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A season of redemption

The Bundesliga season just past has, as always, brought many intriguing stories and subplots. You'll be pretty familiar with many of the fairy tales and/or dramas which unfolded in the top flight, so let's cast our glance to the floor below, the 2nd Bundesliga.

There is, for instance, the strange story of Berkant Göktan, a Munich-born player of Turkish origin. In the late 1990s, he was considered one of the hottest prospects in the whole country and many people would have bet their savings on his becoming a star.

Yes, I was arrogant. And a hothead. I didn't listen to people's advice.

After all, we're talking about someone who was so good that Giovanni Trapattoni called him up to train with Bayern's senior side when the player was only 16 years old. In fact, Göktan played for Bayern's reserve team in the third division before he was legally allowed to turn out for the Under-18s.

We're talking about someone whom Trapattoni's successor Ottmar Hitzfeld considered so trustworthy that he granted him his professional debut at age 17. And not in one of your run-of-the-mill Bundesliga games. No, Göktan first played with the big boys in September of 1998 in a crucial Champions League match against Manchester United. (He was brought on for Hasan Salihamidzic with Bayern trailing. In the final thirty minutes, the Germans created a plethora of chances and eventually tied the game.)

Only a couple of days later, Göktan also made his Bundesliga debut in another high-profile match, against Borussia Dortmund. You can't ask for a lot more than that when you're not even 18. But Göktan did. When three months passed without any more professional appearances, he used the winter break to negotiate a loan deal with Borussia Mönchengladbach. It was the first of many mistakes.

'I wanted too much too soon,' Göktan says today. 'It would have been better to play for Bayern's second team for another year or two.'

Worse, apart from being overambitious, the youngster also tended to be cocky. The kid who'd stunned onlookers during Bayern's training sessions by nutmegging Stefan Effenberg now impressed the writers for 'kicker' magazine reporting from Mönchengladbach's winter training camp by playing keepy-uppy with his shin instead of the foot. 'Yes, I was arrogant. And a hothead. I didn't listen to people's advice,' he admits.

It seems that young Göktan ran the whole gamut of blunders to make and temptations to succumb to, including being with the wrong set of people. His father didn't talk to him for five years because he objected to Berkant's girlfriend. In retrospect, his judgement seems to have been correct. 'You need a strong woman behind you, and I didn't have that,' Göktan says today.

If that sounds a tad too glib, mature and sober for someone who's still only 26, you have to bear in mind that he knows many people view him with suspicion. When he joined 1860 last September, there were more than a few postings on independent message boards from people who claimed to have known him in the late 90s because he dug the nightlife and was often seen about town. Don't sign him, many postings concluded, this guy means trouble.

Moving to 1860 was Göktan's final chance to make it as a football player. His attempt to become a Bundesliga regular at Mönchengladbach in 1998-99 failed miserably, though it wasn't all his fault. Göktan had simply joined the wrong club, a club in panic of the headless chicken variety at the prospect of being relegated for the first time ever.

When the team did go down, Göktan began the sort of Odyssey you often associate with people who either don't fit in or don't know what they want. Or both.

First there was a stop at Arminia Bielefeld, coached by Hermann Gerland. He should have been the perfect man to guide Göktan, as Gerland is renowned for his ability to work with young talent. (He had been in charge of Bayern's youth and reserve teams from 1990 to 1995 and is now back in that capacity.)

In 2004, Gerland would be asked which talent, over the course of his long career, had impressed him the most. Without hesitation, he replied: 'Berkant Göktan.'

Yet at Bielefeld it again didn't work out. The team was relegated, the youngster moved on - back to Bayern (the reserves), then to Galatasaray, then to Besiktas. The first season in Turkey was good, the others were another string of disappointments. 'There were problems in my private life,' he says. 'In addition, I was injured. And I no longer had the right attitude to my job.'

In September of 2005, Göktan returned to Germany because Kaiserslautern's new coach was Michael Henke, Hitzfeld's former sidekick at Bayern, who still thought highly of the player's potential.

But Henke lasted only a few months at Kaiserslautern and his successor felt differently about the striker. In April of 2006, a mere seven months after Göktan had joined the club, a sparse wire report read: 'With immediate effect, Kaiserslautern FC have parted company with Berkant Göktan on account of disagreements between the player and coach Wolfgang Wolf.'

I could fill a book with the mistakes I have made. But I have changed.

At 25 years of age, the former phenom was without a club, as no-one appeared to have any interest in signing him. While Germany was celebrating a glorious World Cup summer, Göktan was having informal kickabouts in the park. And that's not a metaphor: he and some old pals frequently chased a ball in Munich's famous 'English Garden', the large public park. When his friends didn't have time for a game, Göktan asked strangers to join their match.

'I was playing with people from Iran, Serbia, Africa. They didn't recognise me. We had backpacks for goalposts,' he remembers. It was fun, but there didn't seem to be a future. Göktan was back living with his parents and travelled to the 'English Park' on a bicycle. When he would go to a cash machine to get some money, he would be informed he could no longer draw on his account.

Then there was a call from his new agent, the Turk Serdar Fafal. He had arranged a one-week trial with 1860's reserve team. A few years ago, this would have sounded like the ultimate insult - a trial with amateurs for the man who'd once played a brilliant game in the Champions League for Galatasaray against mighty Juventus. But Göktan was no longer the brash, snooty glamour boy and there was no longer any pride he had to swallow.

'I could fill a book with the mistakes I have made,' he says. 'But I have changed.' He went to the trial, he did well, he was offered a one-year contract with 1860's amateurs and he grabbed it.

In September and October he played for the reserves in the third division. In November, he was called up to the first team and made his professional debut for 1860 in a win over Essen in the 2nd Bundesliga. In March, after the winter break, he scored his first goal for the first team. A week later, he scored again and was suddenly a regular in the professional game.

By season's end, his record read: games 13, goals 10. The man who had been playing football in the park when the 2nd Bundesliga season started, finished the campaign as 1860 Munich's top scorer.

His reward was a new contract, this time for the pros. 'Berkant has impressively proven what he is capable of and has become a fan favourite,' said Director of Football, Stefan Reuter. Coach Marco Kurz stated: 'He knows he's not yet the finished article and that he's got the potential to improve even further. I'll gladly assist him in that.'

Göktan, looking back on nine tumultuous years, said: 'I'm glad about how things have gone. I'm only about to start.'


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