Occasionally, a player comes along whose talent is paradoxically matched by their worldwide under-appreciation. A player who mesmerises opposition fans and leaves them wondering what would be possible if he played for their team. These players are rare; they’re the stars we know all about but often overlook when picking our favourite players from around the globe.
One such player is Barcelona’s Arda Turan – a man who looks like he’d be more suited to a Spartan battlefield than the Camp Nou. The Turkish international had been a revelation for Atlético Madrid since moving from Galatasaray for the bargain fee of £10 million and is widely regarded as one of La Liga’s most influential, gifted and effective players.
It wasn’t always this rosy, however. Joining Galatasaray at the age of 13 in July 2000, the diminutive youngster struggled to cope with the rigours of daily football, not least the speed and strength required for the game. Arda was the shortest player in the ’87 age group, and it showed in his early performances. Bigger, more experienced players in the league were unaccommodating towards a player who had all the tricks but lacked effectiveness.
His academic record was far from exemplary too. In his early teens he struggled in school and was often found on the wrong end of visits to the school headmaster. It was these disciplinary issues that almost cost the Istanbul-born midfielder his place in the Aslan’s academy.
Change was needed and his religious faith – a factor which he now attributes to his success in Spain – was born.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Gheorghe Hagi, the man many would subsequently believe Arda could emulate in Turkey, was to give a slight 17-year-old his debut against Bursaspor in a Turkish Cup game. Turkish football fans, notably from Galatasaray, have always paid particular attention to the next generation of national stars. Turan was talked about in the stands of the Ali Sami Yen stadium for almost a year prior to his debut.
It wasn’t long before the boyhood Gala fan soon broke into the first team. A loan spell at Manisaspor confirmed that he was ready for Turkish Süper Lig. By now, the coaching staff at the Gündüz Kılıç youth facilities in Florya had worked tirelessly with Arda to improve his balance and speed. It is these modern training regimes that are so abundantly evident in his refined game today.
The sharper, quicker Turan established himself as a first team regular in the 2006-07 season, going on to win his first Turkey cap and helping the club qualify for the Champions League.
Prior to the star of the 2009 season, just three years after establishing himself as chief creator, Turan was appointed captain of the side. At 22, he was also handed the number 10 shirt; previously worn by Gala’s greatest goalscorer, Metin Oktay, and perhaps the club’s most gifted footballer, Hagi – ironically the man who handed Turan his debut.
Injuries were to disrupt the final year of the attacking midfielder’s stay at his hometown club. After registering an impressive 14 assists – many of which were audacious, delicate passes – 2011 saw the playmaker decide that his future lay elsewhere.
Linked with just about every major club in Europe since his debut in Turkey’s top flight, many thought his next destination would be Liverpool. Turan stoked the fires when he remarked: “I want to play in major leagues and my dream team is Liverpool. As I always mention, Liverpool attracts me because of their tradition. In Europe, I am a Liverpool supporter, so if I go to play in Europe, I would like to play for them.”
The precarious financial trouble at the Anfield club all but ensured any move to the Premier League would have to wait. Fiorentina, Lyon, Ajax and Bayern Munich all came close to signing the Turk before he finally opted for the forthcoming revolution at Atlético Madrid.
He was to become the poster boy for change at the Spanish club and would forge one of the most efficient and underrated partnerships in La Liga with Falcao and later Diego Costa. Barcelona aside, no combination of players made more interchanges than Costa and Turan in Atleti’s title-winning campaign. Costa himself reserved special praise for his former team-mate, telling Marca: “He’s the best player technically to play behind me. He has vision and speed of thought and the skill to make the pass.”
The early troubles of Arda have contributed heavily to the man he is today. Deeply religious and professional, his intimate relationship between football and religion has elevated his game to new levels. The Turkey international, who is approaching a century of caps, claims that Islam has helped him find peace on a football pitch and that it offers him the freedom to play his game without fear: “When you realise that some things are bigger than football, bigger than even your family, then you know your life is dedicated to that. Football is something I enjoy, but God is love.”
This liberated and expressive freedom is what makes Arda so graceful and effortless on the pitch. His ability to glide past defenders gave him the second highest dribble success rate in La Liga two seasons ago, just beaten to the post by Lionel Messi. Nothing to baulk at when Arda himself claims Messi is the world’s best player.
Aside from his technical grace, intelligence is another factor that separates Turan from his peers. He frequently drifts around the pitch, always attempting to provide the best option for his team-mates. The speed of turn and sharp accelerations – homage to his early training rigours – allowed him to initiate attacks at pace and set the likes of Antoine Griezmann, and previously Falcao and Costa into goal.
Diego Simeone is unsurprisingly an admirer. It would take an article in itself to cover all the superlatives the Argentine has proclaimed when it comes to Turan – therefore his departure was a bitter pill to swallow, despite the high-profile arrivals at Vicente Calderón.
Some argue that his stats don’t even reflect his true value, and it’s hard not to agree. Turan is often the middle man, linking play before setting a team-mate through on goal, or spreading play to allow maximum time and space for those around him. He’s just a player you have to watch weekly to legitimately appreciate. And appreciate you will.
It’s been a long road for the Turkish international, an arduous one too. Arda’s story of discipline and faith is a timely reminder for all young players that obstacles will arise in the game, no matter what your level. The key is finding solutions to overcome them.
Even without the extra strength and agility training that he conducted at Galatasaray, it’s likely Turan would’ve turned pro anyway. He was still a supremely gifted technically and a wonderful exponent of the final pass with his vision and speed of thought. But would he have become captain aged 22? Would he have become the most expensive Turkish footballer ever? Perhaps not.
After his move to Barcelona, it appears that one more challenge awaits in Spain before he will inevitably head back to Turkey. A century of national caps are inevitable for a player who can mix it with the very best but remains largely confined to the second band of Europe’s best footballers.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem