Turkey’s hopes of conquering Europe and winning their first international title rest at the feet of free-kick maestro Hakan Calhanoglu whose repertoire features the kind of silky skills the football-mad nation craves.
Calhanoglu is just one of the stars of a squad that many view as Turkey’s new golden generation.
The Turks’ best international performances include a semi-final appearance at Euro 2008 and a third-place finish in the 2002 World Cup.
But a trophy has remained tantalisingly out of reach.
Calhanoglu plays for Milan and will be keen to shine his brightest when the Turks travel to Rome to play Italy for their Group A opening match in the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 on June 11.
The 27-year-old’s Milan contract is expiring and he will have a chance to show off against some of his old Italian teammates and opponents.
Scouts from Manchester United will be among the many suiters watching with interest to see just how good Calhanoglu has become.
Calhanoglu burst onto the global stage when he scored with a mesmerising free-kick from more than 40 metres out against Dortmund while playing in the Bundesliga for Hamburg in 2014.
The Dortmund players had not even bothered to set up a wall because an attempt on goal seemed so audacious.
Further gems for Bayer Leverkusen as well as Milan and Turkey have established Calhanoglu as one of the most feared free-kick takers in the world.
‘I like responsibility’
But it would be a mistake to reduce the German-born Calhanoglu to a compilation of pretty goals on YouTube.
He has always had lightning-quick feet. Now he has developed into a technician who reads the game as if he were hovering above the pitch.
He delivers precision passes and fans adore him because he usually spares no effort while pressing in defence.
Calhanoglu also brings needed experience to a rejuvenated squad and is one of Turkey’s most capped players.
But it has not all been smooth sailing for Calhanoglu and the men in red.
He has occasionally been benched by coach Senol Gunes after being accused of giving more to his clubs than country.
Calhanoglu admitted last year that he felt “resentful” toward Gunes for not giving him as much responsibility as he enjoyed in Milan.
“I like to take responsiblity,” he told reporters in March.
“What matters to me above all else is the collective game.”
Calhanoglu succeeds the more tempestuous Arda Turan in wearing the Number 10 shirt for the “Milli Takim”.
“It is a number I really like,” Calhanoglu said.
‘More ambitious goals’
Calhanoglu is a practising Muslim who made a pilgrimage to Mecca with French teammate Tiemoue Bakayoko in 2019.
He has also made no secret of his desire to play for Istanbul’s Galatasaray “one day”.
But there is little doubt that he is still dreaming of meeting his stated 2014 ambition of “reaching the level of Messi or Ronaldo” in Europe’s biggest leagues.
Turkey’s Euro campaign will offer a chance to show he is ready for superstardom after a good season at Milan despite coming down with Covid-19 in January.
Milan coach Stefano Pioli loves him and said that he would like to keep him after Calhanoglu’s contract runs out in June.
But Pioli said Calhanoglu “has not yet reached his full potential” while scoring nine goals and delivering 12 assists in 43 matches for the Rossoneri.
“He should try to score more goals,” Pioli said in early May. “He has the necessary talent. He just needs to set more ambitious goals.”
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