Rüştü Reçber: the Turkish warrior capable of the brilliant and the baffling

Rüştü Reçber: the Turkish warrior capable of the brilliant and the baffling

THE 2002 WORLD CUP is well remembered for its underdog stories, with the likes of Senegal and South Korea defeating the established order of France, Italy and Spain. Another surprise story were Turkey, who were competing for the first time in 48 years. Amongst their squad was a 29-year-old goalkeeper who, coming into the tournament, had finished runner-up in the Süper Lig with Fenerbahçe, but ended it by being voted the world’s best shot-stopper amid interest from elite European clubs.

The talent of Rüştü Reçber had been identified at an early age by future national team manager Fatih Terim. Then coach of the under-21s, he envisaged a big future for the man from Antalya, hailing him as the next national goalkeeper. Rüştü had started out as a winger at local sides Korkutelispor and Burdurgücü, moving into goal on the recommendation of his youth coach, and in 1991 transferred onto regional giants Antalyaspor.

Despite being third choice, Terim’s recommendation of the youngster to the big three of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, Rüştü’s boyhood club, prompted interest. A move to Beşiktaş was called off after he was injured in a car accident, although in 1993 he signed for Fenerbahçe. Loaned back to Antalyaspor for the 1993/94 season, Rüştü made 31 appearances as they won the second division, and the following year he was back at Fener, albeit as back-up to Engin İpekoğlu.

His chance at Fenerbahçe came in April 1994 following an injury to Engin in a late-season contest with Kayseri Erciyesspor. So impressive were Rüştü’s performances in these four remaining matches that he kept his place in the side the following season, playing 29 league matches as Fener secured their first title in seven years. During this campaign he also received his first disciplinary action, seeing red during a 3-1 loss to Gençlerbirliği. By now, Terim had ascended to the role of national manager, and awarded Rüştü his international debut in October 1994 in a 5-0 win over Iceland.

This was the first indication that Rüştü was not a normal goalkeeper. Unconventional, with his long hair and anti-glare war paint, he was arguably one of the finest exponents of the sweeper-keeper role. Standing at six foot one inch, he was renowned for his commanding presence in the air and lighting quick reflexes, alongside being good at reading penalties. There was, however, an erratic nature, similar to that of Fabien Barthez, with a tendency to embark on ill-judged charges out of the box that sometimes cost his team, alongside the quirk of raising his arm whenever he conceded a goal.

By the summer of 1996, Rüştü had fully displaced Engin in the national setup, playing a big part in getting Turkey through their playoff with Ireland. Despite this, he was fiercely criticised for his performances at the Euros. In the opener against Croatia, he ran to the edge of the area to confront Goran Vlaović, only to dive on the floor as the attacker skipped round him with four minutes left to seal a 1-0 win. He made a similarly comical error in the 3-0 loss to Denmark, with Brian Laudrup this time the player to go past and slot into an empty net. In the end, five goals were conceded as Turkey exited as the tournament’s worst team.

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Things hardly improved four years later in Belgium and Holland, with a poor goal conceded in the opener with Italy. Fine displays against Sweden and Belgium, however, led to qualification, with the latter match featuring two world-class stops from Emile Mpenza. Unfortunately, another poor goal was conceded in the quarter-finals, admittedly aided by poor defending, leading to Turkey’s exit to Portugal.

There were also issues domestically as a Gheorghe Hagi-inspired Galatasaray swept all before them. Captain of the side since 1996, Rüştü was unable to inspire glory, being attacked by a small number of Fenerbahçe fans in 1999 after a 2-1 cup loss to lowly Pendikspor, after which he resigned as skipper. The only season that brought any silverware during this barren period was 2000/01, when Fenerbahçe overtook Galatasaray with three matches left to claim the Süper Lig.

The next season started with another disciplinary incident in a Champions League qualifier against Rangers. The Scottish side’s striker Michael Mols kicked out at Fener midfielder Samuel Johnson, with Rüştü then proceeding to run 50 yards to the centre of the pitch to shove Mols to the ground. While the Dutchman was sent off, Rüştü only received a yellow, much to the fury of the Ibrox crowd. The Turks went on to reach the group stage, although managed to lose all six games.

What happened after this season, however, has come to define his career. Turkey travelled to Japan and South Korea, their first World Cup since 1954, drawn in a group with Brazil, Costa Rica and China. In the opener with Brazil, a poor clearance from Rüştü late on let in Luizão, whose foul by Alpay led to a penalty. Unluckily, the majority of shirt pulling seemed to have taken place outside the box, although Rüştü was unable to do justice in a 2-1 loss. The next game with Costa Rica ended with more drama, this time Rüştü being stranded as Winston Parks smashed home an 86th-minute equaliser.

The final game with China resulted in a comfortable 3-0 victory, although in this Rüştü pulled a hamstring and had to come off. He recovered in time for the knockout stages, with another Asian opponent in the form of Japan disposed of thanks to Ümit Davala’s early header. The quarter-final with Senegal involved a positive contribution, with Rüştü’s quick distribution setting off a counter-attack from which İlhan Mansız scored the golden goal. A frantic semi-final with Brazil followed, and although Turkey succumbed to a 1-0 defeat, a series of fine stops from the likes of Ronaldo and Rivaldo put Rüştü firmly into the spotlight.

To begin with, he was named in the team of the tournament, sharing the gloves with Oliver Kahn. Come the end of the year, he was crowned by IFFHS as the third best goalkeeper in the world, ahead of the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Edwin van der Sar. The pinnacle came by being named in the UEFA team of the year. The first and thus far only Turkish player to ever be nominated, there were rumours linking him with a swathe of interested parties. Despite this, he chose to stay in Turkey, largely due to the reluctance of his wife to move abroad.

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A back injury resulted in a poor start to the 2002/03 season, where by the end Fenerbahçe were 34 points behind Beşiktaş. The expiring nature of Rüştü’s contract, however, made him a hot commodity. Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson both courted the free agent, although he chose Barcelona. This fulfilled an election promise of Joan Laporta, who, following two inspired performances against them in the previous campaign, insisted on signing the maverick Turk.

Whilst relations started amicably, with Frank Rijkaard titling Rüştü “the best goalkeeper in the world”, things quickly deteriorated. Due to his inability to speak Spanish or English, Rijkaard was concerned about defensive miscommunication, instead opting for Victor Valdés to start the season. Rüştü only made seven appearances in his sole season outside Turkey, three in UEFA Cup ties with Puchov and Panionios, and a further four in LaLiga.

He had to wait until December to make his league debut, chosen to start against Espanyol after Valdés was at fault during a 5-1 loss to Málaga. He conceded a cheap header from Jordi Cruyff after eight minutes, was at fault in the next match, a 1-1 draw with Celta Vigo, and then let in three against Racing Santander. Bar an enforced change against Real Betis in April after Valdés was sent off, Rüştü never played for Barça again.

During this troubled time he was still number one for Turkey, and was also chosen by Pelé on the FIFA 100, a list of the 125 greatest living footballers at the time, in 2004. His contribution in two games with England rank up there as his most memorable, and give substance to Pelé’s selection. In the first match in Sunderland, Rüştü made some incredible saves to keep the score down to 2-0. These included a goal-bound David Beckham free-kick, two instinctive stops from Michael Owen and a low shot from Darius Vassell.

In the 0-0 draw in Istanbul, meanwhile, he endured perhaps his most famous moment, facing up to Beckham’s infamously woeful penalty and subsequently goading the England captain. In the same game he also went on a trademark run out of his goal, almost decapitating Kieron Dyer with a wild kung-fu kick, for which he amazingly only receiving a yellow card. In the qualifiers against Latvia, he was chipped by Māris Verpakovskis in the first leg, later receiving another booking which kept him out of the 2-2 draw in Istanbul as his nation were eliminated.

In the summer of 2004 Rüştü returned on loan to Fenerbahçe. It was to be a successful move back, with a third league title secured alongside two unforgettable Champions League ties with Manchester United. The day before the match at Old Trafford he made the bold claim that “Wayne Rooney has no experience at this level, I am not worried about him.” The next evening, the debutant netted a hat-trick in a 6-2 demolition. In the reverse fixture, though, Rüştü was in inspired form as Fener triumphed 3-0.

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Having planned to return to Barça at the conclusion of his loan deal, Txiki Begiristain dismissed this, bluntly stating in an interview, “He will not be staying.” Rüştü again went back to Fenerbahçe, signing permanently, although was to then endure a re-run of the situation experienced a decade earlier with Engin. Coming through the youth ranks at Fenerbahçe was a young goalkeeper by the name of Volkan Demirel, who was preferred for the first half of the season by Christoph Daum, although Rüştü regained his place in January.

He struggled even more for game time the following season, losing his place in mid-October and only making eight league appearances in 2006/07. Faced with a decision regarding his future, that summer Rüştü completed the long overdue move to Beşiktaş. He started out as the undisputed first choice, keeping himself in contention for the Turkey squad travelling to Austria and Switzerland in 2008.

Volkan had also displaced Rüştü in the national setup, but following his push on Jan Koller and resulting red card at the end of a frantic final group match over the Czech Republic, he was suspended for the quarter-final against Croatia. Terim opted for the 35-year-old over Trabzonspor keeper Tolga Zengin, as Rüştü made his first appearance at the tournament.

Understandably he started slowly, but grew into the game, making a flying save from a Darijo Srna free-kick with nine minutes left. In extra time, though, he committed a horrendous error, inexplicably chasing a ball going out of play. Luka Modrić beat him to it and teased a cross in for Ivan Klasnić to nod home, with Rüştü scrambling in vain back to his net.

He seemed to have cost his nation a place in the last four, although a minute later, his long punt upfield fell kindly in the Croatia box for Semih Şentürk to rifle home and send the match to penalties. Croatia’s first two takers, Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, both shot wide, with Rüştü guessing the right way on both occasions. Goals from Arda Turan, Semih and Hamit Altıntop then set it up in Turkey’s favour.

Up steps Hamburg striker Mladen Petrić, who chooses to go right. So does Rüştü. His fine save is followed by a triumphant raising of his arms, and, as he attempts to console the Croatian, the unlikely hero is mobbed by his teammates. Arda perforates the ‘keeper’s eardrum in the ensuing pile on, with the emotion of a second semis in six years tangible.

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Facing Germany on a warm evening in Basel, Rüştü was unfortunately yet again the villain. A dreadful error gifted Miroslav Klose a simple header, after the ‘keeper ran to the penalty spot before missing the ball with his punch. Semih looked to have saved the tie again, only for Philipp Lahm to beat Rüştü at his near post in the last minute to put Germany through to the final.

Following the exit and subsequent retirement from international football came another high point, with Beşiktaş capturing their first double in 19 years. The victory poetically came over Fenerbahçe in a 4-2 win, although Rüştü was on the bench with Hakan Arıkan used as cup goalkeeper. This continued into the 2009/10 season, although Hakan’s poor performances let Rüştü back into the starting line-up once again. His time involved another performance at Old Trafford, in which Rüştü produced an incredible display to help Beşiktaş win 1-0, with two stoppage-time saves from Federico Macheda and Wes Brown prompting the commentator to remark “I could kiss you all over” at full time.

Regardless of this romanticism, the curtain was fast descending on a stellar career. New coach Bernd Schuster favoured youth to experience, bringing in under-21 keeper Cenk Gönen from Denizlispor in the summer of 2010. This restricted Rüştü to 11 league appearances, although he was now the cup goalkeeper and was in between the sticks for the triumphant 4-3 shootout win over İstanbul BB.

Cenk was favoured even more in the 2011/12 season, which turned out to be Rüştü’s last. After a series of injuries restricted him to the role of deputy once again, he fittingly made his final appearance in the championship playoff match at Fenerbahçe. In typical style, he made two unbelievable stops from Cristian, let in a long-range free-kick from Miroslav Stoch, and was booked. Despite offers from elsewhere, upon the expiry of his contract, Rüştü decided to walk away from football.

A one-off international recall in May was organised for a friendly against Finland in late May 2012. Rüştü played 40 minutes before being subbed off to a standing ovation, with his teammates picking him up and carrying him off the pitch in a guard of honour. That was the last of his 120 caps, a record for a Turkish player that looks set to stand for a long time.

Capable of peculiar decisions, positional faults and impossible flying saves all in the same match, Rüştü Reçber was undeniably one of a kind. Whilst his move west ultimately failed, it takes little away from the stellar career of Turkey’s greatest ever goalkeeper.

By James Kelly  

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