“The First Half”- Francesc Eser West
Before I begin to tell you this story, you must know that this is the longest chapter in this book and, so far, 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 film star, or 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 fortunate or unfortunate events. Regardless of what your dream was, you always have two choices. Either you go for it or you don’t go for it. This is the story of a boy who 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 very first football. I have vague memories, flashes if you will, of that Christmas morning of 1995. A football, along with the jersey of one of the most famous clubs in Turkey, Fenerbahce. It quickly grew into 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 apartment window. The fern was the goalkeeper. Needless to say after breaking a couple of windows and some furniture, my mom finally had enough and let me go out to play. That’s where I started making friends. Friends who shared the same passion for the game as I did. We were just street kids with our parking lot 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 could use. I would go out first thing in the morning and return no earlier than dinner time. I remember many days where my mom had to come out and drag me in the house pulling my ear. Incredible how a kid could have the energy to play for 10 hours non-stop.
Though I had many friends, I grew up an only child. I never knew what it was like to have a brother or a sister. My friends in the streets were another family to me aside from my own. Since I was the youngest of all the kids, they would always put me as the goalkeeper. I always argued that I wanted to play as 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. He would have shown them! Sometimes I would tell my parents and my dad would come downstairs to fight my battles. The entire playground would clear as quick as two shakes of a lambs tail. You like that expression? “Two shakes of a lambs tail”. Yeah, I thought so. I heard it in a movie once. “Pulp Fiction” I believe, Quentin Tarantino. I don’t wanna take credit for it. 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 the ball 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 better at goalkeeping. Ruthless at the tender age of 7, fearless, brave and motivated with endless energy. I was known as the 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 “DEEZ NUTS!” Got em’! Just kidding! I would come home with fresh bruises and cuts every day. 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 months of seeing 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 like it was yesterday. I spent the next 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 I was sitting on the bench as usual and, 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 if the only way for me to do that was to be in-goal, then heck so be it!
I spoke to the coach after the game and told him I wanted to be the goalkeeper of the team. I told him I was the goalkeeper in my neighborhood. 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. This was definitely not the parking lot. Instead of a car, I now was guarding a real goal, with a NET! I’ve never even seen a real fuckin’ net before! 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 decided to search for a better football school. At that time Fenerbahce was having a trials in search of young kids with talent for their academy. The trials were held at the Fenerbahce facilities where the first team would train. Grass fields, big 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. “Wait here” he said. He went inside and grabbed a pair of gloves. He came out and gave me an adult size glove so big my fingers barely filled the palm. I looked at the glove and there was the name “Rustu Recber” printed on the back. First team goalkeeper of Fenerbahce and Turkish national team. I had just been handed my hero’s gloves. That had to be a sign. That had to mean something. Didn’t it?
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 and beyond that day. When the coaches spoke to my mom to give her the final verdict, they knew they only had one choice. 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.
After 2 years in the academy, my family, in search of a better future for me decided to move to New York. The club was 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. Maybe later in the chapters. But 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, so I could continue my development. I signed for a German/Italian club run by the Italian mafia in Queens called B.W Gottschee. Immediately I became one of the “star” players and their starting goalkeeper.
I spent the next few years traveling all around the United States with Gottschee. Playing in different tournaments in different states, I got to see and experience other places in America. That played a big role in me acquiring the cultural values and becoming more “Americanized”. I was going to school and right after school I would go to training. If it was’t soccer, it was the gym with my very own personal trainer. Everyday, for about 5 days a week. Then games in the weekend. So I was a very active kid. But all I could ever think about in school was getting out so I can go training. My priority was Soccer. Oops, I mean football.
My passion and 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 enjoy and improve everyday. Imagine having those feelings from the age of 10. I remember my mom yelling at me from the sidelines as she watched the games. 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.
At around the same time we moved to the United States, my aunt had gotten married to a guy in Denmark. Her then husband had 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 one of the big reasons i’m the die-hard Manchester United fan I am today. I remember sitting at home flipping through the TV channels, bored out of my mind. Suddenly, I saw a match being televised. It was minute 85 in 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 the script. Schmeichel making saves left and right. One Beckham corner, and out comes Teddy Sheringham’s foot to equalize with 1 minute to go. Then, 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 Manchester United fan. I even have a tattoo of a Red Devil. All because of that game.
After going back and forth to Denmark for a year to FC Midtjylland they sat me down and told me that they will not sign me for their youth academy. Just like that, 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. A year after the failure to seal a youth contract in Denmark, I went back to Turkey in the summer in hopes of getting back into the academy of Fenerbahce. After one training session the goalkeeper coach told me to stop playing and concentrate on other interests in life as I would never be tall enough to make it as a professional 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 make me run for 2 hours on the treadmill after the training was finished. I’m not kidding, sometimes two and a half hours. Every sweat I poured, every sore muscle, every tear of agony made me better, stronger, faster, more resistant to physical pain. I was soon not only the fastest player on the team, but one of 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 the day. (Way back in the 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 than ever to succeed. Those failures were the essence of my motivation to success.
At the age of 15 my mom sent me to the Manchester United soccer schools. A one week training camp for goalkeepers. It was my birthday gift. In the summer of 2005, I packed my boots & gloves and headed out to Manchester, England and spent the week in a goalkeeping training camp of the greatest football club in the world, Manchester United. There were some fine goalkeepers from all over the world and we all worked closely with the Manchester United coaching staff. Of course I treated this as a tryout. Everyday I had to give it my best so maybe, just maybe, I would catch some coaches 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 real trial. But barely standing at 165 cm, that year instead of signing me, they signed Ben Amos. He was 20 cm taller. Looking back, i’d have taken him over me too.
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 sign a contract with a professional football club. In the summer 2008 just after I graduated from high school, I packed my bags and headed for Turkey again. I was meant to sign a contract with the reserve team of Fenerbahce. I was headed to the facilities to sign. But when I got there I got news of the coach that wanted to sign me, got the sack. Along with all his staff members. The new coach had deemed me surplus to requirements and all of a sudden I was without a contract and out in the cold again. That same week I had broken up with some chick I called my girlfriend. Let me tell you; the long distance shit never works.
I hit depression, and didn’t wanna see the light of day. I didn’t really like 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 a big club and not some local mafia team in Queens. The name goes a long way. Other than that I couldn’t stand Turkey. Even though I had spent the early years of my childhood there, I was too American now. I wanted to be in England or Denmark. 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. Today they are known as “Basaksehir”. Around the same time I was training with them in Istanbul, I met a girl from Denmark on bookface She was a distant 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. When I saw her, 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 acted disappointed but the truth is I couldn’t care less. I was determined to stay and find a club 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. On one rainy Danish afternoon, one club answered. A club called, Silkeborg IF. They told my uncle they would give me one training session to prove whether I am worth a trial. I packed my boots and gloves and 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. Wow…
I played my heart out, left it all out there and prayed to God for a miracle. God 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 myself and represented Turkey in the Under-19 & Under-20 levels. I had a choice between the USA 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 back-up keeper in the Danish league and a proud member of the youth Turkish national team. 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.