Sergen Yalçın: the man who could’ve been the world’s best

Sergen Yalçın: the man who could’ve been the world’s best

MUNICH, 9 OCTOBER 1999: Germany are playing Turkey in a European Championship qualifier. During the first half, a routine corner is cleared by the visiting defence, and the ball is picked up by the Turkish number 10. The small, stocky figure takes the dropping ball in his stride and advances on the German goal. In his way stands the great Lothar Matthäus, but without so much as breaking out of a jog, the attacker simply knocks the ball around him, gliding past to retrieve it on the other side.

Bearing down on goal, the resulting shot is saved by Oliver Kahn, but the 63,000 people inside the Olympiastadion are awestruck by what they have just witnessed. Had things worked out then this player would have turned out regularly alongside Matthäus and Kahn in that very stadium for Bayern Munich. Current Bundestrainer Joachim Löw stated in 2007 had he taken his football seriously, this man would have been the world’s best player. Unfortunately, the name Ali Rıza Sergen Yalçın is one still largely unrecognised.

Born in Istanbul on 5 October 1972 and known, as is customary in his homeland, by the mononym Sergen, he joined Beşiktaş in 1982 and quickly proceeded to display mercurial talent. Debuting in the opening match of the 1991/92 season as a late substitute against Gençlerbirliği, he went on to feature 18 times that campaign prior to taking a more central role the following season, which involved losing the title to Galatasaray on goal difference.

In the summer of 1993 he was selected as part of the Turkey squad for the Mediterranean Games, where his nation won gold. Also present at the tournament was a young Zinedine Zidane, which was particularly significant as it was to he whom Sergen was compared throughout his career. Former Beşiktaş teammate Daniel Pancu once claimed he could have lined up against the Frenchman for Barcelona and not looked out of place, whilst Vicente del Bosque called him an extraordinary footballer good enough to play for Real Madrid.

Sergen operated primarily as what would today be classified a roaming number 10, blending a visionary passing range with mazy dribbling and dead ball accuracy courtesy of a ferocious left foot. So accurate was his distribution, The Guardian once described him as being able to hit an ashtray from 60 yards.

Despite his small stature he was remarkably strong on the ball, also possessing a surprisingly quick turn of pace. Indeed, this technical ability was so great that former UEFA President Lennart Johansson once said he had the skill to play for any team in Europe.

During his first spell with Beşiktaş he consistently excelled, with at least eight goals per season between 1993 and 1997. He was partly responsible for two league triumphs, in 1992 and 1995, alongside victory in the 1994 Turkish Cup. For all this sheer brilliance, however, there was a darker side, with Sergen living an egocentric life featuring partying, sex and a heavy gambling addiction. Blamed partly on his bookmaker father Özer, the latter reached such an excessive level that Sergen once told a reporter he’d choose perusing a betting slip to having sex.

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It was to be this playboy mentality which led to his departure from Beşiktaş. After a 4-1 defeat to Samsunspor in March 1997, club director Uğur Ekşioğlu publicly criticised the player for his lavish lifestyle. In response, Sergen refused to play or turn up for training, stating that the official should try wearing the number 10 shirt and playing in the Beşiktaş midfield. “I’m 60 years old, I can’t wear the team strip but there are many others who can,” Uğur responded whilst imposing a club record fine of £150,000 on the midfielder.

Following a brief reconciliation, Sergen was sold in the summer of 1997 to the once-powerful İstanbulspor, for a Turkish record of £4.5 million, after demanding improved terms on his contract. In his absence, Beşiktaş finished sixth, their lowest place for 18 years, and on his return, Sergen proceeded to stick his middle finger up towards his once adoring fans.

The financial clout of İstanbulspor meant with other internationals such as Aykut Kocaman and Oğuz Çetin in the side they ended in fourth, their highest ever position, and qualified for Europe. It was also a personally successful season for Sergen, who recorded 11 goals in 32 domestic games.

The stay at İstanbulspor was to be brief, however, as in the autumn of 1998, Cem Uzan announced his decision to withdraw financial support from the club due to what he perceived to be slow progress. As one of the highest earners, Sergen’s contract was cancelled in late January, with his next move in retrospect typifying his career. Rather than moving abroad or to one of Turkey’s big clubs, he was signed by second division JetPA Siirtspor, a club he would never make an appearance for.

The following day he was loaned to Fenerbahçe, although having not played for over two months, initially struggled with another of his demons – weight. This came about through a combination of his frivolous personal life and feelings towards training, being once quoted as saying, “I’m talented, therefore I do not need to train.” Having got himself fit, though, these words rang true in the second half of the season as he registered seven goals and was re-signed for the following campaign.

Another clash of personalities was on the cards, with Sergen disagreeing with the attempts of new coach Zdenĕk Zeman to play him on the wing. Angry at the Czech, in protest he faked an injury to avoid training, resulting in another weight gain. The final straw came during a match against Bursaspor in mid-December when it’s widely believed he intentionally missed an open goal, and just a week later, the loan was terminated.

As part of the contract with Siirtspor he could not directly sign for another Turkish side without first moving abroad. He signed a one-day contract with Macedonian champions Sloga Jugomagnat, following which he crossed the divide to Galatasaray. During the second half of the season, Sergen contributed massively as Gala won a league and cup double, finishing the season as the league’s top assister. Alongside this, he played his way back into the national side, and with the Turkish state ban on casinos in 1998 easing his gambling habits it seemed Sergen was finally coming of age.

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Despite his form, Mustafa Denizli was fiercely criticised by the media for recalling a player whose attitude was viewed as a detriment to qualification hopes. These fears were compounded by a national longing to qualify and erase memories of the embarrassment of Euro 96, where Turkey finished pointless.

Sergen answered his critics, however, as he assumed responsibility in helping Turkey qualify for Euro 2000, playing a starring role in a 1-0 win over Germany, a 3-0 victory against Northern Ireland, and the overturning of a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 in Finland to finish runners-up in qualifying Group Three.

Despite this Turkey were still viewed as underdogs going into their playoff with the Republic of Ireland, due to the perceived quality of Ireland captain Roy Keane. Sergen ensured, however, that it was he who ran the show, with the Irish Examiner commenting after the game, “Keane looked like someone who arrived at the podium to pick up an MTV award only to see someone else making off with it”, with Turkey going on to qualify on away goals.

One of the main criticisms levelled at Sergen throughout his career was he only showed glimpses of this enormous ability, often allowing big matches to pass him by. At the tournament itself, Turkey opened with an unfortunate 2-1 defeat to eventual finalists Italy. He provided the assist for Okan Buruk from a free-kick, whilst his overall contribution was labelled “immense” by Guardian writer Ian Ross, who enthused at the “intoxicating cocktail of neatly threaded through-balls and passes so visionary they might have been delivered by Mystic Meg”.

This was to be the highlight of a tournament which perfectly epitomises the career of Sergen Yalçın. He was benched for the next match against Sweden and didn’t even feature against Belgium. In the quarter-final loss to Portugal, he again made no more than a cameo appearance from the bench, something which predictably he wasn’t too happy about. Speaking with Corriere Dello Sport afterwards, he lamented Denizli: “He’s got problems, he’s not all there in the head. Don’t ask me why I didn’t play, ask him.”

Despite these mere glimpses on the big stage, that summer enquiries were fielded from both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Naturally, this proved what everyone already knew – that he was technically superb – although unfortunately both were put off by the circus that surrounded him. Bobby Robson, meanwhile, had a £4 million deal in place to bring him to Newcastle, but Sergen chose to stay in Turkey. Despite the European interest and impressive performances, he was not retained by Galatasaray due to a deterioration in his relationship with the board.

His next move was another milestone as by joining Trabzonspor, again on loan from Siirtspor, he became the first player to play for all of Turkey’s big four. It was thought by leaving Istanbul Sergen might settle down, but he scored just once in a season hampered by injury. Trabzonspor finished fifth, and following the conclusion of the season, he was summoned to testify in court at the trial of fraudster Sedat Peker.

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Running out of options, Mircea Lucescu decided to throw a lifeline to the player he believes to be the greatest talent he has ever seen, bringing Sergen back to Galatasaray. The Romanian’s faith was rewarded with seven goals as the Lions claimed another league title. He also contributed in the Champions League, scoring in wins over PSV and Nantes to help with progression to the second group phase.

Lucescu went so far as to claim had Sergen not torn his knee ligaments against Malatyaspor in February, then Gala would have won the tournament. Due to this injury Sergen was unfortunately overlooked for the historic 2002 World Cup squad – Turkey’s first appearance in the finals since 1954 – with his country memorably finishing in third place in his absence.

At the end of the 2001/02 season, his contract with Siirtspor was ended and he followed Lucescu back home to Beşiktaş. A personal landmark of 11 league goals helped secure the title on BJK’s 100th anniversary, with Sergen himself scoring the goal to clinch the title.

In the final moments of the penultimate match of the season, an effective title showdown against Galatasaray, he received the ball on the halfway line. Leading the counter attack, he powered forward on a trademark run before playing a one-two with Tümer Metin and slotting past a helpless Faryd Mondragón.

The following season yielded another glimpse of his talents for a broader audience, as he scored both goals at Stamford Bridge in a 2-0 win over Chelsea. The first loss of the Roman Abramovich era involved questionable defending for both goals, but nothing should be taken away from the starring role of Sergen. As usual, though, things were not straightforward, with the player staking £5,000 on himself to score twice and winning £35,000 as a result.

Sergen’s performances had done enough to convince Şenol Güneş he was deserving of another recall to the Turkey squad, almost two years after his previous appearance. In October 2003 he picked up the last of his 61 caps in a forgettable goalless draw with England, again staking money but this time losing the £15,000 he’d placed on a Turkish win. Another injury prevented him featuring in the playoff against Latvia, where the Turks were humiliated in a 3-2 aggregate loss.

Shock ensued amongst fans in the summer of 2006 when it was announced Jean Tigana had decided to release Sergen on the expiration of his contract. His reasoning was age, with Tigana choosing to replace him with Basel’s Argentine playmaker Matías Delgado. In truth, it did seem an odd decision, with Sergen having recorded another seven league goals, including a brace to earn a point away at Fenerbahçe, as well as helping the side to victory in the Turkish Cup.

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At the age of 33 and with his size ballooning, one could cynically argue the final two teams of his career were little more than final paydays. A move to third-tier Etimesgut Şekerspor, recently purchased by a wealthy construction company, followed his release and the low standard resulted in 13 goals in 23 appearances.

The following season he moved up to the 1. Lig with Eskirşehirspor and in his final fling on the pitch assisted their promotion to the Süper Lig, although he didn’t join them in the top division. Following the conclusion of that deal, Turkey’s enfant terrible announced his retirement aged 35.

Another return to Beşiktaş followed shortly after, this time as the under-15 assistant coach. Given the unmatched rollercoaster of his career, there was perhaps no better candidate to teach youngsters right from wrong in the minefield that is football. Following a move up to Beşiktaş’ reserve team in 2009, there were then several, ultimately unsuccessful, stints as head coach in the Süper Lig with Gaziantepspor and Sivasspor.

The most recently failed spell came last season with Kayserispor, and again followed the now all too familiar pattern of his life. Starting superbly with a 4-1 win over Fenerbahçe and quickly following this with a 2-1 win at Galatasaray, it seemed his efforts to produce the spectacular might finally reap reward. All too soon, though, came a five-match losing streak, and Sergen tendered his resignation.

Earlier this summer he was appointed head coach of his final club, Eskirşehirspor, and tasked with leading another charge to the Süper Lig following their playoff final loss to Göztepe last term. 

What he does leave, however, is a legacy of what might have been. He is barely mentioned in debates over the greatest Turkish footballer of all time, let alone anything greater. Thanks to his lack of professionalism and refusal to move abroad, the name of Sergen Yalçın is barely known outside his homeland.

In hindsight would he have done things differently? Perhaps it’s only fitting to leave the final word on that matter to the man himself: “If I was 20 again, I’d leave Turkey within three days.”

By James Kelly @jkell403

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