Dirk Kuyt walks out of the tunnel at the Şükrü Saracoğlu stadium into the blinding light of the midday sun. Once his eyes have adjusted, they fall upon the yellow and blue stand opposite where more than 10,000 supporters of Fenerbahçe have gathered to welcome him.
Kuyt had already met a number of them at Rotterdam airport. No sooner had he got out of his car before catching a flight to Istanbul than he was affably shaking hands with Fenerbahçe fans. Once there for his medical, he signed shirts and smiled for photographs with the Fenerbahçe-supporting doctors, obligingly holding up a message to one of the staff’s sons so that he could show it off to his friends at school. “I have come to realise just how big this club is,” Kuyt said.
As he walked across the pitch towards the stage where he was due to publicly sign a three-year contract worth a reported €2.85m a season, a chant of “Kuyt, Kuyt, Kuyt, Olé, Olé, Olé” reverberated around the ground. Scarf around his neck, clapping the fans, his first act was to pay tribute to Turkish soldiers killed earlier in the week.
After a minute’s silence, Kuyt sat down, lent over the microphone and said: “Hello Fenerbahçe” in Turkish. He then thanked everyone for coming, expressed his wish to win a lot of trophies and become part of the club’s history. Kuyt concluded by having another go in the language of his adopted country: “It’s an honor to be a part of Fenerbahçe.”
Nice touch, wasn’t it? Simple, yes, but not many footballers make that sort of effort, do they? Not these days anyway. This isn’t a weary lament for times gone by, just another show of admiration for how Kuyt handles himself, how he tries to relate to supporters, identify with them and his new surroundings, the city and the culture. He ‘gets it’. He understands what they need to see and hear and that remains a rare quality.
When it emerged that Kuyt was leaving Liverpool earlier this summer after six years at Anfield, there was many a sigh not of relief but regret. No one wanted to see him go. “From the first day he came to the club, he was someone you could trust and knew that he would never let you down on the pitch,” insisted Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard. “I will miss him around the place and I wish him and his family all the best in Turkey.”
The most touching tribute for Kuyt came from Rafa Benitez, the manager who signed him from Feyenoord on the recommendation of a former player of his at Extremadura, Igor Gluscevic, who had played with him at Utrecht.
Kuyt had turned out to be a different player from the one the fans expected. After scoring 83 goals in 122 games for Feyenoord, he was welcomed as a messiah, the new Ian Rush. But there was to be no second coming. Still, Kuyt found other ways to endear himself to Liverpool, not least by learning the Scouse Alphabet. He wasn’t prolific, but he did score important goals. Such was his versatility, his professionalism, and his spirit of sacrifice, that he earned a place in the heart of Benitez and everyone on the Kop.
“When no one showed to receive from a thrown-in there was always the willing and ever ready Dirk,” Benitez wrote. “If you needed someone to get into position to finish, of course it would be him. When you needed him to run behind the defence against Milan to create space between the lines for Gerrard again it had to be Kuyt. If you needed one last effort to help against a defender who was getting forward, Dirk Kuyt did it willing as if he would do it ad infinitum.
“A lot of people talk of players who play for the shirt and their loyalty, but I can tell you that in my opinion, in my career as a coach, I don’t know of many players who have played for the Liverpool shirt like he did.”
All of which, regardless of what club you support, makes it hard not to root for Kuyt and the early personal success he is enjoying on the Bosphorus with Fenerbahçe. “We have done a great job in buying Kuyt,” the Yellow Canaries’s coach Aykut Kocaman said. So quickly has he taken to life there, it’s as if he were born and raised in Kadıköy. Kuyt has scored six goals in six games, each imbued with trademark importance.
After a 1-1 draw with Vaslui at the Şükrü Saracoğlu in the first leg of their third qualifying round of the Champions League, Fenerbahçe, it seemed, risked spending yet another year outside of the competition after serving a ban last season following the match-fixing scandal that engulfed Turkey. With the second leg on a knife edge at 1-1 after over an hour, Kuyt struck twice and paved the way for a 4-2 aggregate victory that kept their hopes of reaching the group stages alive.
He then left his mark on the Turkish Süpa Kupa against league champions Galatasaray in Erzurum. Kuyt certainly was a provocateur in his first derby. Involved in a confrontation with Galatasaray’s tempestuous midfielder Engin Baytar after a deflected Alex free-kick made it 1-1, he then leveled the score at 2-2 with a diving header.
Replays showed that the ball had struck Fenerbahçe midfielder Cristian Baroni’s hand in the build-up, incensing Galatasaray. While Kuyt celebrated, arms-outstretched, blowing a kiss and beating his chest, the Galatasaray players surrounded the referee and Engin Baytar was sent off for dissent. Despite being down to 10 men, Galatasaray won 3-2 through a last minute penalty from Umut Bulut, but irrespective of the result Kuyt was by now a favourite among the Fenerbahçe crowd.
He found the net again in his league debut, a 1-1 draw with Elaziğspor, and got his first competitive goal at the Şükrü Saracoğlu this weekend, in a 3-0 victory against Gaziantepspor.
Either side of those games is Fenerbahçe’s Champions League play-off tonight with Spartak Moscow. If it weren’t for Kuyt, the tie might already be over. He got a precious away goal in a 2-1 defeat at the Luzhniki which leaves Wednesday night’s second leg delicately poised. The atmosphere in Istanbul promises to be tense.
During the first leg, a section of Spartak fans allegedly held up anti-Muslim banners and burned a portrait of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who Fenerbahçe have long claimed was a supporter of their club. Days later, Spartak’s official website was hacked. A picture of Atatürk appeared were the home page used to be with a message that apparently read: “Apologise immediately to the Turkish people. FIFA will ignore this but we will not allow this crime to go unpunished.”
The best form of revenge is, of course, to be found on the pitch. For Kuyt, there’ll be memories of four years ago when Liverpool were also involved in a finely poised Champions League play-off match against Standard Liege. With no goals scored, it went to extra-time and penalties loomed. Then in the 118th minute, a Ryan Babel cross soared towards the far post and who should be there but Kuyt to poke home a winner that ensured Liverpool reached the group stages.
If he repeats the same heroics on Wednesday night, his wish to become part of the club’s history like Lefter Küçükandonyadis, Can Bartu and Alex, will be on its way to coming true, for few players have started the careers in Kadıköy as well as Kuyt.