Born in Istanbul on 23 November 1979, Nihat Kahveci began his playing career with the junior club Arabanspor. Identified as a possible talent at a much higher level though, he was taken to Beşiktaş as a wide right forward by John Toshack. The Welshman saw him graduate through the PAF and then the club’s A team before making his Süper Lig debut for the Kara Kartallar in a game against Bursaspor in November 1997, just a fortnight before his 18th birthday. It was the beginning of a successful period in Istanbul, and one that would lead to his impressive displays attracting attention from further afield.
Across the following six seasons, despite not being deployed as an out-and-out striker, Nihat – the name he wore on his shirt – would still deliver 65 goals in 144 games from his flank position. A searing turn of pace, the ability to beat his man on either side and powerful shot, made him a potent weapon in Toshack’s team. Such success, however, has its drawbacks as covetous eyes inevitably are cast upon the most valuable of assets. This was very much the case in January 2002, when Spanish La Liga club, Real Sociedad saw a successful bid of €5.5 million accepted by the Turkish club, and Nihat moved to Spain’s Basque Country to join La Real in San Sebastian.
Moving to a new club, let alone a new country, can be a difficult time for any player. For Nihat however, things were smoothed out to some extent by having his compatriot and Turkey international team-mate Tayfun Korkut already at the club. Additionally, the man in the coach’s chair was hardly a stranger either. After brief stays with Los Blancos of Real Madrid and Les Vertes of Saint-Étienne, Toshack was now in the hot seat at the Anoeta.
Any January transfer offers only limited opportunity to settle into a new club before the end of the season, and so it was for Nihat. Fifteen appearances would bring a couple of goals before the season’s end, but even before that, one of those familiar faces would be departing. Toshack left the club on March 2002, to be replaced by Roberto Olabe. He would therefore play under two managers in his first, somewhat abbreviated term with the cub. The revolving door of the coach’s office across the coming years would add another four names to that list before Nihat left the club.
Despite the changes in managerial appointments, Nihat quickly found his feet in his new home, and his first full season in La Liga began brightly. A brace in the Basque ‘derby’ against Athletic Club during a 4-2 victory not only cemented him in his new role as a striker rather than a wide player but also endeared him to the Anoeta faithful. It set the scene for a successful season. Flourishing in his new role, he finished the season with 23 goals from 35 appearances, after striking up a prolific partnership with Serbian forward Darko Kovačević. Nihat’s tally comfortably eclipsed his best in Turkey, when the highest return was seven. It also made him Spain’s second-highest scorer in La Liga, six behind Dutchman Roy Makaay and tied with Ronaldo – the original version. The goal rush led to Real Sociedad finishing as runners-up in the league.
Strangely perhaps, his first full season in the league would also be his most prolific. Although goals still followed, there was a diminishing return. In 2003-04, despite scoring fewer goals, his achievements, and contributions to the club’s ongoing successes and European campaign were recognised as he was awarded the Don Balón Award as the Best Foreign Player in Spain. In 2004-05 though, his season was decimated by a serious knee injury, causing him to be sidelined for months. He would still score 13 times in 23 appearances though.
The following summer saw him linked with numerous clubs apparently chasing his signature, with bids of €20 million being reported. Nihat didn’t want to leave, and the club didn’t push the issue either. Whether such things were merely inflated newspaper rumours or had any real substance wasn’t clear, but the upshot in either case was that the striker stayed in San Sebastian.
It seemed however that the die was cast, and the following term would be Nihat’s last with Real Sociedad. A move was mooted mid-term with a transfer to CSKA Moscow seemingly all set to go, but an injury to Kovačević, his erstwhile strike partner, scuppered the deal and he saw out the season in Spain, returning seven goals.
The parting of ways was confirmed in May 2006. With his contract completed in San Sebastian, Nihat moved south to join Villareal on a free transfer. Sadly, his first season with El Submarino Amarillo saw a ‘dive’ in fortunes. After just nine appearances, another serious knee injury, sustained in a training ground accident, put him out of action for six months. After a summer of recovery, he showed his worth into the new 2007-08 season, notching 18 league goals as the Yellow Submarine surfaced in an impressive second-place league finish. It was the one term with Villareal where the forward could perform without serious injury. The following year, as injuries bit into his availability once again, he would make just 19 appearances without finding the back of the net.
In June 2009, the chance to return to Turkey and his first club, Beşiktaş, looked like an ideal move to rejuvenate what had become a stalled career. Sadly, it wouldn’t turn out that way. Despite agreeing on a four-year deal with the club, Nihat would stay with them for less than half of that period. It may have been the passing of the years, the accumulation of a string of injuries, or a combination of both, but the Nihat that returned to Istanbul was much less of a force than the one that left to journey to Spain.
By April 2011, he had made a mere 34 appearances, scoring just three times, when an on-field row with the club’s new star, Ricardo Quaresma, resulted in a scuffle requiring team-mates to intervene. Whoever had been the instigator appeared to be somewhat irrelevant. At such times, a club will always be tempted to support their key player. And so it was. A month later, the club terminated Nihat’s contract.
With pride inevitably damaged, links to other clubs were rumoured in the press, with the forward apparently considering offers to return to Spain, but they came to nought. By January the following year, it was clear that the end of the road had been reached, and Nihat announced his retirement from the professional game. A career that had started with a bang in Istanbul had ended with a whimper in the same city, 14 years later.