Arda Guler: The Turkish wonderkid the whole of Europe wants to sign

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In what is one of world football's most intense atmospheres, it takes a lot to stand out within the stands at a Fenerbahce-Galatasaray match.

And yet when the Istanbul rivals met on April 10, one banner stood out among all the rest inside the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium.

"Arda Guler: The Turkish Messi," it read, held aloft by Max, a 20-year-old who had travelled from London to be at one of the most passionate games anywhere in world football.

"I went to Barcelona to watch Messi before and it was really great to see him," Max explained to GOAL. "So I thought Arda Guler, who is my favourite Fenerbahce player in the biggest game of the season, would deserve this nickname!"

The banner garnered so much interest not only due to a Turkish teenager being compared to a seven-time Ballon d'Or winner and perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, but because Arda has become the hottest property in Turkish football in recent weeks.

His Fenerbahce team-mate Mesut Ozil - who Arda has also been compared to - described the 17-year-old as having the potential to become "a world star", and it would seem that some of Europe's biggest clubs agree.

Arsenal and Liverpool reportedly sent scouts to watch the playmaker in action against Galatasaray, while Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have already been touted as future destinations for a player who is regarded as being the best to emerge in Turkish football for some time.

That is all some leap from the toddler whose father used to place balloons in front of him at his home in Ankara in an attempt to get Arda to kick them with his left foot.

"We did not have any left-footers in our family," Umit Guler explains to GOAL. "I put balloons and footballs in front of his left foot so he would use it more."

Arda was certainly given all the help he needed to become a footballer by his family, and his talents were spotted as early as his second year of primary school, when his physical education teacher suggested he join Genclerbirligi's academy.

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"Genclerbirligi's training facilities were very far from our home," Umit recalls. "We took Arda there with his teacher’s insistence, and he managed to show off his talents in the first training session. They put him in their team immediately!"

That team was actually made up of boys that were a year older than Arda, but he soon became captain as his supreme talents allowed him to stand out from the rest.

His abilities were spotted by Fenerbahce in 2019 at an Under-14s tournament hosted in Riva, around 50 kilometres (31 miles) outside of Istanbul, and the offer was soon made for him to make the 440km (273 miles) move to the Yellow Canaries.

"In December 2018, I went to Ankara to watch the Osmanlispor-Genclerbirligi U14s game," Serhat Pekmezci, the former youth coordinator at Fenerbache, explained to Haber Global. "I was scouting another player. However, Arda caught my attention, as both his skills and character impressed me.

"Although he suffered a serious ankle injury in the last 15 minutes, he did not quit the game. They lost the match and he shed tears at the end of the match.

"He had very special potential. We told our sporting director at that time, Damien Comolli, about Arda with a special report. He was a talent not to be missed so we should sign him.

"Nearly 10 days later, after not receiving any response from the board, I prepared a video of Arda and forwarded it to our chairman, Ali Koc. He made contact with me after watching him.

"My first statement to him was, 'at the age of 15 or 16, he can be playing in the first team', and not only mentioned that he was a European-class talent, but I also talked about his quality off the pitch."

A boyhood Fener fan who idolised Alex de Souza growing up, Arda jumped at the opportunity, and though he struggled with homesickness to begin with, his family followed him to Istanbul around six months later to help him settle properly.

The Covid-enforced shutdown of football in the first half of 2020 delayed Arda's start to life at his new club, but once he was able to showcase his abilities, he was soon promoted from the U17s squad to the U19s.

He enjoyed a superb campaign despite playing against opponents who were up to four years older than him, scoring 10 goals and laying on seven assists in just 22 appearances.

Unsurprisingly, that form caught the eye of first-team coach Vitor Pereira, who invited the youngster to train with the first team after Arda signed his first professional contract in January 2021.

It was not until August, though, that he would make his senior bow, coming off the bench for the final 24 minutes against HJK Helsinki in Europa League qualifying. Three days later, he marked his league debut against Antalyaspor with an assist.

"If you want to improve young players, you need to give them playing time and confidence," Pereira said following Arda's debut. "If you provide these and the players have the quality, they can shine.

"I worked in Porto’s academy for five years and I can say that I did not see many players who had Arda’s quality and character."

While the Messi and Ozil comparisons make for good headlines, perhaps the player Arda most resembles is ex-Real Madrid midfielder Guti, who spent the final year of his career in Turkey at Besiktas.

He is blessed with a maturity in possession that belies a player who only turned 17 in February, with his cultured left foot and vision ensuring that he is able to produce passes that others could only dream of making.

A superb dribbler, as highlighted by the mazy run and assist he provided against Slavia Prague in February, and an assured finisher, it is clear by Arda's first touch and decision making that he is able to process what he is going to do with the ball well before it reaches him.

Off the field, he is able to compartmentalise and switch off from the hype that surrounds him, ensuring he stays calm and is able to relax. After he provided another assist in the return leg against Slavia, for example, he spent the evening playing FIFA with one of his former team-mates from the U19s.

As the season has worn on, he has earned more and more opportunities to impress within the Fenerbahce first team, and became the youngest goalscorer in the club's history when he volleyed in from close range against Alanyaspor in March.

He backed that up by curling in a 20-yard effort against Kayserispor two games later, with the teenager having averaged a goal or assist every 45 minutes he has been on the pitch during his first season of senior football.

The battle for Fenerbahce now is to keep hold of their prized asset, who has a €30 million (£25m/$32.5m) release clause within his contract.

"I don’t think Arda will stay in Turkey too long,” Erol Tokgozler, Guler’s former coach at Genclerbirligi, told CNN Turk. “I know that there are offers from Arsenal and Bayern Munich.

"With each passing match, the number of these teams will increase. [Bids of] €20-30m for Arda will become ordinary."

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So too, in all likelihood, will adoration from the stands, whether via banners, songs or comparisons with greats of the game.

Right now, you would not bet against Arda joining them one day.

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