Cengiz Under: The Rise of Serie A's New Scoring Sensation
With no family alongside him and no friends in tow, Cengiz Under arrived at his new home in a southern suburb of Rome with little more than a bucketload of talent and ambition, ready to chase a dream.
Seven months on, he's cracked it. Four goals in three Serie A games and another on his UEFA Champions League debut have elevated him to heights he was never sure he would reach. Now everyone is taking notice.
Under, the new darling of AS Roma, has become a shining ray of hope for kids across Turkey, but particularly his hometown of Sindirgi, a small place in the Marmara area of the country. Under is a hero.
He played for Bucaspor, Altinordu and Basaksehir in his homeland before taking a call from AS Roma sporting director Monchi that changed his life forever.
Now he's banging in goals domestically and in Europe, and setting tongues wagging with his style and guile.
Under came from nothing, but he is about to become a very big deal.
Receiving Monchi's Call
In April last year, Roma made a significant appointment as Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo jumped on board as their new sporting director.
Better known as Monchi, he is the transfer wizard who transformed Sevilla on the back of a financial crisis. He became renowned for his talent-spotting and deal-brokering, snapping up bargains and selling for high fees.
It seems he's already making an impact at his new home.
Towards the end of last season, Cengiz knew big clubs were beginning to show interest in him, but it was Monchi who went the extra mile.
He told the player through representatives he wanted him as part of Roma's first team—not a future prospect. The player was suddenly enthused, and Roma were making him feel special.
He was 19 at the time, about to turn 20, and has always been advised not to make the same mistake players before him had done: reaching too high too soon. Monchi's attention to detail, including promises about how the club would help him settle in Italy, was exactly what he had been looking for.
One source close to the player explained to me: "A move abroad was daunting, but Roma made the entire process as simple and comfortable as possible."
It did not take long for the transfer to gain momentum, and a €15 million agreement was reached between Roma and Basaksehir. Under was feeling more excitement than trepidation.
He moved into a home that used to be owned by Wojciech Szczesny, now at Juventus, and has been so focused on making sure he fits in on the pitch that the place is still decorated with pictures left behind by the former Arsenal goalkeeper.
Starting at the Bottom
That moment of finding himself living alone in Rome and preparing for a season in Serie A was a strange one for Under. He was never expected to become a name that would be recognised across the football world.
Brought up in a small town where ambitions are limited and opportunities hard to come by, his natural talent saw him flourish. While plenty of kids play football there, few get a chance to push forward in the game. Under was a special case.
He was spotted at the age of 10 and began taking strides to fulfilling his potential.
Scouts relocated Under to Izmir, a metropolitan city three hours away, and took his game to the next level with Bucaspor. Moving in such a fashion is rare.
Under did not let anyone down. Being able to rise to any occasion has become one of his most impressive traits.
He began his professional career close by with Altinordu and then joined Basaksehir in 2016. While they are a Super Lig outfit, they are not the most glamorous option he could have chosen.
"Because he has not played for big clubs, he has always had to work that bit harder to be noticed," Turkish football expert Emre Sarigul explained. "Many players at the bigger clubs get spoiled at a young age and lose their way, but for him that did not happen. It has become one of his biggest strengths—Altinordu really helped him develop as a person both on and off the field."
Becoming an Idol
Under has never had to deal with hype on a nationwide level, and that has helped him retain focus and should help him remain level-headed as his career moves on.
That does not mean he is not revered back home, though. His former club are already on the hunt to find the next Cengiz Under.
Altinordu have an ambitious academy product launching this year that they hope will help develop more stars to follow in his footsteps. Their own side will host a tournament at U12 level, with Premier League sides Manchester City, West Ham United, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion all expected to participate.
Thanks to his recent form with Roma, Under is now being celebrated globally too. It's a relief for the player, as there were doubts back home whether moving to Italy was a wise decision.
The case of Salih Ucan, a top Turkish prospect who also began his career at Bucaspor, had served as a warning.
Ucan joined Roma on a two-year loan deal from Fenerbahce in 2014 but failed to prosper. He was the same age Under finds himself now.
"He lost his way, and the whole situation got on top of him," Sarigul said. "It was one of those too-much too-soon scenarios and it was a bit of a disappointment. Now he's playing in Switzerland for FC Sion."
Marking His Arrival
Under's sudden success with Roma is no fluke. The club did a great job with him behind the scenes, easing him in despite local media and supporters growing impatient with his lack of game time.
When he signed, fans hoped he could take over from Liverpool-bound star man Mohamed Salah as an inspirational figure. If Roma had thrown him in at the deep end from the beginning of the season, he probably would never have been able to fill such a role.
Behind the scenes, though, they were helping him settle. He had his own translator on hand at all times and was being taught Italian several times a week.
On the training ground, he put in the hard yards, and head coach Eusebio Di Francesco took a gamble on him a few weeks back when switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Under was given a key role on the right, and the goals that followed have been special.
Under is suddenly an instrumental member of the team and a fans' favourite.
His agent, Omer Koray Uzun, told Bleacher Report: "We planned his moves taking into account the club's vision and approach towards playing young talent. Cengiz has always played for sides that view him as a first-team player.
"Monchi made it clear how highly he regarded Cengiz, as did the manager. Cengiz has a thirst for knowledge and the ability to learn quickly, which has helped him adapt to every club he has joined.
"Being hardworking, talented and humble as a footballer is a rare combination, but he has all three."