixth article on a handful of cult Eastern European players who captured the imagination of a generation, Andy Edgeworth looks at Zoltan Gera.
Ask a Fulham fan who the best free-transfer they ever signed was and they will be hard pushed to find anybody better than Zoltan Gera. If you asked a West Brom fan about the best £1.5m they ever spent you would probably get the same reply.
There was a complete lack of expectation among the baggies faithful when the unknown Hungarian arrived at the Hawthorns in the summer of 2004. In the first half of his debut season, the skinny man with the awkward gait did little to help improve the fans perception.
Yet, as the season wore on Gera began to get to grips with the English game. Sitting in what is now referred to as the Number 10 position, Gera forged a role for himself, using his excellent technical ability to great effect. He scored six goals as he led WBA to safety.
An injury hit second season saw the baggies relegated and after helping them get promoted at the first time of asking he left for Fulham on a free transfer.
There he would go on to score some big goals for the cottagers, including an overhead kick against Manchester United that fans still talk about regularly.
He sent three successful seasons in London which included a run to the Europa League final before returning to West Brom on a free transfer for a third spell in 2011.
Never a prolific scorer he seemed to save his goals for big games and they were more often than not crackers.
He became an integral part of Hungary’s international revival and at Euro 2016 his stunning volley against Portugal was voted goal of the tournament.
But it was not always so easy for Gera. As a young footballer growing up in Hungary he got mixed up with the wrong crowd and by his own admission his life was one of drink, drugs and violence.
"It is true," he said. "I am so lucky not to be in jail for doing bad things. Or even worse, dead."
Doctors told Gera his lifestyle had affected his career and he often complained of being in pain after training and said he was too thin. But despite the prognosis Gera proved everybody wrong and has gone on to win 97 caps for Hungary – and he isn’t finished.
Still playing aged 38 back at Ferencváros, Gera is now a God-fearing man and puts his turnaround in life down to his faith.
"I'm a Christian and I believe God gives me lots of energy," said Gera. "But of course, you also need to work hard. You need to do your best at your job and it will pay off.
"I was a bad boy but I changed. That's why I want to be a good example. It doesn't matter how old you are, you can turn your life to the good way. It doesn't matter where you have been before, you can still play in a football final."
Whenever he finally does hang up his boots, Gera will go down as a legend in his homeland and will be fondly remembered in England too.