Hakan Sukur: The Goal King Who Was Born To Leave A Legacy in Turkey

Alex Caple

Hakan Şükür is the all-time top scorer in Turkish football and a hero at Galatasaray. Twice, however, he tried to move out of that comfort zone and establish himself elsewhere, but Galatasaray was forever his home. From Turkish stardom to being a wanted man as part of a large political coup – Hakan Sukur and Turkey are forever tied together.

Şükür, born in the city of Adapazarı in Sakarya Province, began his career with Sakaryaspor, his local team. They had just made it back into the Super Lig by the time Sukur made his debut with the club, remaining there for three years and building enough of a reputation for himself that he was able to make the step up to Bursaspor. A solid, if not particularly remarkable record for Bursaspor led to two things: a place in the Turkey squad and a move to Galatasaray.

The beginning of Sukur’s career has definitely been rushed through here (and it’s possibly unfair to limit it to one relatively small paragraph) but the story is Sukur’s relationship with both Turkey and Galatasaray. The man they call King, or more specifically Kral, was about to define Turkish football – as much as he tried to go beyond that.

Sukur made his debut for Turkey in March 1992, opening his account for them on just his second appearance before going on to net six goals in his first eleven games. It was a sign of things to come.

That summer he made the move to Turkish giants Galatasaray, the beginning of an association between the two that wouldn’t be shaken off for a long, long time. Sukur scored 19 goals in the Super Lig and five in the cup, immediately winning a League and Cup double in his first season. Season two started with a Super Cup, and sixteen league goals the Super Lig was retained – and a reputation further grew.

A strange season followed though as Galatasaray forgot to win something – an incredibly rare occurrence that wouldn’t happen again for a little while – but Sukur’s 25 goals were finally enough for one of Europe’s top leagues to notice. No league was bigger than Serie A in the mid 90s, and the place to be came calling for The Bull of the Bosphorus in the summer of ’95.

Torino were the team who wanted Sukur. While historically one of the most legendary Italian sides, it wasn’t the perfect place for Sukur to be. A striker who thrived at the top struggled with the mid-table Serie A side – to say the least. He’d spent three years fighting (and winning) league titles with Galatasaray, but Torino finished the 95/96 season with relegation. Not that Sukur could be held too accountable for that – things had gone so badly for him that he left halfway through the season having scored just one goal in five games.

Sukur just hadn’t settled at all, and so naturally he went where he was most comfortable: he re-joined Galatasaray.

He found his goalscoring touch still there, too, scoring 16 goals and winning the Turkish Cup by the end of the year. Which is as good a reason as any to look at footage of manager Graeme Sounness planting a Galatasaray flag on the pitch after beating arch-rivals Fenerbahce in that final. Brave man.

Back where he was settled, Sukur caught alight. The next four years reached a new standard for Sukur, Galatasaray, and Turkish football. He scored 38 league goals in 96/97, the joint-second most in the history of the league, and just one off the record. That total was enough to see him third in the European Golden Shoe stakes, behind Mario Jardel and Ronaldo. Sukur was building his reputation even further, becoming one of Europe’s most natural goalscorers.

Galatasaray won the league that year, naturally, but it was also the start of a spectacular run for the side. Led by Sukur and Gheorghe Hagi, Galatasaray won the league four years in a row, adding the Turkish cup in both 1999 and 2000. Sukur also took home individual trophies, too, finishing as Gol Kralı (goal king) in ’97, ’98, and ’99.

The pinnacle came in 2000 though. Already winners of the league and cup, Galatasaray became the first Turkish side to ever win a European trophy as they defeated Arsenal on penalties to win the UEFA Cup. Sukur scored six on the way to winning the trophy, and his stock had never been higher.

Is it too much to say Sukur ‘out grew’ Turkish football? Possibly, but yet again Serie A came calling. He had won absolutely everything that Galatasaray could realistically expect to compete for, making all kinds of history in the process. And this time, unlike in 1995, it was a true giant of World football who were interested.

Internazionale were on the lookout for a striker. Ronaldo, the world’s best, was set to be out for a long time (as it would turn out, he would miss the entire 2000/01 season) and so Inter needed someone to take his place alongside Christian Vieri. The two widely accepted as under consideration were Sukur and FC Porto’s Mario Jardel – the two of them representing “the best of the rest”, two players who were incredibly prolific but relatively untested in the top European leagues. Eventually, Sukur was chosen, moving to Milan in the summer of 2000 (Jardel, funnily enough, would replace Sukur’s goals at Galatasaray).

A struggle followed, once again, as Sukur never found his stride. The player who had averaged 30 goals over the past five years only managed six goals for Inter, never finding his stride, not finding the circumstances he seemingly needed. Now 31, Sukur left Inter in 2002 for Parma. Perhaps nothing epitimises a desire to make it outside of Turkey than that move, deciding to remain in a country where he had twice failed. Just three goals in 16 games saw him released at the end of his contract.

Sukur next tried something sort of new – a tentative Galatasaray link. He once again moved to a top European League, joining his former Galatasaray manager Graeme Sounness at Blackburn Rovers. He broke his leg immediately after joining, ruling him out for two months, and you wouldn’t blame Sukur for wondering if football outside of Turkey just wasn’t for him.

Nine games and just two goals were all Sukur had to show for with Blackburn, and it was again time for him to move on once his contract ended in the summer of ’03. And, as it was in ’05, it was time to return home.

The goals came back as anyone would have predicted; Sukur had scored eleven goals in the three years since leaving Galatasaray, but the final five years of his career would feature 72 back in Turkey. Sukur retired at Galatasaray, his third spell, having won the Super Lig in 2006 and 2008 – his final season.

Sukur’s career ended having been an incredibly prolific striker just below the pinnacle of the game. The Turkish league, always a step below the very top, was his to dominate, and he remains the all-time record goalscorer in Turkish football.

His international career shows a similar pattern. Sukur is Turkey’s all-time record goalscorer with 51, but the way he scored those goals again kept him from the very top. Seven goals in qualification for EURO 96 was followed with none in the finals, eight goals in qualifying for the ’98 World Cup weren’t enough to see Turkey through to the competition itself, he scored twice at EURO 2000, and just the once at the 2002 World Cup. Once again, Sukur’s goals were out of the limelight.

That World Cup goal, however, was record-setting. Tukey finished the tournament in third, beating South Korea 3-2 in the play-off. Sukur opened the scoring after just 10.8 seconds – the fastest goal in World Cup history.

Turkey’s goal king is still firmly relevant, too, trying to leave his mark on the country even after his retirement as a player. He became an elected politician in 2011, became an independent in 2013, and has since been known as an opponent of President Erdoğan. He was charged in 2016 of insulting the President on Twitter, and has an arrest warrant issued for him since August 2016.

The greatest goalscorer in the history of Turkish football, unable to settle anywhere else that he tried, now a politician fighting for his country – Kral Hakan Sukur was born to leave his legacy in Turkey.

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