The maverick talent of Ibrahim Yattara, one of Turkish football’s best-kept secrets

The maverick talent of Ibrahim Yattara, one of Turkish football’s best-kept secrets

Unless you have watched the Turkish Süper Lig to any great extent, you simply won’t know who Ibrahim Yattara is. His time in Europe was spent solely in Belgium and Turkey, and he never made it to a World Cup. Imagining your surprise when a man who grew in North Wales such as myself tells you this Guinean is his favourite footballer of all time. Let me explain.

I vividly remember returning home from school on 29 September 2006, the release day of FIFA 07, to load the game and discover EA Sports had added the Süper Lig. Flicking through the unknown teams who would eventually form the basis of my university dissertation was one that stood out. Trabzonspor had just signed another one of my favourite players in Marcelinho Paraíba and naturally were the team I wanted to be.

Alongside the Brazilian, who in reality would last a mere six months before returning to Germany with Wolfsburg, was a 79 rated right winger with bleach blonde hair. For some unexplainable reason, nine-year-old me suddenly wanted to know everything about Ibrahim Yattara. YouTube back then was not what it is today, but I still found enough compilations and highlights to satisfy my intrigue.

Just why was this flip-flapping, pacey, dribbling extraordinaire playing his football in Turkey for a club who at this stage I knew absolutely bugger all about? With his tricks and almost constant smile, he seemed like the Guinean equivalent of Ronaldinho. Former Spain coach Luis Aragonés once said the same thing: “The ball sticks to his foot, he accelerates forward like an athlete. His style is highly technical and smart; I liken him to Ronaldinho.”

Yattara’s story began on 3 June 1980 some 255km up the coast from the Guinean capital Conakry in the port city of Kamsar. In 2001 he moved to Europe to sign for Antwerp, although his first 12 months were hampered by injury. Upon recovering, his talent would shine through, and by the end of the 2002/03 season, Yattara was regarded as one of the most promising young players in Belgium.

That summer he was subject of a bid from Chelsea, although the deal was scuppered after he failed to obtain a work permit. Yattara would then join Trabzonspor through sheer coincidence. Club president Özkan Sümer had travelled to Belgium to watch another player but was so impressed with the Guinean he paid €300,000 to sign him. Little did Yattara know this decision would change his life.

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His debut against Konyaspor was a fine marker of what was to come. Down by two goals within the first 11 minutes, Yattara would supply two crosses from the right to draw Trabzonspor level. He then got on the end of Emrah Eren’s delivery to put his new team into the lead, dancing in front of Konyaspor fans throwing projectiles before being sent off for provocation.

His first goal at home came in a November 2003 defeat of Bursaspor, as Yattara squeezed in from a narrow angle. A month later he scored the winner against Galatasaray, twisting Orhan Ak inside out before placing beyond Faryd Mondragón. Forming a potent attacking trio with academy graduates Fatih Tekke and Gökdeniz Karadeniz, it appeared Trabzonspor had unearthed a diamond.

The club sadly finished second behind Fenerbahçe in that year’s Süper Lig, although it was still an immensely successful debut season for Yattara, who recorded a league-best 14 assists. Glory was tasted in the Türkiye Kupası as Gençlerbirliği were swept aside in the final to hand Yattara his first silverware.

Having starred in Champions League qualifiers against Skonto Riga and Dynamo Kyiv, the latter which Trabzonspor lost, Yattara continued to bedazzle. Süper Lig opening days appeared to be his favourite time of the year, as like a spring coiled with perpetual pre-season energy, the Guinean was released.

On the receiving end this time, with two goals in a 3-0 demolition, were Kayserispor. The first effort saw three defenders held off before Yattara sealed the victory by beating Osman Özköylu one-on-one and shooting underneath Metin Aktas. His performance was such that after the game, Osman, who was only making his debut, announced: “I am now 34 years old, after not being able to compete against Yattara’s dribbles, I have decided to retire from football.”

He was one of the lucky ones. October 2004 brought a 4-1 win over Diyarbakırspor whereby Yattara scored another brace whilst grabbing an assist for Hüseyin Çimşir. In December 2004 he was involved in three goals in a 5-1 triumph over Antalyaspor, matching this a month later in a 3-0 win over Malatyaspor. Into May and a 5-0 win over İstanbulspor on the final day would witness another two assists from Yattara. He would also score, being put through performing a reverse stepover and nutmegging the goalkeeper.

At the end of the season, Trabzonspor would finish runners-up to Fenerbahçe again, although not without Yattara trying. The Guinean ended the season with ten goals, 20 assists, and an ever-rising stock on his head. Despite links with Istanbul’s big three and European giants such as Ajax, Paris Saint-Germain and Roma, Yattara remained loyal to Trabzonspor.

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It is such an attitude that endeared him to fans in the Black Sea. Many foreign stars come and go. Few, however, profess their love of Akçaabat meatballs and anchovies, celebrate goals with the local Kolbastı dance, and take on the name İbrahim Üçüncü as part of citizenship. As Yattara later reflected, “I was very happy playing for Trabzonspor. I was playing, I was making money. Trabzonspor trusted me, I trusted myself. Why would I want to go to another team?”

This does somewhat simply things, however. Yattara’s carefree attitude and questionable interpretation of time made him a target for several managers and club officials. One notable example came at the start of the 2005/06 season, when he was sent off in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier in a shock 3-1 loss to Cypriot minnows Anorthosis. In response, president Atay Aktuğ told press Yattara had to account for this or face the sack.

Laying down such a marker was bound to produce results. Having already assisted Mirosław Szymkowiak on the opening day of the 2005/06 season, the favour was quickly returned. The Guinean ran through, knocked beyond the advancing Metin and nonchalantly rolled into the empty goal on the other side. Two weeks later he scored a similar goal against Ankaragücü, prompting the aforementioned praise from Aragonés.

Playing with such a panache that crowds in Turkey rarely see, journalist Haşmet Babaoğlu once remarked, “What other wingers from the big three can do during the length of the game, Yattara is capable of doing in 15 minutes. Sometimes, other players cannot even perform those tricks.” In November 2005 this was again on display against Rizespor, as he ran through and went around Zdravko Zdravkov to score with the ball practically out of play.

Through this season Yattara continued to lay on assists, with 13 across in total. The highlight of these came in a 2-1 win against Ankaragücü in early February 2006. Again, Yattara feinted to beat the goalkeeper at the tightest of angles on the byline, sitting down two defenders and somehow pulling back into the box for Fatih Tekke to score.

Going into the 2006/07 season, Yattara would score a last-minute free-kick away at APOEL in the UEFA Cup qualifying round to atone for the previous season’s Cypriot disaster. Not fully fit, however, he would fail to play the full 90 in any of the first four games of the season after returning late for pre-season. Despite missing three months of the campaign, it is no coincidence that when Yattara returned to the team in January 2007 Trabzonspor were 15th, but by the end of the season had risen to fourth.

The 2007/08 campaign would begin with further problems. Coach Ziya Doğan continued to clash with Yattara over his fitness, accusing him of “betraying his teammates” and “losing his soul”. In October 2007, Ziya would be sacked, seeing Yattara contribute 13 assists and five goals across the season. The pick of these was the winner in a 2-1 win over Bursaspor in February 2008, as he brought down a header under pressure from three defenders to half-volley into the top corner.

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In the summer of 2008 he signed a new contract with Trabzonspor, although this didn’t put off suitors. In January 2009, both Chelsea and Real Madrid were keen on him. None other than Roberto Carlos recommended Yattara to the Spaniards, who bizarrely chose to sign Julien Faubert instead. Meanwhile, Chelsea opted for the bigger name of Ricardo Quaresma.

Whilst such links may have been mere hearsay, they certainly weren’t beyond Yattara’s ability. One only has to look at his goal against Gençlerbirliği in April 2009 for proof. Running from the halfway line, he slaloms inside to beat two defenders, before holding off two others and letting fly from 25 yards. By this stage, Yattara was approaching 30, and a bad ankle injury restricted him to just 156 minutes of football in the 2009/10 season.

The final chapter would come during the following campaign and should have ended in a fitting farewell. The stunning goals, such as a deft chip in a 3-2 win over Fenerbahçe and curling free-kick versus Sivasspor were there. Sadly, the tangibility of trophies was not.

Trabzonspor were nine points ahead of Fener at the halfway stage, although their rivals went on to win all but one game in the second half of the season. They were later found guilty of match-fixing, but were allowed to keep their title. Records show Trabzonspor’s last championship as coming in 1984, however few in the city agree with that.

Despite there being no crowning departure, Yattara left the club after eight years with tears in his eyes at the airport. After 12 months in Saudi Arabia he would return to Turkey with Mersin, although only appeared five times before torn knee ligaments ended his season. He would subsequently bring down his career in the Belgian lower divisions, retiring in 2015.

A fluent Turkish speaker, Yattara has since returned to his adopted homeland. In 2016 he starred on reality TV show Survivor, whilst earlier this year he became assistant to Fatih Tekke at İstanbulspor. He has regularly been linked with a return to his old employers on the Black Sea, where he would be welcomed with open arms.

Alongside local legends from Trabzonspor’s glory years of the 1970s stands a Guinean man who won the hearts of a city. Outside Turkey, the maverick talent of Ibrahim Yattara remains a well-kept secret. Hopefully this now grown-up nine-year-old has intrigued you sufficiently that you too make your way onto YouTube.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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