"Munich will always remain my first choice. It’ll always be home to me." Not necessarily the words you’d expect to hear from a Turkey international, but then again, Mehmet Ekici is a little different in many ways.
The 21-year-old midfielder was born in the south German metropolis and learned the football trade with the mighty Bayern Munich. He went on to make his Bundesliga breakthrough with Nuremberg last season and has now been recruited by Werder Bremen to belatedly fill the gap left by Mesut Ozil’s departure for Real Madrid.
Like Ozil, Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin, Ekici combines the invention and flair which typically characterises Turkish football with traditional German virtues of discipline and work-rate. He also ranks as one of the Bundesliga’s star prospects. "I believe Ekici can develop along the lines of Mesut Ozil,” Bremen managing director Klaus Allofs told sports portal ran.
The player grew up in the tough Neuperlach neighbourhood and soon devoted all his time and effort to football. His talent was spotted early: Bayern plucked him from the pavement games in front of the tower block where he lived and added him to the youth roster at their Saebener Strasse training facility when he was just seven.
It wasn’t easy, because I was caught between a rock and a hard place. At the end of the day, I listened to my heart, and it spoke Turkish.
The man who names Zinedine Zidane as his idol now acknowledges that football was vital in helping him integrate into the rough and tumble of Munich street life as a second-generation immigrant: "Football made it easy for me to find my place in the community. I never had any problems, because sport is held in such high esteem generally."
Ekici appeared for Bayern at every youth level, and signed professional forms after impressing in the club’s third-division reserves. He attributes his success so far to a potent combination of determination and a natural affinity for the game.
"The most important thing for a young player is desire," he told FIFA.com. Talent and a bit of luck are part of it too. I’ve always worked extremely hard to achieve my goals and I pursue my targets single-mindedly. You have to believe in yourself and you need confidence, without being arrogant."
Dead-ball specialist Ekici earned his Bundesliga spurs last term while on loan to Nuremberg from Bayern, featuring in 32 of the 34 matches, and finishing with a commendable three goals and nine assists. That was enough to persuade Werder he was the right player to place at the heart of their team rebuilding plans.
It also attracted the attention of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF). Coach Guus Hiddink intervened personally in the effort to prise Ekici away from the Germany national team, who picked him for all their junior teams from U-17 to U-21 level. The player’s greatest international success so far was third place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 in Korea Republic.
The 21-year-old explained of his decision to chose Turkey: "It wasn’t easy, because I was caught between a rock and a hard place. At the end of the day, I listened to my heart, and it spoke Turkish.” He also declared "pride" at his decision and stated it is "something I’ve never regretted".
Nor are there any reasons for regret, as Ekici has slotted into Hiddink’s plans without a hint of a hitch, retaining all his Turkish artistry and German discipline, and earning a berth in the starting line-up for his country’s most recent UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier, a 2-0 victory over Austria in late March.
"We absorb the German virtues and combine them with our own special Turkish qualities," he said. "In the first instance, it’s all about enjoying your football. The mixture makes the difference.” German-Turks are all the rage at present, as the aforementioned Ozil, Sahin and Altintop have all ended up at Real Madrid. All were born and raised in Germany, but only Ozil has opted to represent the Nationalelf as a senior international.
Ekici, now capped three times by Turkey, reckons the national team understands the vital need for organisation and tactics nowadays: "It was a different mentality in the past, but now discipline is the top priority. In former times, the players were very easily satisfied and didn’t always come with the right attitude, but we now have a lot of talented young players who are hungry for success."
I think the current team has huge potential. Every player has the ability, so the challenge now is to come together as a team.
Ekici is an important member of that very group and key to Hiddink’s plan for consistent success in the future, as Turkey’s previous highs - third place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ and a semi-final appearance at EURO 2008 – both failed to spark sustained progress.
"If we’re serious about success, it’s vital we have a coach like Mr Hiddink," he said. "He knows exactly when to tighten the reins and when to loosen them again. I think the current team has huge potential. But we’re young, and we now need to develop a feeling for our natural game. Every player has the ability, so the challenge now is to come together as a team."
A solid team performance will be required this Friday when Turkey visit resurgent Belgium for a crunch EURO 2012 qualifier. The south Europeans currently trail their second-placed opponents by a point in Group A, but they do have a game in hand.
"We’ll beat Belgium," Ekici said. "I’m aware of the quality in our team and I’m very optimistic. At the end of the day, we’ll earn our place at the tournament via the play-offs."
Turkey still retain a chance of toppling pool leaders Germany at this stage, although the outcome remains the subject of conjecture. By contrast, it is certain that the Munich-born youngster will continue to deploy the potent mix of Turkish flair and German robustness which served him so well all those years ago on the mean streets surrounding the tower blocks of Neuperlach.