ISTANBUL — In the end, the question feels inappropriate. A little ridiculous, even. Arda Turan is sitting on the terrace of an impossibly lavish hotel, picking at a platter of fat grapes and sweet oranges and slices of fresh watermelon. The Bosporus shimmers a perfect blue. The sky is bright and glorious and it stretches all the way to Asia.
It is not the time, or the place, to ask anyone where it all went wrong.
Besides, Turan does not have an answer. Or, rather: as he sits and he picks at the fruit and he talks, it becomes clear Turan has only part of the answer. He can explain why he has not played a minute of soccer since Dec. 1.
His loan deal at Istanbul Basaksehir, the newly-minted Turkish champion, was canceled early after a court issued him a suspended sentence for a spate of offenses related to a fight in an Istanbul nightclub in October 2018. Turan was found guilty of “intentionally injuring” a Turkish singer, before later firing an illegal firearm at the floor in a hospital.
Turan does not make excuses for the incident. He has “made a lot of mistakes.” He accepts that he had to be punished. “I have faced what I needed to face,” he said. He knows — he understands — that it made him toxic.
There had been talk of a move back to his boyhood team Galatasaray early this year but the club’s president decided Turan’s baggage was too great. “It was not because of my qualities as a player, it was because of what I lived before,” he said. As a “son” of the club, Turan added, “I did not want to force it.”
But the lowest moment of his career, and his life, does not explain everything. It does not explain how he has found himself, at 33, idling away his days in Istanbul playing basketball and watching handball on television.
It does not explain why he has not played for Turkey’s national team since 2017, or why Barcelona — the team that had spent $40 million to sign him in 2015, the team with which he won his second Spanish championship — had been paying him for two and a half years to play first for another club, and then not to play at all.
And most of all, it does not entirely explain the curious, tangled reputation that arguably the most talented player Turkey has produced — and certainly the most successful player it has exported — has in his homeland. Turan is at a loss there, too. “There is a thin line between love and hate,” he said.
Life as a Golden Boy
Turan tells a story about one of his earliest games for Galatasaray. It was a Champions League qualifier, at home — in the old Ali Sami Yen stadium — against the Czech team Mlada Boleslav. Turan was 19, just establishing himself in the team. “I scored twice,” he said. “And made two assists. They said I was too young, that I would be spoiled, that I would be arrogant.”
He has a lot of stories like that. “When I continued to play for Galatasaray, they said I would not be in the team for long,” he said. He was 21 when he was named the club’s captain. “They said I was too young,” he said. “When I signed for Atlético Madrid, they said it was the highest I could go in Europe, a midrange club.
“When I played for them, they said I could not win anything. I won 10 trophies. Each one: ‘This is the last one he will manage.’”
It is not entirely clear, as he reels through the dismissals and the disdain, exactly who he means by “they.” And it is striking that no admiring coverage has stuck with him in quite the same way. There must, after all, have been plenty of it.
No other Turkish player — not even the great striker Hakan Sukur, now excommunicated and mentioned only in whispers — has achieved quite so much as Turan did in any of Europe’s major leagues, and he is proud of that success. He has enjoyed its fruits.
But it has also come, in his mind, at a price. Turkey, he said, is not a country that has “lots of stars in every field.” There is no roster of world-renowned athletes, racing drivers, tennis players. “Why don’t we have Rafael Nadal?” he said. “Why do I have to support someone else in the Wimbledon final?”
Instead, there are only a handful, and at his peak Turan was prime among them. He became a barometer not only for other players — “any Turkish player who does well in Europe, they say after three games he is better than Arda” — but something beyond a soccer player. Turan is, more than anything, a celebrity.
That is how he is treated: by the news media, which he said nurtures an obsession with “how much my shirt cost, how much my watch cost, that I go to the airport in sunglasses,” and by the public, too. Turan is, to some extent, better understood as the star of a reality show he does not really want to be in. “I know people love me,” he said. “If I walk in the street, everyone tells me to wake up, to come back. Until I was 24, I was good. I was Arda, the golden boy.
“But then when the success comes, the good cars, things change. Now, people are happy with me being in crisis.”
Peace in the Dark
There was something about flying into Madrid at night that always appealed to Turan. Returning from a late-night European game, or coming back after a vacation, the Spanish capital always seemed to be surrounded by nothingness. “You can’t see lights when you fly over Madrid,” he said.
Turan felt “free” in that darkness. Freedom, to him, did not mean the chance to go wild; if anything, what appealed most was mundanity. “I could go to restaurants and not have to explain what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t have to convince everyone that the woman I was with was not my girlfriend, just a friend. Nobody knew me. Here, they want me to be the person they want to see. In Spain, I was the person I wanted to be.”
He spent the peak years of his career in Spain, helping Atlético Madrid to a Spanish title, a Copa del Rey and a Europa League, earning a reputation as a rare combination of grace and grit in Diego Simeone’s team and, in 2015, catching Barcelona’s eye.
For two years, under Luis Enrique, Turan thrived there, too. Lionel Messi was the squad’s leader, so he did not mind taking a supporting role. Turan grew close to the team’s Brazilian contingent — he regards Neymar and Daniel Alves as “my brothers” — and describes Andrés Iniesta as “the most special guy I have ever met, someone with a special place in my heart.”
When Enrique left in 2017, replaced by Ernesto Valverde, Turan found himself ostracized. “He did not give me a minute to show myself,” he said. “I asked why I was not playing. He gave me a political answer.” In retrospect, that was the moment when the brightest phase of Turan’s career ended, and another bleaker one began.
He was never told, precisely, why he was no longer in favor; he simply was not selected to play. In January 2018, he was sent on loan to Basaksehir. The message was not subtle: the loan extended across the remaining two and a half years of his contract. “The most important thing is to feel valued,” Turan said. “I do not want to be inside an organization that feels I am not important to them.”
His first season in Turkey ended in ignominy: Turan was banned for 16 games — the harshest punishment ever imposed on a player in the Super Lig — for pushing an assistant referee. He was still waiting out his ban when the brawl in the nightclub happened, when the incident in the hospital happened.
Basaksehir stood by him for a year, but a few months after the sentence was handed down — Turan will avoid prison if he does not commit another offense in the next five years — his loan agreement was canceled. Barcelona spoke to his agent, but he said nobody reached out to him. He still had six months left on his contract. The club would pay him not to play soccer at all. “Sometimes,” Turan said, “stories are over.”
Now, he said, as he looked out at the Bosporus, it is time to start a new chapter. His belief that he still has something to offer has never wavered. He is still, he said, “the best player in this country.” It was spring when we spoke; he would, he knew, have to wait until his contract expired on June 30 for a new team, and a new start. On Wednesday, he would find it: He will return to Galatasaray, the only team in Turkey he wanted to join.
There was one question, though, that still hovered when we spoke in the spring, one question the setting made it impossible not to ask.
He had been talking for an hour or more about all the things soccer had done for him and done to him. He had, by his own admission, achieved far more in his career than he might ever have thought possible. His relationship with soccer, now, seemed to be conflicted. This could be his life, sitting here, under this glorious sky, picking at a platter of fresh fruit. So why go back?
Turan thought. “I still love it,” he said. “That will be the same all my life. It is something magical for me. I will play for as long as my body lets me play. Everything I have had in my life, the good and the bad, come from the magic of soccer. If I am playing, I am happy. If I am not, I am not happy. I will play again. And if I am there, the people will enjoy it.”