And all that could have been…#2: Sergen Yalcin

Talent alone is rarely enough. Football is drenched in tales of disappointment, squandered potential and broken dreams shorn apart by the ravages of injury, indiscipline, expectation and cruel fate. Sadly, it is often those most blessed with the natural capacity to enthral whose careers wither in wilfulness, unable to rein the maverick excesses that paradoxically crown their on-field glories whilst simultaneously charting their indulgent demise. Well here at The Mambo, we’re indiepop kids and as such have a pronounced admiration for the unambitious, an appreciation for the underachiever and note the romance in wistful, nostalgia-tinged accounts of all that could have been. Here, in the second of a semi-regular feature, we salute the man Franz Beckenbauer anointed the ‘Turkish Zidane,’ Sergen Yalcin.

Although hailed in his homeland as the ‘2nd Maradona,’ Turkish playmaker Sergen Yalcin nevertheless remains a semi-obscure footnote in the history of the game that the Argentine so famously illuminated. Sergen may have lacked Maradona’s explosive turn of pace but his flawless technique, vision and capacity for nonchalant left-footed brilliance, combined with a short, stocky frame given to carrying excess weight, at times justified such a lofty comparison. However, for all his well-documented late-career waywardness, Maradona was also fuelled by a ferocious determination to succeed; an all-pervading will to win which translated into a devoted zeal to prove the singularity of his genius, especially when faced by dissenting commentators. Of course, few players could share such drive and sadly, one whose game operated under significantly more phlegmatic conditions was Sergen Yalcin. Instead of becoming his country’s answer to Maradona, Sergen seemed content to be Turkey’s Matt Le Tissier.

True, such status is hardly the most scathing criticism; The Mambo adores  Le Tiss just as fans of Besiktas adore Sergen. Still, the player’s wistful contention that, “if I was 20 again, I would leave Turkey within 3 days,” would appear the words of a man who acknowledges much of his potential went unspent. Quite whether such a move would have helped Sergen’s great natural talent reach fulfilment is debatable, particularly as the only season of his peak years spent outside his native Istanbul was also comfortably his least productive, with a solitary league goal a deeply disappointing return during a loan spell with Trabzonspor. Instead, much of the time Sergen did spend overseas was on unauthorised sojourns to enjoy the casinos of Northern Cyprus. Such pursuits are regrettable for the man current Germany manager Joachim Low, who worked with Sergen at Fenerbahce, has declared would have been the world’s greatest had he taken his profession ‘even a little bit seriously.’

Indeed, the mere fact that despite a career marked by indiscipline and a reckless, wilful waywardness, Sergen remains one of the finest footballers Turkey has produced is testament to his talent. Debuting as a teenager with Besiktas, the classy number 10’s talent was immediately evident yet whilst 46 goals from 158 games, in conjunction with countless assists and moments of show-stopping skill made Sergen a hero to supporters, his rebellious nature continually attracted criticism from the club’s authorities. The tempestuous relationship between player and hierarchy would culminate in a record £150,000 fine which in turn precipitated a £5.5m switch across town to Istanbulspor. Demonstrably a class apart from his colleagues, Sergen began attracting interest from Europe’s elite yet when a move to Serie A failed to materialise, his registration was bought by sports investment company Jet-Pa, who promptly arranged a season-long deal with Fenerbahce, the first of several short-lived stays that would punctuate Sergen’s career.

Sergen’s time at the Sukru Saracoglu was again characterised by conflict, as he took exception to iconic coach Zdenek Zeman’s wish to employ him on the wing. Although 8 goals from just 24 appearances seems superficially to speak of Sergen’s success, claims that his disillusionment manifested itself in deliberately missing a straightforward opportunity as a substitute against Bursaspor ensured his stay would be transitory. In a move which did little to ease suggestions of spite, Fener’s arch-rivals Galatasaray would be the next stop in what was becoming a worryingly nomadic career. Again, Sergen did little wrong on the pitch with his genius sporadically glittering despite an explosive relationship with manager Fatih Terim, who would tire of Sergen’s neglect for training and general unruliness, guaranteeing Galatasaray’s interest would not be pursued.

However, following a listless year with Trabzonspor (a move which saw Sergen compete for each of Turkey’s traditional big 4), the playmaker would return for a second stint with Galatasaray, now managed by Mircea Lucescu. The Romanian insisted that the 2nd Maradona was the only credible candidate to replace the creativity of outgoing idol and compatriot Gheorghe Hagi; the Maradona of the Carpathians. The initial signs were hugely encouraging, with Sergen shining both domestically and in Europe before a serious knee ligament injury curtailed his season, with Lucescu insistent that Champions’ League glory would have reached fruition had his number 10 remained fit. Nonetheless, 7 goals from 18 appearances before being sidelined played a significant role in Galatasaray’s league crown.

The following season Lucescu was tempted across Istanbul to Besiktas and fittingly made Sergen his key signing, thus facilitating a romantic reconciliation between player and the club he loves. Immediately forging a fine understanding with striker Daniel Pancu, another Romanian, Sergen reigned in many of his earlier maverick excesses to become the chief protagonist in another league triumph; his 4th with Besiktas and 6th of his career. Perhaps inevitably, Sergen’s taming was only partial as the great enfant terrible of Turkish football continued to sport a physique not especially conducive to playing professional football and of course, his play retained a gloriously instinctive sedition. There would be no more championships but the wider world was given a sublime glimpse of all that could have been as a 31 year-old Sergen’s classy brace at Stamford Bridge earned Besiktas a richly-deserved 2-0 Champions’ League victory over Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea billionaires.

Internationally, a tally of 37 caps, yielding 5 goals are paltry figures for one blessed with such supernatural gifts. A key member of the side that qualified for Euro 96, Turkey’s first major finals appearance since the World Cup of 1954, Sergen’s skills impressed but his country left the tournament goal-less and point-less. Four years later, the schemer dazzled in a narrow defeat to Italy, with The Guardian eulogising his performances as ‘an intoxicating cocktail of neatly threaded through-balls and passes so visionary they might have been delivered by Mystic Meg.’ Tellingly however, Sergen was benched for Turkey’s following fixture, a decision which provoked the player to publicly castigate coach Mustafa Denizli as ‘not right in the head.’ Unsurprisingly, such candour relegated Turkey’s most naturally talented player largely to a watching brief for the remainder of Euro 2000, as his country were defeated by Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Such showings on the international stage substantially increased the profile of Turkish football but regrettably, the one man most capable of headlining their ascent remained only a peripheral figure. The suspicion remains that Sergen suffered for having emerged at a time when Turkish failed to enjoy the prestige it does today, with Lucescu opining that such an anachronism harmed his progress. The 2002 World Cup would mark the nation’s footballing zenith, as Senol Gunes’ fine side, boasting wonderful technicians in the likes of Tugay Kerimoglu, Hasan Sas and Emre Belozoglu would eventually finish third. Sergen’s poor form with Trabzonspor coupled with a reputation for laziness and inconsistency saw him brandished a ‘luxury’ item which Turkey could ill-afford to carry during qualification until the playmaker’s renaissance under Lucescu forced him back into the reckoning. Lamentably, Sergen’s fitness problems ruled him out of the reckoning for the squad which would sparkle in Japan and South Korea. Given his unpredictability, Sergen’s presence could have served only to unbalance a focused team but his absence from Turkey’s celebration seemed an cruel irony as the man whose talent suffered owing to his nation’s standing was unable to take advantage when the platform did arrive. That said, it is perhaps particularly poignant for the player whose ill-discipline cost him the chance to be considered one of the true greats to be denied the ultimate stage in which to vindicate the talent he had elsewhere failed to fulfil.


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