Many former Newcastle United players can be looked back on with conflicting emotions. Just last week Jermaine Jenas drew the ire of the Toon faithful by suggesting that his development had been thwarted by Newcastle’s mediocrity during his early years. The retired midfielder described himself as being “miles above everybody” in Newcastle training after returning from international duty, despite the likes of Nobby Solano, Gary Speed and Alan Shearer being at Newcastle at that time.
When it comes to contrasting legacies though, few can out-do Emre Belözoğlu. Brought in the same summer that Jenas departed for Tottenham Hotspur, Belözoğlu was already a high-profile player within the game. A product of the Galatasaray youth system, he became the club’s youngest ever player shortly after his 17th birthday. He was a key man by 18, won four consecutive Super Lig titles and won his first international cap aged 19.
In 2001, aged 20, he made a £5 million move to Italian giants Inter Milan. A year later he starred as Turkey reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. He followed that up with an excellent showing in the 2002-03 campaign, helping Inter finish second in Serie A and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League. For his efforts that season, Emre was named as Inter’s Player of the Year. His performances were such, that in 2004, Pele named him among the likes of Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff in the FIFA 100, Pele’s list of the 125 greatest living footballers.
A dogged but gifted deep-lying playmaker who could play in either central or defensive midfield, Belözoğlu had a touch of class and could play the ball long or short with pinpoint accuracy and perfect weighting. Sadly for Emre, the 2004-05 season was a difficult one for him, as injuries restricted his game time. However, when Newcastle United managed to agree a fee of £3.8 million for the Turkish international, it was considered something of a coup.
Emre made his much-anticipated debut against Deportivo La Coruna in the Intertoto Cup, and he enjoyed a bright start to life at St James’ Park. It would be two months later, in October 2005, that he marked his Newcastle arrival in the way all players must dream to do, scoring a winner at St James’ against Sunderland. Emre had supplied the first with a corner into Shola Ameobi, and he won the game for the Magpies with a well-hit free-kick from range. One Newcastle United fan wrote on the BBC’s 606 forum after the game; ‘I can say with confidence that Emre is the best signing Newcastle have made in a long time.’
In the same summer that Emre arrived at Newcastle, fellow central midfielder Scott Parker had arrived from Chelsea. The duo were two of the most talented players on Newcastle’s books, but never seemed to be able to work well in tangent. Despite having a reputation as a hugely determined midfielder in his native Turkey, he sometimes cut a disinterested figure in the North East of England. His technical ability was clear for all to see, but Emre was a frustrating player, with his infrequent virtuoso displays only emphasising that the midfielder had more to give.
In his second season with the club, five different players accused Belözoğlu of racism, but the midfielder was never found guilty. Emre’s third and final season with the club was blighted by injuries, and he left for Fenerbahce in 2008. In 2012, he was accused of racism once more, this time by Didier Zokora in Turkey. It would take until 2014, but finally he was found guilty, and sentenced to a two-and-a-half-month suspended prison sentence.
Now aged 37, Belözoğlu is still a regular in Turkey’s top flight, starring for İstanbul Başakşehir, who are current joint top of the Turkish Super Lig, tied with Emre’s boyhood club Galatasaray. After three years out of the national team fold, Belözoğlu returned in September 2017, for Turkey’s World Cup Qualifiers against Ukraine and Iceland, both of which they lost. To date, he has racked up 21 trophies – including the Intertoto Cup with Newcastle – and 95 caps for Turkey.