Euro 2016: Hakan Calhanoglu: the free-kick specialist who wants to be Turkey’s Mesut Özil

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - OCTOBER 10: Hakan Calhanoglu of Turkey celebrates his goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group A Qualifier match between Czech Republic and Turkey at Letna Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2016 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for France. is running previews from three countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 10 June.

Turkey are not short on larger than life characters but the story of Hakan Calhanoglu (pronounced Chal-han-or-luh) stands apart from the rest. He was caught up in an altercation that almost split the national side apart, nearly missed the tournament after being accused of taking a bung and is widely regarded as one of the best free-kick takers in world football.

The footballing annals are full of rising stars tipped as being the next Maradona, Pelé or Cruyff who never quite lived up to their billing. Being compared to one of the greats as a young player is often a curse in disguise. Things were a little different with Calhanoglu, now 22. The free-kick maestro decided to self-impose pressure by laying claim to being Turkey’s version of a player who had chosen Germany ahead of the country of his heritage.

“It’s thanks to the Germans that I became a footballer,” he told the Milliyet newspaper in 2012 regarding his decision to play for the Crescent Stars. “But playing for the Turkish national team is an honour. I want to be Turkey’s Mesut Özil.” Like Özil he was born in Germany into a family of Turkish origin. Unlike Özil he decided to play for Turkey despite having the talent to represent Die Mannschaft.

Calhanoglu was snapped up by Karlsruhe aged 15 and rose through the youth ranks before being promoted to the senior side towards the end of the 2011-12 season. The Mannheim-born youngster made a series of impressive performances but was unable to prevent Karlsruhe dropping into the third tier.

It was around this time that he started attracting interest from Turkey, in particular Trabzonspor – his family originate from Bayburt in the Trabzon district. The Black Sea-based side claim that Calhanoglu and his agent took a payment of €100,000 each from the club when he was 17 to sign a professional contract and that if he signed for another club he would have to pay €1m. The player and agent deny the claims but the Super Lig side filed a complaint to Fifa in 2013 that Calhanoglu had broken the terms of their agreement as he never ended up signing for Trabzonspor. It is a row that rumbles on.

Karlshruhe’s president, Ingo Wellenreuther, denied any negotiations over Calhanoglu’s transfer ever took place. “Fifa has stated that the contracts of Karlsruhe and Hakan Calhanoglu were all legal,” Wellenreuther said. “There were no negotiations between Karlsruhe and Trabzonspor for a transfer because at no time was there an approach from Trabzonspor.”

His current club, Bayer Leverkusen, meanwhile, released a statement confirming that they are currently in a legal dispute with Fifa regarding Trabzonspor’s accusations. Calhanoglu denies doing anything wrong and there were fears that he would miss Euro 2016 but Fifa ruled that he will be able to play while the investigation continues.

Hamburg ended up signing Calhanoglu for €2.5m in 2012 and he started to make a name for himself, scoring several outrageous free-kicks. Calhanoglu had already established himself as a set-piece specialist, scoring seven goals directly from free-kicks the previous season. It was his spectacular 50-yard effort in the 3-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund in 2014, however, that put his talent on the map – and it is still doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. Bayer Leverkusen snapped him up for €14.5m in 2014 and he has gone on to score 11 direct free-kick goals in the Bundesliga alone.

At 22 he has become a key figure in the Turkey side; he takes just about all the corners and free-kicks but he has a lot more to his game. Calhanoglu has a passing range capable of causing most defences problems and a dangerous shot from open play. Yet his international career almost ended prematurely.

His team-mate Gokhan Tore came close to ripping the Turkey team apart when a love story almost ended in a Shakespearian tragedy. In May 2013, after Turkey’s loss against Holland in their final 2014 World Cup qualifier, Bayer’s Omer Toprak, a friend and Calhanoglu were at the national team hotel before their flight back to Germany the following morning.

What happened next is staggering. Tore had allegedly been stewing over Toprak’s friend making advances towards his girlfriend. He was determined to get even – even if his team-mates were in the way. Accompanied by a sidekick whose identity remains unknown, Tore is alleged to have gained access to Toprak and Calhanoglu’s hotel room after the pair had returned there. “Then the real story began,” Calhanoglu explained in an interview with the German TV channel ZDF.

 “Gokhan’s friend walked over to Omer, pulled out a gun from his jacket and told him he would be shot if he didn’t lay flat on the floor. I was lying in a corner. He then came up to me and said: ‘Don’t move or I will shoot you.’ I was curled up in the corner of the room, I couldn’t move, I was scared for my life.”

The story was covered up until last October’s Euro 2016 qualification match against Czech Republic, when Fatih Terim decided to recall Tore after a year’s absence from the team. Terim simply could not afford to ignore him any longer. Turkey were languishing just above last place in Group A, heading for an early exit.

The Crescent Stars desperately needed their best players and Terim decided to take a gamble. Terim also invited Calhanoglu and Toprak, but Bayer Leverkusen declared their players ineligible due to injury. This was interpreted in Turkey as a convenient way for the club to keep two of their most valuable players at a distance from Tore.

Terim’s roll of the dice did eventually pay off. Turkey booked a place in Euro 2016 against all the odds by winning their last three games, against the Czech Republic, against the favourites, Holland, and against the leaders, Iceland, with a last-gasp winner in the final match.

There were however, casualties from the Tore-Calhanoglu-Toprak debacle. Toprak and Tore will not be travelling to France; both could be sorely missed. Calhanoglu remains the last man standing in the current setup from the incident and goes into the tournament in high spirits, becoming the first Turkish player to score against England in a recent friendly game at the Etihad.

Calhanoglu played some of his best football this season in the Champions League scoring twice and providing five assists. The Bayer playmaker is not one to shy away from a big occasion and will be relishing the chance to prove himself in France this summer.

Emre Sarigul writes for 

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