Long Reads

Rustu Recber, Volkan Demirel, and Turkey’s goalkeeper conundrum: how would four go into one?

In a battle for football’s on-field supremacy, most positions are covered by two, three, four or more players. However, in goalkeeping terms, there can be only one (sorry Highlander, the beautiful game outdates the film at least).

And yet, for two seasons in the early part of the new millennium, Turkish giants Fenerbahce had the dilemma of four, quality shot-stoppers, vying for that solitary number one jersey.

Two of those ‘keepers have, understandably, gone down as being the greatest in Turkish footballing history, and one of those was one of only two Turks (the other being Emre Belozoglu) in Pele’s FIFA 100 greatest living footballers.

Here we are talking about Rustu Recber (1993–2012) and Volkan Demirel (2000–2019), two iconic goalkeepers for both club and country, and their understudies Recep Biler (2000-2015) and Serdar Kulbilge (1999-2018), who, between them, racked up an impressive 733 appearances for Fener from the early nineties onwards. A quarter of a century of shot-stopping brilliance.

And you have to feel sorry for Biler and Kulbilge, for, of those 700+ matches, the latter duo only played in 43, but they were top quality backups for Recber and Demirel, make no mistake about that. Even if, for two seasons, the four worlds collided at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium between 2005 and 2007.

However, a long-time before all of that, Rustu Recber turned up at Fener, and he’d played five seasons prior to his arrival there.

Not even he would have imagined that, when he first turned out for the Korkuteli Spor youth team (Recber was born in Korkuteli, the western region of the Taurus Mountains) in the late eighties, that he would become legendary, as well as enjoy a rivalry with someone as equally talented as Demirel.

A spell at Burdurgucu either side of 1990 saw him make a solitary appearance prior to signing for Antalyaspor in 1991, having missed out on moves to both Galatasaray in 1990 and then Besiktas three years later, for differing reasons – at Gala because then coach Mustafa Denizli, who was in his second spell at the Gala helm, wanted Recber to build his way up from the youth team; Besiktas, meanwhile, fell by the wayside due to Recber sustaining serious injuries in a car crash.

Not to matter, thirty-four appearances for Antalyaspor would be enough to earn Recber a move to the other of Turkey’s big three, Fenerbahce, a year after debuting for the Turkish U21s. It would be whilst with the U21s that he was told by Turkey’s most celebrated manager, and three-time national team manager, that he “would become the greatest goalkeeper in the nation’s history” – Fatih Terim was not wrong!

Recber’s break at Fener would come early in the 1994/95 season having spent the previous campaign on loan with his former club; October 1994 and the match between Fener and Kayserispor would see then number one, Engin Ipekoglu, collect an injury that would all but end the ‘keepers time at the club, even though he returned, briefly, for the 1999/00 season.

As for Recber, his debut would come against Petrol Ofisi and never looked back, racking up appearances over the next decade for both his club, and his country.

In 1996, and again in 2001, he would help Fener lift the Super Lig championship, as well as, in 1998, the Ataturk Cup, a Turkish cup competition that was held on only four occasions (1955, 1964, 1998 and 2000) in honour of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The first of those league titles saw Fener top the table by two from Trabzonspor, whilst the latter, coming five years later, by three from rivals Galatasaray.

The year of 2003 was a key one for Recber, with Demirel initially brought in the previous season as understudy, the original shot-stopper was soon off to pastures new. Though, after a spat with then Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger regarding a potential move to England, that deal eventually fell through.

Demirel had arrived at Fenerbahce from Kartalspor, with whom he’d made over fifty appearances having joined them as a raw 18-year-old in 1999, debuting the following season and impressing enough to earn a move after just two seasons. Demirel’s arrival would, in turn, push Biler down the Fener pecking order, albeit briefly.

Recber’s move to Arsenal may have fallen through due to disagreements between player and manager, namely claims that Wenger had criticized Recber’s fitness; Recber instead earned himself a big money move to the Nou Camp, and to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona.

Keeping a clean sheet on his Barca debut, an 8-0 thrashing of Slovakian side, MSK Puchov in the UEFA Cup, it was an impressive start with the Spanish giants.

As for his La Liga bow, that came in the Barcelona’s derby against Espanyol. Barca again emerging victorious, this time with goals coming from Jordi Cruyff and Patrick Kluivert – Recber however would only register five more games for the Catalans, his time hampered by a language barrier.

Playing just seven games in total, Rijkaard instead plumping for Victor Valdes over Recber, the Turkish shot-stopper was apparently being snubbed due to his weakness of the Spanish language. Recber was quoted at the time saying: “It is not normal for a goalkeeper of my history and calibre to be left out because I don’t speak Spanish.”.

Recber’s final appearance for the Catalan side was to be a 1-1 draw towards the end of the season against Real Betis, before heading back home to Fener, initially on loan the following season, a loan that would be extended a further season the following summer.

Meanwhile, at Fener, Demirel was making the number one jersey very much his own and, although Kulbilge would join the club in 2005, the Recber-Demirel pairing would go on to set records.

During their respective careers at Fener, the shot-stopping pair would become the ‘keepers with the most appearances for the club, although Demirel’s near 400 is still some way off the club record. Mujdat Yetkiner holds the distinction of Fener’s record appearance holder, racking up a rather impressive 763 games between 1980 and 1995, well-versed in the footballing art, he would be seen playing as a sweeper, defender, full-back, defensive-midfielder, winger, attacking-midfielder, and a forward during his career. Very much an all-rounder.

Demirel does, however, hold the Fener record for most appearances in European competition, 86 in total.

Recber, on the other-hand, his two spells with Fener saw him make nearly three hundred appearances of his own, returning to the club for a couple of seasons between 2004 and 2007 prior to heading to Besiktas, continuing to build on his legacy as Turkey’s greatest goalkeeper.

Those last three seasons in which Demirel and Recber shared at Fener did see them partake in both the 2005 and 2007 Super Lig championship-winning sides (they were runners-up in 2006).

But how would four go into one, a question posed at the beginning? Between 2005 and 2007, Fener would also have Serdar Kulbilge and Recep Biler on their books, surprisingly Biler had been at Fener since the turn of the millennium, only making twenty-one appearances throughout his time there; he’d make more than twice as many, forty-seven in-fact, when on loan at Karsiyaka, making way for Kulbilge’s arrival.

In making over eighty appearances for Bursaspor, Kulbilge was then transferred into the Fener conundrum, soon finding himself, for a time anyway, as number one due to injury to Recber, and poor performances from Demirel – it happens sometimes.

Kulbilge’s promotion to the Fener first team coincided with the only two honours of his near two decade career, the 2007 Super Lig tittle, and victory in the same season’s Turkish Super Cup, a 2-1 win over Besiktas.

Again, Recber’s success followed him when he swapped Fener’s Sukru Saracogolu Stadium for Besiktas’ BJK Inonu Stadium, as it was then.

Both Recber at Besiktas and Demirel at Fenerbahce continued their trophy-laden ways in which they had become accustomed to. The former would claim a fifth Super Lig in 2009 as the Black Eagles finished five points clear of runners-up Sivasspor, as well as a pair of Turkish Cup successes – in 2009 a 4-2 victory over former club Fener at the Izmir Ataturk Stadium (although Recber was an unused substitute), and in 2011, on penalties, against Istanbul Basaksehir.

On the other-side, Demirel – who remained at Fener until 2019, continuing to rack up the appearances pretty much unopposed – took his own Super Lig tally to five with victories in the 2011 and 2014 competitions, the former of which was marred by the Turkish match-fixing scandal.

Fener finished the league season as champions on goal-difference from runners-up Trabzonspor, but behind-the-scenes, off the field of play, darkness had brewed a heavy storm in which match-fixing had torn a hole through the fabric of the Turkish Football Federation. With a number of individuals involved, there was the presence of seventeen of the eighteen Super Lig clubs deemed of wrong-doing.

The second of those two championships would come at the expense of Galatasaray, Fener finishing a decent nine points clear of their rivals. Demirel would also add back-to-back Turkish Cup successes in 2012 and 2013, the former a comfortable 4-0 rout over Bursaspor. The latter, a narrow 1-0 victory over Trabzonspor. There would also be, in 2014, a tight Turkish Super Cup victory over Gala, a goalless game after both ninety minutes, and extra-time, eventually led to a 3-2 win from twelve yards.

Both Volkan Demirel and Rustu Recber had certainly cemented their respective legacies at club level, Demirel registering over 500 appearances for club and country from 2000 to 2019, whilst Recber, equally impressive between the sticks, racked up over 550 appearances between 1990 and 2012.

It was to be a similar scenario at international level also, well for these two stalwarts at least, the likes of Kulbilge and Biler, from their time at Fener, and many others throughout the nineties and noughties, did not get anywhere near that number one jersey.

Recber would be the first of the pair to arrive on the international scene, having first made eleven appearances for the Turkish U21s in 1992-93 before making the first of his record-breaking 120 caps (one of only five Turks to pass a century) on October 12th, 1994, a European Championship qualifier against Iceland, Turkey emerging comfortably victorious, winning 5-0.

Six years on from making his international bow and Recber was donning the national team’s number one jersey for a fiftieth time, a World Cup qualifier in Baku, a 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan.

During his first seventy-five appearances for his country, the historic shot-stopper would make appearances at the finals of the 1995 Copa Centenario, the 1996 and 2000 European Championships, and the 2002 World Cup, the latter rendering the most successful outcome in Turkish footballing history as they came third at the World Cup finals in South Korea/Japan.

Reporting on that third place play-off match between co-hosts South Korea, and Turkey, former World Soccer Editor, Gavin Hamilton, said of the match:

“It was amazing to think that this could easily have been the 2002 World Cup final. But two teams whose respective World Cup campaigns had exceeded all expectations met in Daegu to contest third place in what was their seventh game of the finals.

“Any Korean efforts were foiled by the hands and feet of keeper Rustu Recber.

“Third place represented an extraordinary achievement for Turkey, having beaten both co-hosts and run Brazil close in their opening match.

“We’re very happy with third place,” said (Senol) Gunes. “Nothing is decided by coincidence. We made new friends and everyone enjoyed our football.”

Fast-forward to 2005 and the century was racked up when, in a World Cup qualifying match, Recber appeared as Turkey defeated Albania 2-0 before appearances between then, and 2012, would see him sitting pretty on 120 caps.

As for Recber’s rival, Volkan Demirel, he would make international appearances at both U20 and U21 levels between 2001 and 2003 prior to embarking on a decade-long international rivalry with Recber for their country’s number one jersey.

Demirel’s international debut would arrive in 2004 when he appeared as a second-half substitute in the 3-2 victory over Belgium, the first of sixty-three appearances.

His international career would take him to the 2008 European Championships, having all but ousted Recber from the international scene. This would be his only major tournament appearance.

As with his first cap, Demirel’s fiftieth also came against Belgium, travelling there in a European Championship qualifying for 1-1 draw. He went on to make his sixty-third, and final appearance, one that puts him seventeenth on the country’s all-time appearances list, in a 4-0 defeat to Brazil in Istanbul in November 2014.

Between them, the pair have racked up near two hundred appearances for their country during a dominant, two decade period (1994-2014) since which there have been numerous incumbents between the posts, none of whom have held the presence or ability of a Rustu Recber, or a Volkan Demirel.

In addition to their stellar careers, yes, there’s more. The year 2002, that famous World Cup year, would see Recber named in the World Cup All-Star team, the UEFA Team of the Year, and come third in the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper. Then, two years on, he, alongside Emre, were the only two Turkish players named in the FIFA 100 Best Players by Pele.

As for Demirel he made more than 25 appearances in eleven successive seasons for Fenerbahce between 2007/08 and 2017/18.

Greatness personified for two very talented shot-stoppers, and their country, Turkey, will no doubt salute their contributions, for both the clubs and the country they so reliably represented.

Article by Peter Mann via Football’s Finest