‘The ball is in love with him’: teenage Arda Guler ready to star for Turkey

<span>Turkey’s <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Arda Guler;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Arda Guler</a> struggled with injuries throughout last season but has found form and fitness going into Euro 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Manuel Eletto/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

“I’ve smoked a cigar, I’ve sung a song, I’ve danced with Eduardo; now I want to introduce you to a very interesting kid.” Carlo Ancelotti looked across at the thousands of celebrating Real Madrid fans spread out in front of him and at the 19-year-old standing nervously behind him, reluctantly thrust to the front by giggling teammates. “He’s very shy,” the coach told them. And then he handed the mic to Arda Guler, who said thanks, something about being a family, and hurriedly handed it back.

The normal thing here would be to say that, surely, Arda Guler needs no introduction. Identified as one of the emerging talents in Europe, he had joined Real Madrid, the world’s biggest club, for €20m plus €10m in incentives, one of which had just been met with a Champions League title. By the time he stood before those supporters in the centre of Madrid, Guler had been at the club and in the country for a year. But actually he did need an introduction, which was precisely why Ancelotti called him forward. This was a gesture of complicity, an expression of care, confidence, integration, an investment in all of their futures.

You may not really know him yet, Ancelotti was telling them – telling Guler too – but you will. They had hardly heard him talk – even now he barely said three words, plus a shy laugh – and had not seen him play often either. What they had seen had been brief yet it promised something extraordinary.

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“Arda has a gift,” Ancelotti said, but it was only seen in glimpses. Now the European Championship may be the introduction everyone else needs too, a chance to enjoy more of Guler, an opportunity for him to announce the arrival he imagined coming sooner. “He is becoming a great player before our eyes,” the former Turkey international Arda Turan says, “with him we’re seeing a wonderful story, like a Hollywood film.” This season, though, it has not entirely gone according to script.

When Guler joined Madrid last summer, aged 18, Vitor Pereira, the coach that gave him his debut as a 16-year-old at Fenerbahce, told El País that he was special: “a thinker, an organiser” and “a finisher”, a player to deliver the final pass and one with an enormous personality; a footballer who always wants the ball and invariably takes the right decision, someone they had to drag off the training pitch or else he would be there all day. At his presentation he said he wanted to be a “legend, like Di Stéfano” and the first thing he did in training was a nutmeg, made for social media. “He’s technically very good, especially in small spaces,” Toni Kroos said after one of those early sessions, describing his left foot as “refined”.

The foot wasn’t the problem. Within three weeks, while on the pre-season tour in the US, Guler sustained a meniscus knee injury, forced to head back to Spain alone. Next it was a hamstring tear. And then a thigh. Each time the injury came as he neared his return. They were all related, Ancelotti would suggest; the muscular injuries were a product of a shift in posture following Guler’s ligament problem. He did not play a minute until a Copa del Rey game against fourth-tier Arandina in January.

That night Guler took a free-kick from Dani Ceballos, which might have said something of his personality but also his frustration, the need to make up for lost time. Try telling him he’s only a teenager. Ancelotti explained how he too had overcome a knee injury that lasted almost two years, aged 21, preaching patience and optimism. It’s still early, the Italian had insisted, and only a minor muscular problem: Guler, “a player of great talent”, had a “lovely future”. But, the coach admitted, the Turk was “depressed and disappointed”. Joselu would later admit that the squad had treated him like he was their “little son”, someone who needed looking after.

What Guler most needed was not so easy to come by. It was one thing facing Arandina, another facing anyone else. Opportunities were few. How could it be otherwise: Madrid were playing well without him, and had much in play. Vinícius Júnior, Rodrigo, Jude Bellingham, Brahim Díaz: these are not footballers you leave out. The idea of sending Guler out on loan was floated, and immediately rejected: he had insisted that he had no intention of developing anywhere else when he arrived in the summer and he refused again now.

He didn’t play a league game until 27 January – nine minutes against Las Palmas. It was 10 February before he played again. This time he got 13 minutes against Girona, coming on and winning a penalty. A week later, there were three minutes against Rayo. Concerned, the Turkey coach, Vincenzo Montella, visited him. “We’re following him closely and he is playing very little,” he said. “Hopefully he can play more now because he has a lot of talent. It would be better for Real Madrid, the national team and for Arda Guler if he plays more.”

Guler, though, didn’t appear again until 10 March. He played one minute, and scored. Five minutes followed against Osasuna, in which he hit the bar from 50 yards, and then five weeks without any time on the pitch. In four days with Turkey he played three times as many minutes as he had all season for Madrid.

“Ancelotti gives me advice as to how to improve, to play more: I’m patient,” Guler said, but it wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always easy for the coach, either. The teenager had thrown his bib down when, having warmed up, he realised he was not coming on against Almería in January. The following month, Ancelotti said Guler was fit now; his absence was a question of competition for places. “I choose the XI and for some it is harder to get in because they have lost time through injury: he is very young and he had to be patient,” he said. “What he has to do is fight, compete, that’s all.”

When Madrid wrapped up the title, there was a hint of fatigue in his words as Ancelotti said: “It’s difficult to make changes when things are working, but Arda will enjoy the minutes he wants in these final weeks.”

The response was quite something: a goal against Real Sociedad, a goal against Granada, another against Alaves, and two against Villarreal. Guler reached the end of the season without a single minute in the Champions League; he played 379 in La Liga, fewer than anyone else in the first-team squad. He scored six goals with six shots on target, a smoothness, an assuredness about him, his touch different. At a goal every 63 minutes, apart from one-game wonders, no one had a better ratio. Not this season or any season.

“He’s going to be a very important player for us in the future,” Ancelotti said. “There’s no doubt: he’s staying next year. We have a lot of affection for him. He’s the youngest. The ball is in love with him.” Soon, he is sure, everyone else will be too. And what better place to start than here.

The coach almost hinted on the eve of their opening game against Georgia in Dortmund on Tuesday that playing fewer minutes could be better than playing too many, the fatigue other footballers face a significant concern. And there was a shift in position that might be beneficial internationally, Montella admitting that he sees him “almost as more of a right winger than a No 10 now”, a role in which he intends to start him. And then there’s the experience of success.

“We’ve been following him constantly,” Montella said. “Arda started the season with an injury that ended up being very long and he did not play much but at the end he did and he showed his value. He is in optimal condition and has proven that he can win, and I hope he can bring that to the Turkish team. This is an important opportunity for him.”

A season that might have damaged Guler’s chances of making an impact at the Euros could instead have ended as the perfect preparation, his last public appearance in Spain before joining the national team spent standing before thousands of fans, some introduction necessary. That night Ancelotti looked back at him, mic in hand. “Step forward, kid,” he said. Now perhaps he can.