Long Reads

Emre Belözoğlu: a career of chaos and cult heroism

“For many years I have tried to represent Turkish football in Europe. I am very happy to have to come to Fenerbahce and I hope I will serve the club for many years.” Turkish playmaker, Emre Belözoğlu, on his return home to Turkey in 2008.

Labelled as the best Turkish player ever in some quarters, even finding himself named in Pele’s FIFA 100 list of the Greatest Living Footballers, playmaker, Emre Belözoğlu, who retired at the start of the summer of 2020, was most certainly among the best in the world on his day.

Collectively known by just his first name, Emre’s career is one that has not only seen him collect over a century of caps for the Turkish national team, but also win numerous trophies, and score in four different decades, whilst also finding himself courting controversy.

Idolised from the start of his career with Galatasaray, a club with whom he’d spend four years in their youth then another five in the first team, as well as at rivals Fenerbahce over three spells over the latter stages of his playing career (2008-12, 2013-15, and 2019-20), Emre would even find himself etching a name into cult status at one club, in England.

Newcastle United, based in the industrial north-east of England, and the summer of 2005.

At the time, the Magpies were under the management of Graeme Souness who, somewhat coincidentally, already knew of Emre having had previous management experience himself in Turkey, at Galatasaray of all places, in the mid-nineties.

Before moving to England, Emre had won trophies both at Gala, and in Italy with Internazionale; at the former there was to be a hat-trick of Super Lig titles between 1998 and 2000, as well as two Turkish Cups, a Turkish Super Cup, a UEFA Cup, and a UEFA Super Cup, the little playmaker going on to make over a century of appearances.

Then he headed off to Italy and the San Siro in 2001, where, under Roberto Mancini, Emre would be part of the side that would go on to lift the Coppa Italia in his last season, however, by this time he had fallen out of favour with the Italian giants. By the time of their 3-0 aggregate victory over AS Roma in the Coppa final, the Turk was on his way to England, and Tyneside.

Having already enjoyed a trophy-laden career himself, primarily with Glasgow Rangers and Liverpool, as both a player, and a manager, Souness is a three-time European Cup winner (with Liverpool), and an eight-time league champion (with Liverpool and Rangers), his time with Newcastle United was a torrid one by comparison.

In the mid-nineties though, Souness would find himself in Turkey, and in charge of Galatasaray. Just the one season, but one where he would win the Turkish Cup, finishing fourth in the league.

Those two cup finals came at the expense of perennial rivals Fenerbahce, the former being a narrow, 2-1 extra-time aggregate victory, whilst the latter, a more convincing, 3-0 success.

It would be during this solitary campaign in Turkey, at Gala’s former ground, the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, that Souness would become aware of a then young Emre Belözoğlu, who was an up-and-coming teenager starring in the club’s youth team.

Fast forward a decade to Souness’ £3.8 million signing of Emre for Newcastle, the then Magpies manager said: “I am delighted to have him here. I think he will prove to be a really good player for the club.

“He is left-footed, and I think it is imperative that you have a couple of left-footers in your team to give you balance. We have two at the moment, I would like three.

“There is a feeling in Turkey that he is the best Turkish player ever. When I was there as a coach, he was a young boy, a very young boy, and the name kept cropping up.”

Unveiled alongside Emre for Newcastle in the summer of ’05 were that of Scott Parker, Tim Krul, Craig Moore, Albert Luque, Michael Owen, and Nolberto Solano, several of whom would become terrace favourites on the banks of the Tyne – Parker, Krul and Solano major standouts (don’t ask on Owen, he didn’t leave any lasting memory).

At the start of that first season on Tyneside, though, it wasn’t exactly a winning one; Emre’s debut would be an Intertoto Cup defeat at the hands of Deportivo La Coruna, whilst in the Premier League, his debut there would see defeat to Arsenal – the season, in fact, would start with a six match winless streak in all competitions before victory finally came against Blackburn Rovers.

It would be in his eleventh game that Emre would finally register his first goal for the club, and what a game to do it in as well. The Tyne-Wear derby, in front of a packed out crowd at St. James’ Park.

Emre and his fellow Magpies would turn on the style and claim an impressive 3-2 victory, the Turkish playmaker setting up the opening goal for Shola ‘The Mackem Slayer’ Ameobi, before going on to write his name into Tyneside folklore himself when netting the winner just after the hour mark.

Ameobi’s opener was headed home from an Emre corner before Liam Lawrence equalised, Ameobi then forced home number two before the Wearsiders levelled for a second time, this time through Stephen Elliott, in what would be a crazy, first-half, seven minute spell.

Into the second period, and minutes after the hour mark had been eclipsed, former Magpie, Stephen Caldwell had brought down Ameobi, nearly thirty yards from goal. A three-man routine was then played out over a dead-ball situation as Solano faked, Shearer loomed menacingly, and Emre swung for goal, swinging into the net off the post for what was to be a rather delightful derby day winner.

The Guardian newspaper would describe the moment as: “A superb free-kick in off Davis’s left post. The Muslim is observing Ramadan but thousands, including Souness, were toasting Emre’s name on Tyneside last night,” whilst a decade on, looking back on that fame, the Newcastle Chronicle said that the game was “one of the few highlights from his (Souness) reign.”

As for the goal itself, the Chronicle added: “It was left to United’s Turkish midfielder Emre, an import from Inter Milan, to secure the win with a sweet left foot free-kick which smacked off the post and into the net at the Gallowgate End.”

Meanwhile, legendary north-east journalist and author John ‘Gibbo’ Gibson, said of the winning goal: “Emre, Shearer, and Solano all stood over the ball with a case to be the executioner, but the position favoured a left-foot strike and so Emre strode up to curl a strong shot away from Kelvin Davis and in via the left-hand post.”

It’s the kick-start any club needs in their season, victory in the derby, and Emre’s free-kick certainly gave the Magpies a hard-fought three points on that afternoon in mid-October.

Two weeks later and Emre would find himself the match-winner again, this time with the only goal of the game, late on, at home to Birmingham City; the Turk would go on to make 25 appearances in his debut season for Newcastle United in the Premier League.

That move though, in the summer of ’05, would become one of several moments that Emre would be seen to court controversy, although this time, it was through no fault of his own. His transfer to Newcastle being one of many that were subject to scrutiny in what became known as ‘The Stevens Report (Inquiry)’ which ‘expressed concern,’ reaction in The Times newspaper in June 2007 saying of the Turkish midfielder’s arrival from Italy that: “In relation to Belözoğlu’s move from Inter Milan, the inquiry was not prepared to clear the transfer as it was unable to obtain co-operation of the agent, Ahmet Bulut.”

Emre’s second season with the Magpies was to be a slightly better one, even if trophies eluded him during his stay in England, he went on to net three times in thirty-eight appearances, producing a string of outstanding performances.

The season would begin with success in the Intertoto Cup, Emre netting the final goal in the 4-1 aggregate win over Lillestrom, Newcastle winning the second leg 3-0 in the Arasen Stadion. This two-legged victory sent the Magpies into that season’s UEFA Cup, where they would go on to reach the last sixteen, losing eventually on away goals to Dutch side, AZ Alkmaar.

His other two goals, both in the league, would see him net the winner at home to Reading in early-December, a game which saw Antoine Sibierski and Obafemi Martins also find the back of the net, and the other, from the penalty spot, late on in the season, in a defeat at Portsmouth.

The winner against Reading though, that would be equal to that against Sunderland the season before, just of lesser magnitude in terms of game and relevance; this goal however, went down a storm, a stunner which, quite emphatically, raised the roof.

“Emre’s sensational 20-yard strike gave struggling Newcastle a crucial win at the expense of Reading.

“With six minutes remaining, Turkey midfielder Emre strode forward and launched an unstoppable shot over the reach of Hahnemann and into the Reading net, to lift the spirits of the St. James’ Park faithful and his side out of the relegation zone.” Saj Chowdhury, BBC, December 2006.

In his final season with the Magpies, it was to become a struggle for the Turk; he’d find the net just the once and make only nineteen appearances. Mind you, during his three season spell at the club he would see thrice as many managers pass through the revolving door at the football club – the nine managers in the St. James’ Park hot-seat were Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Nigel Pearson (twice), Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer and Chris Hughton.

Emre would eventually leave the club in the July of ’08 and, as with his first goal for the club, his solitary effort in his final campaign came in a 3-2 victory, although not the winner this time around, as Newcastle saw off the challenge of Everton at home. His last league appearance for the club would see him appear as a second-half substitute in a 4-1 defeat at Aston Villa on 9 February, playing the final sixteen minutes before heading off to pastures new less than six months later.

Overall, his three seasons in England would see the Turkish maestro register six goals in 58 appearances, net the winning goal in the Tyne-Wear derby, and become a cult hero because of it – Sunderland have had nightmares ever since.

Upon leaving Newcastle, Emre would head back home to Turkey, but not to Galatasaray. No, instead he ended up at arch rivals Fenerbahce, for four seasons, and, as he had done with Gala in the nineties, racked up over a century of appearances whilst bagging a dozen goals for added measure.

With a brief spell in Spain at Atletico Madrid for the 2012/13 season, in what was the early stages of the iconic Diego Simeone’s reign at the club, the remainder of Emre’s career has been spent at home, in Turkey, including a four-year, hundred plus appearances stint with Istanbul Basaksehir and a third spell at Fenerbahce.

Appearing for Fener, either side of his Spanish siesta, Emre would go on to add two further Super Lig championships in 2011 and 2014, Turkish Cup and Super Cup successes. Also, having previously lifted the UEFA Super Cup with Gala in 2000 (a 2-1 aggregate victory over Real Madrid), the feat was repeated a dozen years later when making a late appearance for Atletico in their 2011 success (a 4-1 win over Chelsea).

Having collected a league and cup double with Gala in 2000, that would be repeated as well. In 2014, the cup triumph concluded in a penalty shout-out success over, yes, Gala – their paths have intertwined with regular occurrence throughout the history of Turkish football, just like Emre’s does over the past quarter of a century.

Internationally, meanwhile, Emre would make his debut for his country back in 2000 against Norway, and, although he would miss out on Euro 2000 through injury, he would be part of the successful Turkey side that nearly went all the way at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, finishing third overall. Qualification for the finals came via the play-offs, a comfortable 6-0 aggregate victory over Austria having finished second to Sweden in their group, Emre netting in the opening match against Moldova.

At the finals itself, Turkey qualified for the knockout stages behind Brazil, Emre netting against Costa Rica, before they would go on to see off first Japan, then Senegal, before losing to the Brazilians in the semi-finals. The third-place play-off would see Turkey defeat South Korea 3-2.

Highlights galore from a career that has been tainted with controversy, four allegations of racial abuse, and, whilst on international duty, involvement in a post-match brawl after the 2006 World Cup qualifier against the Swiss, Emre, for his part, would receive a six-match ban, and a fine.

The last of the racial abuse allegations arrived in 2012, when opposing Trabzonspor, for which he received a two-and-a-half month, suspended prison sentence, unique in that he was the first Turkish footballer to be sentenced for racism.

Now, after a quarter of a century since his first appearance in the Super Lig with Galatasaray, and following three spells with Fenerbahce, Emre has not long since retired from football. Upon the announcement, his club, Fener, stated: “There are names written not only on the shirt, but also imprinted in the history of clubs. They will never be forgotten. Our captain, Emre Belözoğlu, has announced that he is ending his career.

“We would like to thank our captain who is more than a football player for every Fenerbahce fan, for every moment, for the pride that he caused playing in our uniform.

“Great captain, thank you for everything.”

So, from him being idolised at Galatasaray (to no doubt being hated), to becoming a hero for Fenerbahce and the Turkish national team, Emre Belözoğlu also, for three seasons, became a cult hero on Tyneside, with Newcastle United. And in doing so, wrote himself into Tyneside folklore with that winner, in the derby, against Sunderland.

Article by Peter Mann via Football’s Finest