Freddy Adu, Federico Macheda, Giovani dos Santos: the football world is full of wonderkids who never quite lived up to expectation. There are exceptions, though, as Manchester City may be about to find out.
On a season’s loan from City at Twente, he has 14 goals and three assists in all competitions this season. When he got his 12th league goal, against Willem II on 4 March, he overtook Colin Kazim-Richards as the highest-scoring Turkey international in Eredivisie history. On Friday night he hopes to win a fourth cap in his country’s must-win World Cup qualifier against Finland in Antalya.
Unal, who identifies Zlatan Ibrahimovic as his idol, had all the hallmarks of a wonderkid. The Johnny Depp lookalike had hordes of scouts chasing his signature after scoring 182 goals in 110 appearances for Bursaspor’s reserves. He also struck 24 times in 25 games for Turkey at under-16 level before being fast-tracked into the senior international side.
Bursaspor promoted Unal to their first team in 2013 and on 1 August of that year he became the youngest player to score in the Super Lig, finding the net against Galatasaray. Manchester City signed him in 2015 and after loan spells at Genk in Belgium and with the Dutch second-tier side NAC Breda he arrived in Enschede last summer. “Twente is the right place right now,” he has said. “I am playing regularly, gaining experience in a big league.”
Transferring from mid-table Bursaspor to a Premier League club may appear to have been a no-brainer but very few Turkish players leave the Super Lig. At home they receive 24-hour attention, seven days a week. They are virtual superstars, household names on astronomic wages; the vast majority would not receive anywhere near the same attention or money elsewhere.
It may sound like a worn-out cliche but Turkey really is a football crazy. There are daily newspapers dedicated solely to football and television shows that run for hours each week scrutinising every refereeing decision and delving into wild conspiracy theories.
Moving abroad is a risky proposition for a successful young Turkish player. Unal took a huge gamble. He could have accepted a lucrative deal to join one of the three big Istanbul clubs – Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Besiktas – or Trabzonspor, and been a domestic superstar. The downside of taking the easy route is that these players rarely reach their potential. Being told you are the greatest while being paid millions and treated like royalty does not stimulate personal development. Why focus on improving when you are already the “best”? And as an agent, why push a client abroad when you can make more in the short term at home?
The Eredivisie did assist the development of Romário, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, but it is not the league it was. Jozy Altidore, Vincent Janssen and Bas Dost have been prolific scorers there but failed to emulate that success in England and Spain.
There is, however, something special about Unal. Stylistically he does bear some resemblance to Ibrahimovic as a tall, powerful striker with a lethal finish, though his agent, Batur Altiparmak, sees more in common with Edinson Cavani and Diego Costa.
Unal has scored with both feet, his head, from inside and outside the penalty area and direct from free-kicks. For a player in his teens he is remarkably mature. He has been taking English lessons and has a voracious appetite for books on personal development, psychology and politics. His other love is music, R&B in particular.
There have been no Mario Balotelli‑like antics. The few controversial incidents he has been involved in he handled admirably. Unal was accused of diving to win a penalty against Heerenveen and responded to the backlash by accepting his mistake and apologising.
“After seeing the replays I understood that the keeper did not make contact,” he said. “At the time I thought he did and if I had known this I would have told the referee not to award the penalty. If I made a mistake I want to apologise. It all happened in a split second and I genuinely thought he made contact.”
He has stayed pretty grounded for a player tipped for greatness since academy level. Unal has some way to go to win and hold down a first-team place at City, but he has the technique to potentially play for Pep Guardiola.
Three years before moving to Manchester, Unal revealed that his entire household support City. He shared a tweet after the club won the title in 2012 that roughly translates to: “This whole house supports City, all my family.”
City fans itching to see him play for them may have to wait a while. Under existing Football Association rules he will have to wait until he is at least 21 to get a work permit. There is a possibility of being granted one on the basis of being an exceptional talent or by playing the required percentage of games for Turkey over the previous 12 months.
Unal is competing for a place in Turkey’s team on Friday with the 20-goal Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun and Wolfsburg’s forward Yunus Malli. So far he has cleared every hurdle and proving himself on the international stage would mark another leap towards the Premier League and living up to the wonderkid tag.
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