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Who needs Neymar and Kylian Mbappe when you have Burak Yilmaz?
That underdog success story now complete, at Euro 2020 Yilmaz finds himself as the driving force for another unfancied side, Turkey. They may have been soundly beaten in their opening game by Italy but that poor display in Rome will not deter them in their attempts to justify their status as one of the teams who could upset the favourites as the tournament progresses.
Bursting on to the European scene… aged 35
At 35, many players might be thinking about retirement but Turkey’s captain seems only now to be reaching his peak – and earning belated recognition outside his homeland.
This season Yilmaz struck 16 times in 28 games for Lille and scored at a rate of a goal every 128 minutes in Ligue 1, a record bettered only by Mbappe.
In addition to those domestic feats, he also scored a hat-trick to beat the Netherlands in a World Cup qualifier in March. Not a bad way to get in the mood for the European Championship for a team who impressed during qualification, winning away against world champions France and drawing the return fixture.
It has been a headline-grabbing year for a player who, other than a brief spell in China, had spent his entire career playing in Turkey before his move to France in 2020.
Perhaps the surprise is that he had never before played in one of western Europe’s major leagues, particularly when you consider that he has scored at a rate better than a goal every two games at club level since 2010.
He has been linked to a Premier League move in the past but he stayed put. Some anticipated he would have left much earlier but the adulation, wages and trophies have kept him in Turkey.
He is one of only two men to have played for all of Turkey’s top four clubs – Galatasaray, Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor – and is a hero throughout the country, even though there is significant rivalry between those teams.
|Wednesday, 16 June||Wales (in Baku)||17:00 BST|
|Sunday, 20 June||Switzerland (in Baku)||17:00 BST|
His love of the atmosphere around big games in Istanbul has been a key factor in his decision-making.
“His nickname in Turkey is ‘Kral’, which means king,” former Galatasaray midfielder Jem Karacan explains. “That says it all. He guarantees you goals and anyone who goes to a club and gets as many as he does will ensure he is appreciated.
“Whoever comes knocking, there is no animosity towards him, they just know that they’ve got, alongside Hakan Sukur, one of the best strikers in Turkey’s history.
“It is strange he hasn’t made that move across, as it would have been great to see someone of his quality at least give it a go in England.”
Lille’s driving force and Neymar ‘scandal’
At Lille, Yilmaz’s goals led a side, including fellow Turks Zeki Celik and Yusuf Yazici, to their first league title in a decade, despite having a budget less than a quarter of PSG’s. His arrival was shrewd business, given he was signed on a free.
“His impact was massive,” says French football expert Tom Williams. “He set the standards, on and off the pitch, and he scored the crucial goals.
“To begin with, he was quite an intriguing signing. He was a replacement for Loic Remy and arrived aged 35 having spent pretty much the entirety of his career in Turkey. But he hit the ground running, with six goals in his first 10 Ligue 1 games.”
Injury meant Yilmaz missed two months of the season but he returned in mid-March as Lille carried on their fine form to get the better of a stuttering PSG. He made the difference in the crucial games when things could have gone either way.
“His best performance came in a brilliant 3-2 win at Lyon at the end of April,” Williams says. “Lille went 2-0 down but he scored a fantastic free-kick just before half-time, set up Jonathan David for the equaliser and then scored an ice-cool 85th-minute winner.
“It was fitting that it should be his penalty against Angers on the final day that ultimately secured the title.
“How Neymar got into the Ligue 1 Team of the Season ahead of him I don’t know. An absolute scandal.”
National icon an obvious choice as captain
Yilmaz is the son of Fikret, a former professional goalkeeper, which might explain how he learned to get the better of those between the sticks from an early age.
The striker’s early career was an underwhelming one, however, moving from Antalyaspor to Besiktas and then Fenerbahce, via Manisaspor, but he was a long way from prolific, scoring 33 times in eight seasons.
It was not until he reached Trabzonspor in 2010 that he found his feet aged 25, scoring 55 times in 72 league games over two seasons, and earning himself a move to Galatasaray.
There Karacan played alongside Yilmaz, learning how important the striker is to any team he represents. Yilmaz’s goals have helped him to two league titles and four Turkish Cups.
“He is quite quiet around the place,” Karacan says. “You don’t look at him as a hustle-and-bustle tall striker – he likes it all to his feet.
“He is a bit underrated technically with his hold-up play, but the main thing with Burak is that he’s a top-class finisher.
“If he gets half a chance, he’s going to stick it away, as you can see with his performances with Turkey and Lille this season.”
The ability to unify a team and drag them forward made Yilmaz an obvious choice for national team captain. The striker’s intensity around the training ground and during matches is an inspiration for team-mates.
“Burak was never really a loud voice around the place but he would lead by example,” says Karacan.
“The way he trained and played would set the standards. If you did not give the ball in the right place, he’d let you know. Not in a horrible way – he was just an honest player who told you how it was.
“You knew he was the one who was going to score your goals, so it was a case of trying to get him the ball as much as possible.”
Wales go up against Turkey on Wednesday in a pivotal game in Group A and, as semi-finalists at Euro 2016, they know a thing or two themselves about being dark horses.
Whether they know how to rein one in is yet to be seen. As Neymar and Mbappe will tell them, Yilmaz cannot be taken lightly.