Reverse Immigration Turkey Recruits Players 'Made in Germany'

Young football players with Turkish roots who have grown up in Germany and cut their teeth in the German football system are in great demand -- particularly in Turkey. Many of those who return to their ancestral homeland become stars, but the cultural adjustment can be difficult.

Turkey's Hamit Altintop (right) celebrates with team mate Nuri Sahin: Turkish teams are actively recruiting Turkish-German players who grew up and were trained in Germany.
REUTERS

Turkey's Hamit Altintop (right) celebrates with team mate Nuri Sahin: Turkish teams are actively recruiting Turkish-German players who grew up and were trained in Germany.

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It's afternoon practice for the players of Kasimpasa, a premier-league football club in Istanbul. A handful of players form a circle around Sahin Aygünes, a striker, passing the ball back and forth in a game of keep-away. They kick it past him, over him and sometimes even through his legs.

"Hey, old man!" They shout. "What's wong?"

Aygünes spits on the grass and grumbles back -- in German -- "Nothing! Man!"

From up in his office in the business suites of the stadium, Yilmaz Vural, the team's 57-year-old trainer, stares down at his players. Hearing a bit of German now and then during practice doesn't bother him. In fact, he claims to be a big fan of "his" Germans.

Vural is a legendary trainer in Turkey who also has an impressive record as a recruiter. Last year, he succeeded in convincing Sahin Aygünes, 19, and Baris Basdas, 20, to come to Istanbul and play for Kasimpasa. Both are the sons of Turks who had immigrated to Germany. Aygünes arrived from the youth team of Karlsruher SC, while Basdas had been playing for that of Alemannia Aachen. Last season, they helped Kasimpasa, a perpetual relegation candidate, secure a comfortable spot as the 11th-ranked team in the Süper Lig, Turkey's 18-team premier football league.

'Bringing the Boys Back Home'

Young football players with Turkish roots who have grown up in Germany and cut their teeth in the German football system are in much demand -- particularly in Turkey. At the moment, 59 men who fit this description can be found playing in Turkey's top league. And, every year, agents are bringing a fresh batch of talented young men -- with Turkish passports and "Made in Germany" pedigrees -- to its clubs.

Talent scouts focus their poaching efforts on German clubs with good reputations for devoting a lot of resources to training their younger players, such as Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. They woo the young men -- some of whom have only just turned 16 -- away with promises of seeing regular playing time on a first-division Turkish team, higher pay and a chance to live in Turkey. As Vural puts it: "We're bringing the boys back home."

Aygünes and Basdas are buddies, and they share a double room in the Kasimpasa clubhouse. In the closet, there's is a rolled-up, green prayer mat. A mini-fridge full of snack bars, sodas and energy drinks hums from its position between the beds. Their window looks out onto the stadium; they had to put a shade in front of it because the flood lights are occasionally kept on until late at night. "You can't get any shut-eye," Aygünes complains.

Kasimpasa is an Istanbul club. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, played for the team when he was younger, and its home stadium bears his name.

Before coming to play for Kasimpasa, Aygünes had only spent time in Turkey on vacation. His German is better than his Turkish. After practice, he recounts over tea how Turkish recruiters reeled him in, how they repeatedly approached him -- whether at games in Karlsruhe, at practice or at home. "They promise you that everything is better in Turkey," he says. "They tell you: 'Come home, come to your country. There, you'll be star.'"

At the time, Aygünes only had a few vague offers from second-tier German clubs. So, he opted for an adventure in Turkey. But that's not all: He'll also admit that it had something to do with the dream of every Turkish boy, to one day grow up to don the jersey of one of the big clubs in Istanbul, of Fenerbahce, Besiktas or Galatasaray.

The 'Made in Germany ' Advantage

These days, the faces of Turkish Germans can be found not only on the rosters of professional clubs, but also on those of selected teams. For example, when Turkey faces Germany on Oct. 8 in a qualification match for the UEFA European Championships, it will be able to field six players who were born in Germany. These include the brothers Halil and Hamit Altintop, who play for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich, respectively, as well as Nuri Sahin, who plays for Borussia Dortmund.

Aygünes and Basdas both play for Turkey's under-21 national team. Almost a third of its roster is filled by the children of Turks who have immigrated to the western German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse. Whether during practice or in games, you're more likely to hear the players speaking German than Turkish.

As Vural sees it, Turkish football benefits from having the skills of the Turkish Germans. Vural lived in Germany himself for six years and got his coaching certificate at the German Sport University Cologne, the country's only and Europe's largest university dedicated to athletics. In his opinion, the Turks who have played in Germany are better trained than the homegrown talent to play in a more disciplined and tactical manner. And if he had his druthers, he would put together a team that only included Turkish Germans.

Culture Shock

Still, it's not always easy for the talented young players from Germany to adjust to living and playing in Turkey. In Germany, Aygünes was always called "the Turk"; but, in Turkey, people call him the Almanci, the German, on account of his accent. In Germany, he would often get upset about all the rules and envy the energy and vitality of the Turks. But now, in bustling Istanbul, he occasionally misses the orderly, slow pace of life back in Germany.

Aygünes sometimes even feels foreign in his home stadium. Vural, his coach, is rather hot-blooded, and he has a reputation for occasionally throwing an insane fit on the sidelines and even going after his own players. Likewise, it takes a while to get use to the fanaticism of the fans. For example, after Kasimpasa lost one home game, fans pelted the team bus with rocks and bottles. "At first," Aygünes says, "I thought it was hail."

By then, Aygünes had already had his first major moment of glory. Last November, he scored a goal in his club's unexpected 3-1 win in the stadium of hometown rival Fenerbahce. Shortly after the final whistle blew, his father called from Karlsruhe to say: "Boy, now you've made it."

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