Players from the Past

Some stereotypes are hard to extinguish, and one of them is the notion of professional footballers being uneducated, almost illiterate individuals who quit school early to pursue their dreams and have absolutely nothing to fall back upon when they retire. The lack of insight emanating from their post-match interviews feeds into the stigma of a person whose brainpower is verging on Neanderthal. However, perhaps we are too quick to dismiss footballers as beings without intelligence. There are quite a few players who, with a great deal of success, have combined academic achievement with a career at elite levels of the cut-throat world of professional football.

Nuri Sahin is one such example. The Turkish international is best remembered in these parts for a rather unhappy loan spell at Liverpool a few years ago, but at 29 he is still operating at a high level of the game with Borussia Dortmund and, this week, he was accepted into a sports management course at Harvard Business School. As one of the leading educational institutions in the world, the US-based university would not let any old Joe soap enrol without having a certain level of smarts about them. He’s fluent in five languages, which certainly batters the chimp-like footballer stereotype into submission.

Sahin was born in Germany to Turkish parents and latterly chose to represent his ancestors’ homeland rather than the country where he was raised. Married at 19 and a father shortly after turning 23, the development and maturity of his personal life eclipsed even that of his playing career. A month shy of his 17th birthday, he made his senior debut for Borussia Dortmund, becoming the youngest Bundesliga player in history, and he soon became the league’s youngest ever goalscorer also. Coach Bert van Marwijk clearly had plenty of faith in the teenager, but Sahin made his breakthrough at a time when Dortmund were a long way from recapturing their glory days and, with the risk of regularly playing a youngster too high, he was sent on loan to van Marwijk’s Feyenoord in 2007.

That spell in Rotterdam enabled him to gain first-team experience that stood to him upon his return to Dortmund, who were now under the stewardship of a charismatic young coach named Jurgen Klopp, who had performed wonders at Mainz. Sahin was among several young players who blossomed under Klopp’s management and grew into leaders of what would become a superb Dortmund side. The Turkish midfielder was one of the team’s best players when they won the Bundesliga in 2011, their first title in nine years and one that was wildly celebrated.

So impressive were his performances, in fact, that he would sign for Real Madrid that summer. Sahin later declared that the main incentive for moving to Bernabeu was the chance to play for Jose Mourinho. Unlike many others at the club during a fractious 2011/12 season, he did not have any issues with the combustible manager, but Sahin’s first three months in Madrid were plagued by injury. When he eventually got his chance in the team, he was unable to reproduce the heights he reached at Dortmund, save for sporadic good performances. Although Los Blancos won La Liga that season, Sahin only had a bit-part role.

He was loaned to Liverpool in August 2012, becoming one of a multitude of players signed by Brendan Rodgers upon his arrival at Anfield from Swansea. Any hopes that he might win a third consecutive league title with a third different club were quickly dispelled as the Reds struggled that season, a slow start giving them no chance of recovery. Most of Rodgers’ first wave of signings did not work out and Sahin was amongst them. His only real contribution at Liverpool was a brace in a 2-1 League Cup win over West Brom early that season and he later had the honesty to admit that he was unhappy during his time on Merseyside.

He cut short his loan spell at Anfield midway through the 2012/13 campaign and, in an attempt to rediscover the joy of playing football, he retraced his steps back to Dortmund. He returned to the club at an exciting time, with Klopp taking the team all the way to the Champions League final at Wembley, only for Bayern Munich to thwart them in a pulsating match. Another productive season at Signal Iduna Park in 2013/14 led to Sahin joining the club permanently from Real Madrid.

He has been at Dortmund ever since, although first-team appearances in the last four years have been sporadic with the emergence of talented youngsters such as Julian Weigl, whose early seasons have shown a level of promise reminiscent of that displayed by Sahin during his formative years as a footballer. His lack of first-team action at Dortmund also restricted his opportunities at international level and he retired from the Turkish national team last year aged just 28. As he is showing now with his enrolment into Harvard, though, Sahin is clearly a forward-thinking individual who could continue to derive a rewarding living from football long after he unlaces his boots for the final time.

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