Gera living late career dream after waking from injury nightmare


It takes courage and determination to recover from a serious injury late in a footballer's career.

Some players unfortunate enough to rupture a cruciate ligament at the age 32 would even consider giving up.

And then there's the worst-case scenario; having laboured through months of rehabilitation and battled with the isolation of being away from your team-mates, every player fears suffering a recurrence of that injury, which is exactly the fate that befall Zoltan Gera.

The midfielder, just months after re-joining West Brom from Fulham, tore the ACL in his left knee in November 2011, keeping him out until the end of the season.

In January 2013 the curse struck again, this time forcing Gera to remain on the sidelines until October that year.

By the time he returned to action he was 34. Weeks after his second comeback, a long-term hamstring problem - an injury commonly associated with ACL recovery - knocked him back out of action for several months.

When Gera's contract expired he returned to his homeland Hungary with former club Ferencvaros, his playing career seemingly destined to fizzle out in a series of cruel physical disappointments.

During that time the thought of not only recovering sufficiently to play regularly but to do so with his country on the big stage, Hungary having been absent from major finals since the 1986 World Cup, must have seemed an impossible dream.

But that is exactly what has been realised by the veteran at Euro 2016, Gera starting every match as Hungary, against all expectations, topped Group F.

And the individual crowning glory arrived on Thursday in Lyon, where the 37-year-old lashed home the first goal of the game from long range as Hungary held powerhouse Portugal in a thrilling 3-3 draw.

"A few years ago I didn't even know if I would [be able to] play for Hungary or any clubs because I had bad injuries but I'm very happy because I have a good club in Hungary, they built me up," Gera said after the game.

"When you can play for your country in a European Championship and you score, playing well - it's a fantastic feeling.

"In Hungary there are lots of people on the streets celebrating the football team."

A competitive showing with little reward was perhaps the extent of many observers' most optimistic predictions for Hungary's performance following their long absence from the highest level of international football.

And while a daunting tie against Belgium awaits in the round of 16, Gera believes his team can approach the knockout stages unburdened by the tag of favouritism that has weighed down Marc Wilmots' talented but disjointed side.

"We know it's going to be difficult for the next game," he said, speaking before Hungary's opponents had been determined.

"The last five, 10 minutes you could see everybody was happy with the point but for us it's great because we topped the group.

"Before the tournament, nobody expected us to get points so we are so happy ... in the next game we can play with freedom. There's no pressure for us."

Gera's goal was one of the best of a memorable game at Stade de Lyon, beating Rui Patricio from outside the area with an exquisite strike to the bottom corner.

Asked to rank the moment among his career highlights, he said: "One of the best, a great feeling to score against a great team [like] Portugal in the Euro so I'm very delighted. I'm not a young boy anymore ... every game is a gift for me so I'm happy."

The journey will continue for Hungary and Gera in Toulouse on Sunday, when one of the tournament's least likely contenders - led by a player with no physiological right to be here - will set out to capture the imagination further.