Mehmet Topal can often be found signing autographs and talking with fans after games. The Spider is one of the most widely respected players in Turkey.
He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd be shot at, but he has been. Twice. And, obviously, he's lived to tell the tale.
Topal grew up in Battalgazi, a provincial backwater of Malatya in eastern Turkey—a region that lacks the kind of footballing infrastructure found in the big cities. He did, however, get used to being in a group of 11 from early childhood. Topal grew up in a family of nine siblings, and when he was not helping out with his chores at the family shop, he could be found kicking a ball around.
It was not long after breaking into his local side, Malatya Belediyespor, that he got his first transfer. Dardanelspor snapped Topal up and brought him over to the Aegean shores of Canakkale when he was just 13. The dual-footed midfielder’s ability to use his long legs to win the ball earned him the nickname "Orumcek," or Spider.
Many players have ended up falling victim to the glitz and glamour of life at the "Big Three" Istanbul clubs, but the bright lights did not distract Topal. He managed to avoid the lure of the gossip columns—and still does.
On the pitch, the Spider played a key role in Turkey reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008. Under the stewardship of the "Emperor," Fatih Terim, Turkey were heralded as the comeback kings in the European championships.
The Crescent-Stars never knew when they were beaten, coming from behind against Switzerland, Czech Republic and Croatia to record memorable victories. The Red and Whites were knocked out in the semi-finals in equally dramatic fashion, with Germany winning on a last-minute goal.
After the Euros, Topal had a long list of suitors from across Europe, including Everton, where manager David Moyes had expressed interest in him. Turkish media reported that the Toffees made an €8 million offer, according to Transfer Market Web, but Galatasaray rejected the bid after Topal said he was happy there. Two years later, with Topal saying he wanted to play in La Liga, Valencia managed to snap him up for a €5.5 million fee.
Topal made 43 league appearances for Los Che and starred in the Champions League as well as the Europa League. Though he was settling into life in Spain, he missed Istanbul, so he returned to Turkey after two seasons on a €4.5 million transfer to Fenerbahce—Galatasaray's archrival on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Making the switch from Europe to Asia is never easy in Istanbul. An ex-Galatasaray player joining Fenerbahce is akin to a man leaving Arsenal to join Tottenham Hotspur or bolting Barcelona for Real Madrid, as Luis Figo did in 2000—a move that resulted in a Barca fan throwing a pig's head at Figo.
But no animal heads were thrown at Topal, who is one of the few high-profile Turkish players generally liked regardless of fan loyalty.
Turkish players and managers, not to mention club presidents and board members, can be a tad antagonistic at times toward rival sides. It's engrained in the footballing culture. But Topal has never taken part. As a result, he's heralded as a role model. Considering derby games often descend into violence, the bar for being a role-model player is not particularly high, but Topal deserves credit for dodging the chaos.
It also helps that he and his down-to-earth wife, Selda, are a well-liked football celebrity couple. They actively support the Turkish Kidney Foundation and, unlike the prototypical WAG swanning around the swanky parts of Istanbul in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, Selda can be spotted driving her practical little Mini Cooper.
Still: There were those two attacks. Both are unsolved.
In April 2015, Topal and most of his teammates were traveling in the Fenerbahce team bus when it was attacked on its way to Trabzon Airport following their 5-1 win at Caykur Rizespor. Someone shot the bus with a rifle along the Surmene-Arakli Highway.
Only the driver of the coach, Ufuk Kiran, was injured, and had it not been for his quick reactions in hitting the brakes, according to the Turkish daily Milliyet (h/t AS.com), the vehicle could have careened off a cliff into the sea, possibly resulting in many deaths.
The incident sparked national outrage and shock. The Turkish football federation reacted to the incident by suspending Super Lig and Turkish Cup matches for a week.
Fenerbahce general secretary Mahmut Uslu and others initially thought the attack was tied to an ongoing feud between Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor, a Black Sea-coast club whose supporters believe were the rightful champions in 2011 due to Fenerbahce’s alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal that year.
Matches between the two Super Lig giants have been raucous affairs ever since, but with the assailants still unknown, the motive for the shooting remains a mystery.
Surviving one shooting attack is bad enough, but to relive the whole incident a few months later just added to the trauma. In August, an unknown gunman fired on Topal while he was in his car after training. He was traveling with youth player Uygar Mert Zeybek when the attack took place. Fortunately, his Mercedes G63 had bulletproof windows.
A source says Topal told his friends: “Uygar and I escaped death.”
Fenerbahce denounced the attack in a statement, saying: “This was a terrorist attack. We condemn these armed attacks on our players and hope justice will prevail.” The perpetrator has not been found.
“I have been trying to forget about what happened," Topal said, according to a source close to him, "but it is difficult when nobody has been caught yet.”
There has always been a small hooligan element in Turkish footballing culture, but these shootings were unprecedented. The bus incident was not a skirmish among fans or a random act of idiocy. It was a potentially deadly attack.
“Of course the incidents took their toll and it took a while to get over," Topal said. "All I can do is be happy to be alive.”
Topal had a scary moment even before anybody shot at him. When he took a nasty fall in a 2014 match against Bursaspor and landed on his head, his team-mates reported hearing something snap. Topal was rushed off the field but somehow managed to emerge unscathed. He even played the rest of the game.
The long-legged midfielder has not let these incidents affect his performance. He was one of the most important members of the Fenerbahce side this season as well as the Turkish national team’s unbelievable road to Euro 2016 qualification.
Again coached by Fatih Terim, the Crescent-Stars regained their title as the comeback kings by qualifying for the tournament against all odds following a disastrous start to the campaign.
Turkey had been expected to battle with the Netherlands for the top spot in Group A, but Iceland and Czech Republic pummeled the Crescent-Stars. After drawing with Latvia, they were joint last with two games against the Dutch, ranked fifth in the world, still on their schedule.
Then the unthinkable happened. A draw and a 3-0 win over the Netherlands, combined with another draw against Latvia and wins over Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic, put Turkey in position to finish third in the group with a win over Iceland, which would at least qualify them for a playoff to get into Euro 2016.
In typical Turkish style, it all had to end in melodrama. The Crescent-Stars got their win when captain Selcuk Inan scored the only goal on a free-kick in the 89th minute. That and two upsets—Kazakhstan over Latvia at the same time and winless Greece over Hungary in a Group F stunner two days earlier—gave Turkey a guaranteed ticket to France and the tournament.
The Turkish national team boasts a technically gifted midfield with the likes of Barcelona's Arda Turan and Bayer Leverkusen's Hakan Calhanoglu. The player who holds it all together, though, is Topal.
There is an abundance of attack-minded midfielders but few on the defensive end. The Spider weaves his web, trapping opposition players with his long legs, and manages to not only break up play, but launch counter-attacks.
Turkey have won eight of their last nine games with the cerebral midfielder in the side. Topal also provides Terim with an additional option in defence and has featured as a centre-back when required.
The most pressing concern in the Turkish side is the back four. To put it nicely, the state of the defence at times has resembled a leaking ship, but to be fair, things have started to improve recently. The last time Turkey conceded more than a single goal in a game was 16 games ago. The team has risen from 49th to 18th in the FIFA World Rankings since the end of 2014.
Terim is facing a centre-back crisis. Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Omer Toprak has not played for Turkey since the now famous "hotel incident" in 2014, when winger Gokhan Tore and an armed accomplice invaded Toprak's hotel room to threaten his friend—also in the room—at gunpoint in a feud over a woman.
Squad selections for major tournaments rarely please everyone, but Terim decided to include Tore in the preliminary 31-man squad, which means Toprak would be excluded, as he's said he won't return to the national team as long as Tore is there.
You don’t have to be a detective to decipher why Toprak may be reluctant to join a squad that includes Tore. What got heads scratching was when Terim left Tore off of the final 23-man squad. That left Turkey without both the explosive Besiktas winger and one of their most experienced defenders.
We may never know if Toprak would have joined the squad had Terim not initially given Tore a call-up, but what's clear is that there's a problem in defence, one that's been exacerbated by a groin injury that's forced Serdar Aziz out.
The Emperor does, however, have a possible solution up his sleeve. Topal seems likely to feature as a centre-back this summer, based on his appearances in the back four in March warm-up friendlies against Sweden and England. The 23-man squad lacks defenders that can pass the ball out of defence with the composure and efficiency of Topal, and he is no stranger to the position—especially for the national team.
The Spider was first called up during Terim’s last stint in charge back in 2008. Despite playing predominantly as a defensive midfielder, Topal did star as a center-back in the semi-final against Germany, putting on a valiant display as Turkey bowed out in a 3-2 thriller.
"I'm lucky to have a player like Mehmet Topal," Terim told the Istanbul magazine Fanatik after Turkey's 2-1 win over Sweden this spring. "He is a rare breed. He tries his hardest wherever I play him and never complains. I have full trust in him."
The current national team side has a youthful core lacking in experience. Topal, Turan and Hakan Balta are the three survivors of the class of 2008.
Few are the players who can say they have won the league with Galatasaray as well as Fenerbahce. Fewer still among that group have had two attempts at their life and lived to tell the tale.
The pressure of a big game pales in comparison to having bullets fly at your car and team bus. Considering what he's been through and escaped unscathed, you have to wonder if the Spider should be called Spider-Man. Like the superhero—and also like his national team—he can always be counted on when the situation looks dire.