Football fans outside of Turkey were largely unaware that Ryan Babel was in Istanbul. In fact, most were unaware he was anywhere at all.
But on Thursday night his name rang out once again, as he hit his first European goals since August 2010 to lead his new club, Besiktas, into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League for only the second time in their great history.
A one-time £12 million teenager with the world at his remarkably talented feet, prior to this week the former Dutch international was a forgotten man.
“I tried to go to places I’d enjoy playing,” he recently revealed. Others disagreed. “I think [he] didn’t want to play here," said Al Ain board member Mohammed Obeid Hamdoun last year as his brief stint in the Arab world came to an abrupt end.
Babel would be the first to admit he’s found little enjoyment on the pitch for much of his career. But it’s safe to say he’s kept himself entertained away from the game. The Ajax grad-uate has embarked on a career as a rapper, founded a record label and established his own clothing line.
But for many, he’d unfairly become little more than of a figure of fun, best known for apocryphal stories like the 2010 ‘Babelcopter’, when he reportedly flew to London in a helicop-ter for a deadline-day move that never materialised.
Behind it all, however, was a story tinged with regret, the tale of a precocious potential superstar who felt he’d been let down.
“When I arrived [in England], no one helped me,” he said. “I was all alone.”
Babel stagnated in four years on Merseyside. A brief spell with Hoffenheim followed but proved largely fruitless. As did a return to Ajax in 2012.
There were some fond memories made at humble Turkish outfit Kasımpasa, but then came five uneventful months in the UAE and 12 equally unremarkable weeks with Deportivo.
His January transfer to Besiktas flew under the radar, with few outside of the Turkish capital taking notice.
This morning, however, everyone is sitting up after one of the great nights of Babel’s long and storied career.
Deadlocked at 1-1 from their first leg with Greek champions Olympiacos, Vincent Aboubakar had nudged Besiktas ahead when Babel made his first telling contribution of the night.
Collecting the ball inside the box, he jinxed inside before curling a low shot past Nicola Leali to grab his first European goal in six-and-a-half years.
A brilliant Tarik Elyounoussi volley pulled one back for the visitors, however, before Aboubakar saw red five minutes before the break. A Greek onslaught ensued.
“I think everyone, including myself, was worried,” Babel admitted. With 20 minutes left, Besiktas swimming against the tide. So much so, that the stadium announcer took to the mi-crophone to call on the crowd’s support. “We have beaten PSG, Barcelona and Liverpool here,” he reminded them. The fans roared, the players gasped desperately for a second wind.
“We had to work so hard to fill the gaps left by the missing player,” said Babel. One of those gapes was filled by a man who himself had so frequently been described as ‘missing.’
With 20 minutes remaining, Babel took centre-stage, allowing the ball to drop before volleying a wonderful second to complete his first European double in 10 years – the last having arrived against Besiktas in an 8-0 win for Liverpool.
“Sometimes it just all falls into place,” shrugged coach Senol Gunes. For some that hasn’t always been the case.
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