Arda Turan is unquestionably a happy man, and not even his trademark bushy beard can hide the beaming smile he is radiating these days. Atletico Madrid’s very own ‘Leonidas’ is one of Diego Simeone's most important Spartans, embodying better than anyone the qualities of commitment and hard work his coach espouses. And while the creative midfielder loves being on the ball more than anything, he proudly defends the playing style that has made Atletico one of Europe’s hottest teams.
Of the five titles he has won to date with Los Colchoneros, including the UEFA Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup and last season’s La Liga, Turan says without hesitation that the sweetest of all was the 2013 Copa del Rey triumph against arch-rivals Real Madrid on their turf. “The club had not won there for 14 years. Afterwards I cried and a tide of emotions swept over me. I even had my hair cut, just as I’d promised a fan.” Perhaps that’s why the mere mention of last year’s painful UEFA Champions League final defeat to Madrid brings a momentary shadow across his face. “I can’t even talk about that. It still hurts,” he told us.
The 27-year-old Turkish international arrives for his FIFA.com interview with his inseparable friend and translator Ata in tow. In our exclusive chat, which meandered in and out of several languages, Turan explained the keys to Atletico’s success under Simeone and expressed his desire to see Turkey back among Europe’s elite.
FIFA.com: Atletico are enjoying one of the most successful spells in their history, even if their football is not to everyone’s taste. What do you say to those critics of the club’s playing style? Arda Turan: That I’m sorry they feel that way. Our football might not be pretty, but it’s winning football. Sometimes, the teams playing the nicest football don’t win games or titles. Certainly there are times when we’d like to have more of the ball, but we don’t have Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in our side, so we have to be a real team and work hard. We need to defend more than Madrid or Barcelona, but that style has made us champions. I respect everyone’s right to an opinion, and I too enjoy the football played by the likes of Barça or Bayern Munich. However, I prefer our own style more.
When you came to Atletico in 2011, the club had just won the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup but were still not unable to compete with Barcelona and Madrid. That changed with the arrival of Simeone, but can you tell us how he achieved it?When Simeone came in, the first thing he said to us was: ‘If we stop the opposition from scoring and get a goal ourselves, then we’ll win.’ The key thing was not to concede goals, which meant the team had to stay compact and defend as a unit. Our recipe is: work and more work. Each game is like a final and we have to focus on every opponent. Barça and Madrid have more money and more quality than us, but with our mentality of taking it ‘game by game’ and playing for each other we can compete with them.
Simeone has described you as ‘different’ player. As well as your craft, he demands a huge amount of work from you. How do you balance the two?I’m not the only one in the team who’s ‘special’ or particularly talented. There’s [Antoine] Griezmann, Koke, and many others, while previously we had Diego Costa, Diego Ribas etc. When all’s said and done, this is a group and we know our task is to improve the team. We need to leave our egos at the door, just be one more member of the team and carry out the boss’s instructions. That’s the only way we can be successful.
As one of those charged with putting your foot on the ball at difficult times, how do you manage to keep your composure?That’s my job (laughs). I take care of organising the attack. When we’re under the cosh, I can hold up the ball to give my team-mates a breather, maybe forcing someone into fouling me. Before kick-off my heart rate is off the scale (rapidly pounds his chest), but once the whistle blows, I’m completely calm. I don’t feel nervous and have the utmost self belief. It’s as if I’m in a Zen-like state. On the pitch I’m at ease, though I’m not sure why that happens. I’m probably a bit crazy (bursts out laughing)!
Certainly there are times when we’d like to have more of the ball, but we don’t have Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in our side, so we have to be a real team and work hard.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way you understand football? You’re not averse to smiling during games, which is not something you see many top players doing…For me it’s important to be happy and smile. It’s my philosophy on life. I also like to make other people happy. Right now you might be a star with fame and titles, but when your career ends, people remember the person you were. For me it’s important to be remembered as a good person.
That said, I understand those players with a more serious or distant demeanour. The big stars have to cope with a lot of pressure and so you have to understand them as well. I don’t judge them - I appear happy because that’s how I feel. At the end of the day, I’m realising my childhood dream.
After winning La Liga and reaching the final of the Champions League last term, you followed that up this season with victory over Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup and an important win over Juventus in your Champions League group. Do you see the club competing on all fronts again this season?Just like last year, we want to try and compete right to the very end. In the case of the Champions League, firstly we’d like to come out of our group, and as winners, because that gives you home advantage in the return leg of the first knockout round. However, that will be very tough to do. In fact, in my four years here, the toughest game I’ve experienced was that Champions League home game of ours against Juventus *(Ed’s note: Turan scored the winner for Atletico in a 1-0 triumph). *
*Against Barcelona you know they’ll have the lion’s share of possession; against Madrid you need to stop their counter-attacks; but the *Juve game was just tremendous. We have a lot in common: they are very strong and they made us really run and work hard. We didn’t play especially well, but we stuck to our style… and managed to win.
I pray every day that we make it there, as it would be hugely significant.
This Wednesday, you face Malmo in the Champions League. How do you see that one going?We’ll need to take care with Malmo – we have a lot of respect for them. At home they play very well and remember they went in 0-0 at half time away to Juve. This is the Champions League and if we’re careless or adopt an attitude of ‘we’re a big team, we’ll win all our games’, then we’ll be eliminated pretty quickly.
You burst onto the international scene at UEFA EURO 2008 but missed out four years later when Turkey failed to qualify. With additional qualification berths available for France 2016, is this Turkey’s big chance to grace another major tournament?Let’s hope so. I pray every day that we make it there, as it would be hugely significant. In 2008, we went as far as the semis (losing 3-2 to Germany) and it was an incredible experience. Now we have the potential again. We’ve got a great team – all we need to do is concentrate a bit better in defence. It’s one of my biggest dreams and I believe we can do it.
Fatih Terim is coach again, just as he was in 2008. What does his re-appointment mean to you?
The day they announced his return was a very special one for me. He signed me at Galatasaray when I was just 12, He’s my coach and friend, and like a father to me. I converse with him a great deal and he’s the coach that has had the biggest influence on my career. Indeed his style reminds me of Simeone’s, although Fatih puts more emphasis on attack, while Diego puts it on defence. But he is part of our country’s history and so I hope that together we can qualify Turkey for EURO 2016.