“The First Half”- Francesc West
Before I begin to tell you this story, you must know that this is the longest chapter in this book and of my life. This, is the first half. What did you dream about being when you were five? Do you remember? A doctor? A cop? A movie star? A teacher? Ever since I could remember, ive only wanted to be one thing and nothing else. A professional football player. What a cliché! Dont we all start out with the dreams of becoming a movie star, an athlete with our names in flashing lights? Before eventually reality strikes and we find ourselves sitting on a desk, with a computer, punching in numbers and working for other people’s dreams. Most people in this world never became what they set out to be. They just rolled into something by a series of events. Regardless of what your dream was, you always have two choices. To go or not to go for it. In this particular story, I went for it.
For you to know the stories to come, you must first know this story. But for you to truly know this story, I must start from the very beginning. The day I got my first football. I have vague memories, flashes if you will, of that Christmas morning of 1995. A football, along with the jersey of the most famous club in Turkey, Fenerbahce. It quickly grew in to my heart and soul, and before I knew it, that ball was my best friend. My dad and I would watch the games fanatically, with me wearing my jersey of course. I never really took it off. I suddenly saw it. It came in the form of a dream. Myself, out there on that football pitch, inside that television, in front of that crowd, with the ball at my feet. Just another kid with dreams.
I didn’t start hanging out in the streets until I was about six. My mom wouldn’t let me. So for about one year, my football field was our living room. The goal was between the two parallel couches near our 6th floor window of the 10 floor apartment building. Needless to say after breaking a few windows and some furniture, my mom finally had enough and let me go outside to play. That’s where I started making friends. Friends who shared the same love for the game as I did. Our parking lot was the football pitch. It was wasn’t the biggest parking lot, but it was certainly larger than the living room. We made goals out of sticks, chalk, stones, cars, bags, gates, basically anything we can find. I would go out first thing in the morning and return no earlier than dinner time. I remember days my mom having to come outside and drag me in pulling my ear. Incredible how I had the energy to play for 10 hours non stop.
I’m an only child. I never felt what it was like to have a brother or a sister. My friends in the streets were another family aside from my own family. Since I was the youngest of all the kids, they would always put me as a goalkeeper. I always argued that I wanted to play striker. But then I’d get beat up and put it goal anyway. I’d imagine if I had an older brother, he would have looked out for me. Sometimes I would tell my parents and my dad would come downstairs to fight my battles. The entire playground would run away as fast as they humanly could. But hey, If this was the only way I was going to be a part of the game then so be it. I would take a beating not only off the field, but also playing. They would shoot so hard, tackle, and play dirty. And because I was playing with kids 3-5 years older than me, it took a while getting used to. As I grew a little and learned the game, I started becoming good at goalkeeping. Ruthless at the tender age of 7, fearless, brave and motivated with endless energy. I was known as the best goalkeeper in the neighborhood. Whenever we played kids from other neighborhoods, they would come knock on my parents doorbell and ask for me to come outside and play. That was a special feeling being asked to play. I was good because I didn’t care. I would dive on concrete, tackle bigger kids, take a ball in the face or the nuts. I would come home with fresh bruises and cuts every day. But playing and growing up in the streets made me a tougher kid. I was a street kid, apart from the fact I had a home to return to when the night came to an end.
After seeing the fresh bruises from football and hearing stories of older kids beating me up, my mom and dad decided to send me to a local soccer school. Needless to mention my excitement and joy. I still remember that day vividly like it was yesterday. I spent the summer in a local soccer school nearby our neighborhood playing striker. The only problem was, I sucked. I’d never get to play and when I did I was so bad they wouldn’t even pass me the ball. One day, sitting on the bench, I looked at the goalkeeper. Why doesn’t he ever come off I asked myself. I wanted to play the entire game like him. And the only way to do that, was for me to be in-goal. So be it!
I spoke to the coach after the game and told him I wanted to be the goalkeeper of the team. He laughed and said “Lets see what you got”. I went in-goal, and all of a sudden shots were coming in from all angles. It was completely a different setting than the parking lot. Instead of a car, I now was guarding a real goal with a net. I was catching a pro size ball, wearing cleats instead of my chucks. After seeing me in-goal he suggested that I work closely with the goalkeeper coach. You have potential he said, but you need a lot of work. After watching me play, my parents saw that I had some skill and sent me off to a better football school. Fenerbahce was having a tryout in search of young kids with talent for their youth teams. The trials were held at the Fenerbahce facilities where the first team would train. Grass fields, big ass goals, pro solid balls, and about 250 kids from all over Turkey that were competing for 25 spots. Of course, I was there as a goalkeeper. They put all the goalkeepers from every age group in one place. And of course I was the shortest, the skinniest and the least experienced of them all. I mean these kids had cleats, gloves, real goalkeeper shirts with the number 1 printed on the back. The goalkeeper coach who had our fate in his hands came up to me and asked where my gloves were. I told him I didn’t have any. Until that day, I had done things old school, with my bare hands. He told me to wait here. He went inside to grab a pair of gloves. He came out and gave me an adult size glove so big my fingers never made it where they should be. I looked at the back of the glove and there was the name of Fenerbahce and Turkish national first team goalkeeper Rustu Recber’s name printed in black. I had just been handed my idols gloves. That had to be a sign. That had to mean something.
Seeing the grass, the field, wearing my idols gloves lit a fire in me that I never knew I had. I performed to the best of my abilities that day. When the coaches spoke to my mom to give her the final verdict, they only had one choice and that was to pick me for the team. Out of 30 goalkeepers, I was one of the 3 they chose. That’s when I signed for the youth academy of one of the biggest football clubs in Turkey, Fenerbahce.
After spending 2 years in the academy, my family and I moved to New York. They were sad to see me go, and I was sad to leave my boyhood club. After all, I was moving halfway around the world, to a new country where I didn’t speak the language. I’m not gonna get into how I dealt with the adaptation phase. I can only tell you that it’s a very tough thing for any child to go through. Of course my parents found me a local football team in New York so i could continue playing. I signed for a German owned club, run by Italians in Queens, New York called B.W Gottschee. Immediately I became one of the “star” players and the starting goalkeeper.
I spent the next few years traveling all around the United States with Gottschee. Playing in different tournaments and states. I got to see what the rest of America looked like. That played a big role in acquiring the culture and becoming “Americanized” for me. I was going to school and after school I would go to training. Everyday, for about 5 days a week. Then games in the weekend. So i was a very active kid ever since. But all I could ever thing about in school was getting out so I can go training. My priority was soccer. Oops, I mean football.
My passion, my dream became my parents dream. They wanted me to succeed so badly. With all the good intentions of thinking that this was what would make me happy. But that can backfire sometimes. I felt under immense pressure at times. It became something I must accomplish rather than and enjoy and improve everyday. Imagine having those feelings from the age of 12. I remember my mom yelling at me from the sidelines as she watched the games. Telling me to play better or even giving me advice on what I should do. She would tape my games sometimes for my dad to see, and I remember watching one tape where im in-goal and my mom is screaming and yelling on camera saying “GET UP DUMBASS, GET UP”. They put a lot of their time and effort to make my dream come true. They would go out of their way to make my games, and suddenly it had become their priority. Only thing was I didn’t know if this was my dream or their dream.
My aunt had gotten married to a guy in Denmark. Her husband told me about an opportunity at a very good super league club in Denmark that was famous for breeding young kids into adult football players. He talked to the necessary people and before I knew it, at the age of 13, I was on my way to Denmark going for a trial at FC Midtjylland. After all Peter Schmeichel was the reason I became a goalkeeper, and the die-hard Manchester United fan I am today. I remember watching the 1999 champions league final. I was flipping through the channels and I caught the last 5 minutes of the game where United were down 1-0. You probably already know this script. Schmeichel making saves left and right. One Beckham corner, and out comes Teddy Sheringham’s foot to equalize with 1 minute to go. About 30 seconds later, another Beckham corner and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wins it for Manchester United. Ever since I was 9 I have been a die-hard United fan. I even have a tattoo of Man Utd today. All because of that game.
After going back and forth to Denmark for a year for FC Midtjylland. They sat me down and told me that they will not sign me for their youth academy. My hopes of moving to, and developing in Denmark had vanished. The reason was my height. I was 14 years old and at 160 cm I was certainly under grown with the probability of not even hitting the 175 cm mark in my adult years. That was a big problem as the ideal height for a goalkeeper is no less than 185 cm. After the failure to seal a youth contract in Denmark, I went to Turkey in hopes of getting back into the youth system of Fenerbahce. I was told to stop playing and concentrate elsewhere as I would never be tall enough to make it as a goalkeeper.
Disappointed and heartbroken I went back to New York and started High School. My dad hired a personal trainer to help me develop off the field. Thats how I met Marcial. Marcial was a bodybuilder working as a pt. He took me under his wing and eventually became a big brother figure and a big influence on me. I still remember regurgitating in our first session. He would put me through the most vigorous workouts. Shit I never thought id survive doing. He would no joke make me run for 2 hours on the treadmill after the training was done. Every sweat I poured, every sore muscle, every tear of agony made me better, stronger, faster, more resistant to pain. I was soon not only the fastest player on the team, but the strongest and the fittest. Ever since I was young I was very quick and agile. Its genetic i think because my dad said he was very quick back in his day. The fact that I never got what I wanted in Denmark and being told I was never going to be tall enough to be a goalkeeper in Turkey, made me even more determined. Those failures were the essence of my motivation to succeed.
At 15 my mom sent me to the Manchester United soccer schools, a one week training camp. It was my birthday gift. In the summer of 2005, I headed out to Manchester and spent the week in the goalkeeper training camp. There were goalkeepers from all over the world and we all worked closely with the Manchester United coaching staff. Of course I treated this as a try out. Everyday I had to give it my best so maybe, just maybe, catch someones eye. My attitude, desire, work rate and talent did not go unnoticed. I won “Goalkeeper of the week” and was handed the opportunity to come back in the summer of 2006 for a trial. That year instead of signing me, they signed Ben Amos. Who is still there as a 3rd goalkeeper today.
Throughout my years in High School all I ever concentrated on was training and playing soccer. My teachers knew that. My grades were low, barely passing. I was happy getting C’s, and D’s. My goal was to go to Europe as soon as I graduated and find a contract. In the summer 2008, just after I graduated, I packed my bags and headed for Turkey. I was meant to sign a contract with the reserve team of Fenerbahce. But while I was there the coach that wanted me got the sack, along with his staff members. The new coach had deemed me surplus to requirements. I was all of a sudden clubless and out in the open once again. That same week I had broken up with my Turkish girlfriend. Let me tell you, the long distance thing never works.
I hit depression, and didn’t wanna see the light of day. I hated Turkey and the only reason I accepted signing for Fenerbahce was so that I can say to clubs in Europe that I am a product of Fenerbahce. The name goes a long way. Other than that I hated Turkey. The country, the people, the culture, the football just didn’t serenade with me. Even though I had spent the early years of my childhood there, I was too Americanized to return to that culture. I wanted to be in England or Denmark. Or anywhere in Europe for that matter. My dream was to play in the premier league. After a couple of weeks I got an offer for a trial at IBB. Which was a mid table super league club in Istanbul. Around the same time I was training with them in Istanbul, I met a girl from Denmark on facebook. She was the cousin of my aunts husband. We talked for hours and hours everyday. Skype, text, phone, the whole lot. I told my mom I had to go see this girl. She was against it and told me that I was risking losing my chances at IBB. I didn’t care. I had to see her.
Following my heart and leaving my brain in the process, I jumped on a flight to Denmark. I immediately fell in love. I guess to some extent, so did she. I got a call a few days later from my mom telling me that IBB had signed another goalkeeper because I had left. I couldn’t care less. I was determined to stay and play in Denmark so I can be with this girl. My aunts husband was contacting clubs on my behalf in the hopes of getting a trial. We must have called about 20 clubs within the area. Only one club answered. A club in the super league of Denmark called, Silkeborg IF. They told my uncle they would give me one training session to prove whether I am worth taking on a trial. I packed my boots and gloves. I headed to Silkeborg for what would be the day my life would change forever. I took my chance and after an hour of training with the first team goalkeeper coach Finn Secher, he decided I was worth taking a look at for a week. One week to go to the transfer window, I was training with the first team of a super league club in the hopes of earning a contract and being with the girl I love. Love is a big motivation in life. Its the thing that motivated me the most. Everyday I went out on that field with the thought of never being able to be with her if I failed to get this contract.
I played my heart out, left it all out there and prayed to God. He answered. They signed me 1 day to go for the close of the transfer window giving me a one year contract. I still remember telling her the news that i would be staying here with her. I had kept it secret from her the entire week that I was training with a club in Denmark. After a few tears of joy, we moved in together. My dream had come true. More than I could ever ask for.
My story was unique. A local boy from Queens knocking on the door of a super league club. The spotlight was on me. I appeared in Danish newspapers, televisions, signing autographs for kids, interviews, magazines, and all the while I was training with the first team with ex premier league and national team players. It didn’t take long before I got called up to the national team and represented Turkey in the Under-19 and Under-20 levels. I had a choice between the US national team and the Turkish national team. I opted for Turkey to be able to play in the European Championships. A glittering career was at prospect. From a local team in Queens, New York to 3rd string keeper in the Danish super league and a member of the U-19 youth national team within 1 year. I had the world in my hands. However, I was far from satisfied. I wanted to be there in England playing in the premier league. That was how high my aims and expectations were of myself. The sky was the limit.