My Football Journey: The Road to 2026 is a series following some of the most exciting young footballers in the world through a key moment in their careers.
It will chart the highs, the setbacks and the hard work they and their clubs are putting in and show how different their journeys are as they dream of making it to the 2026 World Cup. Links to all of those featured can be found here, with this our second interview with young Turkish midfielder Demir Ege Tiknaz.
Demir Ege Tiknaz was at home in Istanbul when he woke on the morning of February 6, 2023, to devastating news. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake had hit southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in Turkey. Survivors said it took two minutes for the shaking to stop.
Thousands were killed. Cities destroyed. Entire families were wiped out.
Around 12 hours later, a second powerful tremor hit further north.
It is estimated that over 55,000 people were killed in Turkey and Syria as a result of the earthquakes, with a further 100,000 injured and 17million affected.
“I was so afraid,” the Besiktas midfielder tells The Athletic, almost a year on from that day. “We saw the videos on the internet. I still have this trauma when I remember it. It was really difficult for everybody and everybody tried to support them in the best way they could.
“I felt that life is so short and things can change in seconds. We still feel this trauma.”
At the time, Tiknaz, 19, was working his way back to fitness after suffering a cruciate ligament tear in April 2022. It was, he says, a “heavy” injury and one that kept him from playing for around nine months.
When he returned, it was to the under-19s squad, where he was able to rebuild his fitness and focus on something other than the world around him, which was so full of sadness and tragedy.
“On the pitch, you forget everything from your own life,” he says. “During these 90 minutes, it’s kind of a therapy. When you touch the ball you forget everything, but after, you remember.
“Without football, life would really be way more difficult for us.”
When The Athletic first spoke to Tiknaz in December 2022, he was eight months into the rehabilitation process from his knee injury. He talked then of his determination to return to the first-team dressing room where he had ventured twice before, as an unused substitute for games in the Turkish Cup (against Antalyaspor) and the Champions League (against Ajax).
The process was a gradual one, but he soon started to feel the positive impact of his time out.
“When I didn’t play football, I watched so many matches and had so many new ideas. When I was back on the pitch, I started playing with more maturity and I felt stronger.
“I felt stronger in the duels. I felt fitter and fresher. After returning from that injury, I thought if I can get through this one, I can get through any other problem.”
At the start of this season, he had one aim: to reach 20 appearances in the senior squad. He is already on 24 (all competitions). Now his targets have moved on. He wants to play even more and continue to develop himself as a senior professional.
There have been challenges. The step up from under-19s football is a big one. At the start, Tiknaz was only training and watching his team-mates from the sidelines. “I did not have chances or any minutes in the matches, but I always believed in myself,” he says. “I worked so hard. I had fewer days off. In the pre-season camp, I was so focused on being ready and, right now, I’m getting the positive results from it.”
When he did start making it onto the pitch, he noticed the difference straight away.
“What got my attention was the pace of the pass. The passes are quicker because you need to switch quicker to find the spaces to exploit. It was difficult in the beginning but, in time, you adapt.”
Last September, Tiknaz made his second appearance in the starting XI, in a Europa Conference League match against Club Bruges (which finished 1-1). It’s a game that sticks in his mind because of the challenges it posed.
“Tactically it seemed a different match to me because they were moving and rotating so much during the whole game,” he says. “In that kind of system, all the players are good.
“It was a really tough match and after playing the whole 90 minutes, I had more self-confidence because it was a European competition. I learned a lot from that match. I saw where my level was.”
Thus far, he has only encountered the heated derbies against Galatasaray and Fenerbahce from the substitutes’ bench and says he “wanted so badly” to play in them and get the full derby day experience.
“There are so many fans from both teams (at those games),” he says. “Big attention. That motivates the players. It’s not an ordinary match. It doesn’t affect me in a bad way (the atmosphere), it actually affects me in a positive way. I hope in the next one I will play.”
Last month, Besiktas took on a new manager — their third of the season after Senol Gunes departed last October and his replacement, Riza Calimbay, lasted just over a month. Former Portugal manager Fernando Santos has been at the helm since early January and Tiknaz says he is still getting used to the new manager’s approach.
“When he first came I wanted to speak with him. We had a chat about what he wants and I explained that I want to develop and improve myself. The coach explained to me what he wants and what I need to do with and without the ball and I am trying to adapt to his approach and his style because there are some demands that I didn’t see from the other coaches before.”
Tactically, Santos wants different things from Tiknaz in the No 6 position.
“Defensively he asks me to cover the centre-backs. Before, I was playing with more freedom, but our coach right now wants (me) to stay in that zone and be the holding player, staying more in front of the centre-backs. He says, ‘You are our safety in the defence’, and that this is a vital position.
“That’s why his expectation from that position is high – from me and the other players who play in it. I’m trying to adapt to this as well.”
One of Tiknaz’s team-mates is not only trying to adapt to a third manager in a season, but also to a new country and league. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain signed for Besiktas last August, bringing to an end his six-year spell at Liverpool.
A mention of the Englishman’s name brings an immediate smile to Tiknaz’s face.
“He’s a really good person, good character and a really good player as well, ” he says. “If he didn’t have these injuries and issues, he would stay at the highest level all his career. I know him from his Arsenal times when his explosive strength was perfect.”
At present, Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a thigh injury that looks set to keep him out of action until potentially April, but Tiknaz says the former Liverpool man is proving just as helpful off the pitch as he has been on it.
“After the matches we lose, we speak when we are sad and upset. I am asking why this happened, why that happened. As he played at the highest level, his football intelligence and knowledge are so high. He always speaks with us and helps us.”
Can Oxlade-Chamberlain speak Turkish, then?
“Not yet. Nothing.”
Tiknaz made his first trip to the UK in March last year when he was part of Turkey’s squad for a group of qualification games at St George’s Park ahead of the 2023 European Under-19 Championships. One of their three matches came against England, a team Tiknaz recalls containing players from the under-23 squads of Arsenal and Liverpool (“The biggest teams”).
“The players over there are good in terms of their qualities — the pass qualities and physical qualities,” he says of England. “They created the difference and we lost the match (2-0). But for me, it was a good experience.”
Turkey finished third in a group also containing Iceland and Hungary, missing out on a place in the tournament finals, but Tiknaz relished the opportunity to play in a country where he dreams of one day pursuing his club career — preferably with Liverpool.
“The training ground was perfect,” he says of St George’s Park, England’s training base in Burton-upon-Trent. “People show so much importance to football there — the pitches, the training ground, the facilities, it was all perfect.
“Though it was so windy.”
By the end of this season, Tiknaz aims to be “an even more skilful player” and says that, as a team, Besiktas are targeting finishing high enough to qualify for European competition (they are currently fourth in the Super Lig).
“We also need to win the Turkish Cup,” he adds. “I hope we can achieve all these things and that I can improve myself as much as possible. It will happen by playing over and over. It’s better to play as much as I can to improve myself.”
(Top photo: Hakan Burak Altunoz/Anadolu via Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)
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