Earning the title "wonder kid" often ends up being a curse for young footballers, as many struggle to cope with the pressure and expectations put on their shoulders from a young age. It can end up proving to be a gamble signing the next big thing but occasionally clubs strike gold and Manchester City may just have hit the jackpot with striker Enes Unal.
The rising star of Turkish football has been tipped for greatness ever since achieving a staggering goal record at youth level. Unal had already attracted scouts from across the continent by the time he was 16 after scoring a ridiculous 182 goals in 110 appearances for the Bursaspor reserves. His international record was equally impressive having found the back of the net 24 times in 25 matches for Turkey at the under-16 level and making his debut with the senior side at the age of 17. The footballing annals are however, full of rising stars who didn't quite make the grade. Take Freddy Adu for example, as once upon a time he was dubbed the American Pele but now 10 years on he is looking for a club after playing last season in the second division of U.S. football.
Unal showed glimpses early on that he was capable of making the transition from youth to senior football and at 16 became the youngest player to score in the Turkish top-tier when he scored against giants Galatasaray on Aug. 25, 2013. The powerful striker was already starting to break into the Bursaspor first team when City snapped him up in 2015 and he left the Green Crocodiles having already scored seven senior goals.
Turkish players rarely leave the country, especially so young but Unal and his management team had other plans. Unal is represented by football agent Batur Altiparmak who runs Footalent, a sports management company focused on unearthing young gems and giving them a shot abroad. "There are quality players in Turkey but to reach the next level technically and mentally we believe some of them would be better off moving abroad from the age of 18 onwards where they can develop further," Altiparmak told ESPN FC.
Traditionally players have tended to stay put. Domestic players are generally highly paid and live in a bubble. Super Lig stars enjoy cult status, 24/7 media coverage and are paid far more than they would be in top leagues across Europe, benefitting from tax breaks and transfer restrictions that work in their favour. For years Turkish clubs were only able to play a set number of foreign players. The rules have been relaxed recently but there are still restrictions over how many foreign players a club can sign. The logic was simple. If clubs are forced to sign Turkish players the domestic pool of players would in theory improve. The reality on the ground was that clubs were being forced to pay over the odds for domestic players who simply did not deserve the money they were getting. Demand exceeded production and the product was generally not of a high quality.
The youngster could have easily made a move to one of the major Istanbul clubs and enjoyed the lifestyle of a superstar on high wages but decided to do what so few domestic players have done in the past and leave the league. Moving abroad and leaving family behind can be a daunting task at any age but Unal has always had a level of maturity rarely seen in a player so young. "He has a mature mentality and was not scared of moving outside of his comfort zone; one of his biggest strengths is that he likes to learn and keep improving, he saw the benefits of joining City and how it could help aid his progression as a player," Altiparmark said.
Unal faced an awkward predicament in England. He dreamt of playing Premier League football as a kid and despite getting his big move the FA ruling on non-EU players made him ineligible to play. The youngster was sent on loan to Belgium outfit Genk for six months where he struggled to settle in, followed by a successful spell in the Netherlands at NAC Breda over the second half of last season where he scored nine goals in 14 games.
NAC were keen to keep Unal on but he wanted a bigger challenge than Dutch second-tier football. FC Twente decided to bring him in on loan over the summer and it was not long before he locked down a first-team place. Unal scored a "perfect hat trick" in the 4-3 victory over Groningen in just his second Eredivisie game. His dream start won over the home faithful which in turn further boosted his confidence.
Unal told ESPN FC: "I feel joining Twente was the right decision, they are a big club with a great fan base and I am gaining experience playing regular top-tier football. The support received from the fans and club has been amazing and really gave me the self belief to settle in and grow."
The 19-year-old went through a physical transformation over the summer. He was always a powerful striker but he is stronger, more agile and has more stamina than he did during the last campaign. Unal was compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in terms of his playing style when he first joined City and this season he has started to show why. He has impressive technical ability for his size and is capable of playing as a lone striker or in a supporting role.
Unal already has 11 goals in all competitions for Twente this season and only Nicolai Jorgensen has scored more in the Eredivisie. The Turkish international is starting to prove himself as a lethal finisher with goals from inside and outside the box, from set-pieces and aerial balls. Unal has a veracious thirst for knowledge off the field as well and has been learning English and Dutch in order to help the settling in process and learn from his coaches.
The Turkish international hit the ground running in the Eredivisie but he still dreams of playing Premier League football. Under the current rules of the English FA he will have to wait until he is at least 21 to get his work permit but there is a chance that he could be granted permission earlier. "The problem is he needs to fill the national team appearances quota to get his work permit, the only other option is if he continues playing at this level until the end of the season which could result in the FA giving him a special exemption to play in the Premier League," Altiparmak said.
City are perennially linked with signing another striker but may already have the kind of goalscorer that could challenge for a place in the team in Unal.