Volkan Demirel often has trouble sleeping after an evening game. The former Turkish goalkeeper, now coach of Hatayspor, will make sure to analyze everything he has just seen.
No wonder, then, that he failed to make many kip as the evening of February 5 wore on into the morning. Demirel was trying to digest a spectacular 1-0 victory over Kasimpasa, obtained thanks to Christian Atsu’s free kick in stoppage time.
“Inside the stadium there was a level of love that probably hadn’t been felt for hundreds of years,” Demirel told Mail Sport. “If there was a day when I was to die afterwards and be happy, I couldn’t think of a better one.”
The “intensity”, the “emotion”. And then, back at his hotel, the shivers. Some telltale signs are unmistakable: “The building will sway from side to side,” says Demirel. So he knew almost immediately that the first of two deadly earthquakes had hit that corner of southern Turkey.
But this time? “It started to feel like it was coming from underneath.”
Hatayspor manager Volkan Demirel has opened up on the devastation of the earthquake in Turkey
Demirel’s wife and two daughters – aged nine and five – were with him. They don’t live in Hatay. They normally returned to Istanbul. But, that night, snow left them stranded near the epicenter of one of the worst human tragedies of this century.
“My reaction was to jump on my youngest daughter so that if something fell it would fall on me rather than her,” the 41-year-old explains. “My wife jumped on our eldest daughter.”
After about 100 seconds of fear and frenzy, Demirel led his family out of the hotel. Then came another jolt which lasted for some time. Eventually, they headed to Hatayspor’s training ground.
“It should only be a three-minute drive,” the manager said. Not that night. Not when everyone was pouring into the streets too. Not when buildings were collapsing like dominoes and casualties were piling up. “I’m normally a very calm person, but that was the night I cried the most in my entire life,” Demirel says.
No region of Turkey has seen such destruction as Hatay and, 100 days later, the country’s death toll is nearly 50,000.
Among them? Taner Savut, sporting director of Hatayspor. Two young players. An academy coach. The cooker. Another staff member from Demirel’s back room. And Atsu. The body of the 31-year-old – formerly of Chelsea, Everton and Newcastle – was found 12 days after the tragedy. Thirteen days after his first goal for the club.
“We had a free kick in the final seconds. Normally in these scenarios I would say, “Cross the ball!” remembers Demirel. ‘Christian on his own initiative decided to shoot…I ran towards him after he scored and picked him up. I was so happy for him.
Hatayspor player Christian Atsu, previously of Chelsea and Newcastle, died in the earthquake
Atsu died aged 31, just 13 days after scoring his first goal for Hatayspor
Hatayspor sporting director Taner Savut and two young players were among those who died
The winger was waiting for this chance. “Unfortunately, I had no idea that would be the last time I could hold it up. And celebrate with him. And be by his side.
Demirel talks about Istanbul but he still makes the 650 mile trip to Hatay every week or so. Offers from other clubs arrived and were turned down. “I promised not to leave them or abandon them,” he says. ‘I have to go back and help.’
Families live in containers. The buildings remain too fragile to enter. The Hatayspor stadium has become a sanctuary for the victims.
Demirel has become an unlikely hero, but his own face shows signs of struggle. This isn’t the first time he’s grown his beard as a “symbol” of suffering. “I do this when people I love – one of my players or colleagues – are going through difficulties,” he explains. “I know it doesn’t matter.” Yet he knows that words and gestures matter. That’s why, nowadays, the most difficult question for him to answer is simply: how are you?
“I can’t say I feel good,” says Demirel. “Because I know what people are going through…but I can’t say I’m bad because I’m still alive.”
He struggles to remember the first hours after the earthquake, when many of his players and staff gathered at the training ground. Some didn’t – four coaches and Atsu were among the missing. So Demirel went hunting.
“We tried to cross the city but it was very busy,” he says. “We tried to go to the highways and main roads but they had them all closed.”
Fortunately, during that long night, most people were found and about 100 people squatted together.
Demirel was among those searching when Atsu and four coaches went missing
The next morning, Demirel made a heartbreaking plea – crying and begging the camera for supplies. “In the days that followed, I wanted to try to bring the team and the coaches to Istanbul,” he explains. “We needed to take the team coach. But we couldn’t find gasoline anywhere.
There was another problem. “One of my coaches – his wife and one-year-old baby was hospitalized overnight. We went to get the baby, but we obviously needed medicine, milk, all that kind of stuff.
Luckily, they located all of those essentials and eventually some fuel. But days later, Demirel returned to resume the doomed search for Atsu and his athletic director.
“When you have hope, it’s possible to go on, but when you don’t and you hear the news, you feel like you’ve come to the end of the road,” he says.
Atsu had only been in Turkey for a few months but had struggled with injuries and playing time. The winger had threatened to leave before this late winner.
“He had had a few false dawns,” Demirel said. “It was his chance. The coach already knew his character. “Earlier in the year, on New Year’s Day, Christian had come with presents,” he recalled. “He said, ‘I want to help the people who work on the training ground. I want to give back to them. That’s the kind of guy he was.
No wonder the club are planning to retire their shirt. Several of Atsu’s teammates, who survived the earthquake, were sent out on loan. Others were allowed to leave. Some bear such mental scars that they have been granted time off.
“I learned that every day you go to bed, every day you lay your head on the pillow, could be your last,” Demirel says.
Soon, Hatayspor will be trying to rise from the rubble of destruction. Preparations for next season are underway. They were among the teams that dropped out of the Turkish top flight after the earthquake.
Demirel recently returned from Germany, where he went to thank the country’s football community for all they have done.
“Bayern Munich, Borussia and Mainz in particular have launched a campaign to try to help,” he says.
Demirel says Hatayspor want to keep giving people joy amid the struggle
The hope is that Hatayspor will play a friendly there this summer.
For now, however, the club are on the hunt for kits and a new home. Demirel says nearly half a million Hatay residents fled within hours of Mersin. He hopes the team can be based there.
Those who stayed tried to rediscover some sprouts of normalcy. “Life must go on,” says Demirel. “God willing, we can put them back in a good position and prepare well because it’s important to bring a little happiness to people,” he adds.
“In Türkiye, football is an integral part of the culture. People wait for the weekend for the game – it’s the highlight of their week. We want to continue beyond all difficulties and struggle to try to give people their joy.