National heroism, Basque glory and love and war in Istanbul – The Story of Nihat Kahveci

Words by Ger Deegen Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 9, 2018

When we think of hotbeds of world football, it is generally those of the rivalries between two clubs in one city that send the shivers down our spines. In Buenos Aries, you are Boca or River. In Rome you are Roma or Lazio. There is no other choice. It is without question a way of life. Whereas in Istanbul there are three teams who’s rivalry between one and other knows no bounds. These clubs are Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas. For Nihat Kahveci, it has always been the latter that has held his heart.

Nihat began his youth career at the age of fifteen in Esenler, a working class district of Istanbul. After two years honing his skills he made the switch to the capital’s oldest club, Besiktas. This was the beginning of a turbulent affair that spanned a 14-year professional career.

When Nihat first came to Besiktas in 1996 his successful first season in the youth academy led to him being included in John Toshack’s first team squad the following year. Only 17 at the time, Nihat developed quickly under the Welshman and, over his two-year tenure at the club, he began to transform into a key player for the team.

Not blessed with the greatest of pace for a frontman, he had to become nimble and agile on the ball. As he only stood at 5ft9. his aerial threat was never going to be his strongest attribute. This meant that awareness on the pitch of his and others surroundings as well as his touch had to be dependable. In the two years under the highly decorated and respected Toshack, Nihat began to grow and grow as a player. He helped the side win the Turkish Cup and Turkish Super Cup in 1997/98 with a victory over bitter rivals Galatasaray on penalties. His eye for goal and coolness of finish resulted in a number of appearances during Toshack’s tenure. He went on to make 114 appearances in the league, scoring 27 times over this first five years at his boyhood club.

When Toshack left for Real Madrid in 1999, it led to a period of managerial confusion and uncertainty at Besiktas. The club went on to have four managers over a three year overhaul of the club. This left Nihat at a cross roads in his career and when Real Sociedad came in with an offer of €5m for his services, it was with a heavy heart that he waved goodbye to Istanbul. “When I was leaving Besiktas, I filled the cupboard. I went to cry. Because I am the child of Beskitas”.

It seemed at this stage of Nihat’s career it could of went one of two ways – Either he was willing to develop and embed himself into the Spanish culture to learn the style in which football was played outside of his home country, or long for a return to a place he had only known to this point. Somewhat of an unknown to the Spanish media the signing looked to have been met with head scratching of some proportion. Sociedad weren’t exactly one the flair teams in La Liga at this point and even after the introduction of Nihat in January of 2002, meant they only narrowly avoided relegation by two points, finishing in 13th place in the league. After such an average season for the club by all accounts, it made what happened the following year even more remarkable.

Sociedad began the 2002/3 season extremely well but even the fans of the Basque club couldn’t have foreseen the season they were eventually in for. Nihat having built on his 11 appearances of the year previous and seemingly now settled in Spain began to lead the charge of a title challenge against the mite of Galactico’s Real Madrid.

Nihat began to become somewhat of a cult figure for the Txuri-urdinak faithful after his two goals sunk their fiercest Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao in the first derby (and game) of the season. Sociedad won 4-2 and the fans at Anoeta had a new hero to adore.

This would be the beginning of Nihat’s most prolific career to date scoring 23 goals in the league. He formed a partnership up front with Serbian international Darko Kovacevic; which earned the pair the nickname of ‘Little and Large’, and they almost fired the club to La Liga glory. They missed out on the league title by two points however the season is to this date seen as one of great success that will forever remain in the minds of supporters. For a club with predominately Basque representation, they took the fight to Madrid for the entirety of the season as well as finishing 20 points ahead of Barcelona.

Nihat remained at the club for three more seasons but could never reach the heights he had shown previous. This was due to string of injuries had picked up but most crucially, an ACL he suffered In 2005. This injury ruled him out of rumoured move to Manchester United that were circulating at the time and eventually led him to his transfer to Villarreal in unusual circumstances via the more recently formulated ‘Bosman’ style transfer.

His time at Villarreal was quite mixed in terms of personal fortune as he again struggled through periods of long injury with the club. While still continuing to be prolific, Nihat was beginning to get tagged as injury prone and of unfulfilled potential. While his years with the Yellow Submarine where rather subdued, it was at international level where he would be recognised.

When casting our minds back to the European Championships of 2008, we often tend to remember it as a tournament which kickstarted a spell of Spanish dominance. This would be the first of three consecutive international competition successes for the all-conquering La Furia Roja, who at the time where instigating a complete change in the way football was played around the globe.

In the midst of all the tiki-taka football and possession based domination of the opposition by Luis Aragones’ side, there was one nation pulling on the heartstrings of many across the world; with their ultimate belief in themselves, never say die attitude and late drama, Turkey were capturing the imagination. Fatih Terim’s side were a pleasure to watch for all neutral fans throughout the tournament, with their passion and pride in the jersey that gave everyone a sense he had created something special within them.

The belief and confidence which Terim gave to his players was truly encapsulated during their final game of Group A. Turkey were to take on a Czech Republic team with the same amount of points and identical goal difference; with the chance to qualify for the last 16 up for grabs. When the Czech’s went two goals in front, the Turks looked dead and buried. A young Arda Turan managed to claw back a goal with 15 minutes left on the clock but the way the game had been going, a fight back didn’t look promising – up step Nihat Kahveci.

In the 87th minute, a harmless cross which seemed destined to be collected by goalkeeper Petr Cech was suddenly fumbled into the path of Turkey’s captain Nihat, who slotted it into an empty net. The scenes on the Turkish bench were of delight as it looked like they had given themselves a chance of earning a draw.

What followed led to absolute carnage.

Less than one minute after the tip off, Nihat again found himself through on goal and one on one with Cech. In a moment that seemed as if time stood still, Nihat brilliantly curled the ball around Cech and in off the underside of the cross-bar. There was raptures in the stands; a sea of red bodies covered every corner of the Stade De Geneve, the travelling Turks would party long and hard into the Swiss night. And for Nihat? He would go down in folklore for three touches that presented a nation with hope.

After Euro 2008 and despite a new found partnership with Robert Pires at Villarreal, it was a series of injuries that again left people wondering whether he was the player of old. In his final season at the club he could only manage a further 19 appearances without scoring a single goal, but will always be remembered at the Estadio de la Ceramica as a pitbull with an abundance of class who gave everything for the shirt.

Now 30 years of age, the chance arose of a return to where it all began. Probably against his self-admitted better judgement, Nihat agreed to return home.

There comes a time in every players life when you began to notice that the legs just can’t take you where you want to go anymore. We see it all the time when an acceptance has to be made on behalf of yourself and the club, that time may be up. We have seen it in recent years with the former incredible talent and power of Yaya Toure of Manchester City, who now realises he has to swallow his pride and take the minutes where he can. And in some way, this was going to be the case for Nihat in his return to Besiktas.

Having had an injury list as long as an elder scroll during his time in Spain, he simply couldn’t produce the level of performance he would have wished for upon his return. This concluded in only 34 more appearances in a two year spell and one massive fallout with up and comer Ricardo Quaresma.

Nihat and Quaresma got into an on-field altercation in a game during which he felt the Portuguese international wasn’t passing him the ball. This led to a heated debate which had to be broken up by their fellow teammates. In the fall out, Nihat revealed it would be his last game for the club and just like that it was all over. He never played for them or anyone else again. “I was forcibly brought back to Besiktas, were I forcibly left”.

For Nihat Kahveci, this isn’t how he wanted it to end, especially on such a sour note. A career spent at a number of clubs who admittedly each in their own way gave him beautiful moments. One thing is for certain, in the hotbed of Istanbul football culture, he will always be ‘The Beskitas Child’.

Nihat Kahveci
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