By Luis Arconada Lamsfus
Among other things, the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals were memorable for the arrival of Turkish football. Senol Günes's team finished third, spearheaded by the attacking talents of Ilhan Mansiz, Hasan Sas and Hakan Sükür. Of the boys of last summer, however, the one who has done most since to suggest that the shooting star of Korea/Japan is not about to crash and burn is a little-known reserve.
Nihat Kahveci's tournament lasted all of 33 minutes, spanning two substitute appearances against Costa Rica in the first round, and Japan in the second. But as part of a Real Sociedad side yet to taste defeat in the Spanish Primera División this season, the 23-year-old forward is making up for lost chances.
Love of the game
Nihat failed to get on the scoresheet against FC Barcelona on Sunday, but two goals from his strike partner, Darko Kovacevic, were enough to secure a 2-1 home win. This stretched Real's lead at the top to three points - and drew the following tribute from Monday's edition of football daily Marca. "It is a pleasure to watch Real. They have spirit and a real unity about them. Looking at them from the outside, they just seem to play for the love of the game."
Real's success, however, has owed as much to perspiration as inspiration. According to Nihat, the secret behind the surprise package is the thorough pre-season workout ordered by the club's French coach, Raynald Denoueix. "I worked very hard along with the rest of the squad and our start to the season has been perfect," he said. "This is why I think we are doing so well."
Change of fortunes
Whatever the method, the result is a revelation. "I think last season was negative for us," Nihat said. "We played well but we couldn't win." Thirteenth last term after an unseemly relegation scrap, Real are now threatening to win their first Spanish title since 1982. Nihat has played no small part in the transformation. Brought to San Sebastián from Istanbul club Besiktas JK last January, he initially failed to settle at the Anoeta. The sacking of John Toshack - the manager who signed him - did not help, while "an injury made things worse when I arrived".
Cup of plenty
Nihat had worked under the Welshman at Besiktas JK, where he had impressed as much for his speed and long-range shooting as for his 27 goals over five years. It was another coach with 1. lig experience, Günes, whom Nihat credits with revitalising his career. The Real fans might not have been convinced by their new signing, but Günes had seen enough to include Nihat in his World Cup squad ahead of Real team-mate Tayfun Korbut. "Playing in the World Cup and finishing third has given me some confidence. We ended up in third place and I have played three more games after the World Cup, so I'm satisfied."
Nihat has featured in his country's three UEFA 2004™ qualifying matches since, including a starting role in the October victories against Macedonia, when he scored, and Liechtenstein. But when he told uefa.com "my aim is to score goals", his sights were set firmly on Spanish defences. Six goals in Real's first ten league games have earned him the exposure he was denied in Korea/Japan. And with four years left on his contract, and Real top of the league, he was happy to say: "I just want to do well for Real."
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