Volkan Demirel often struggles to sleep after an evening game. The former Turkey goalkeeper, now manager of Hatayspor, will stay up to analyse all he has just seen.
No wonder, then, he had not managed much kip as the evening of February 5 ticked towards morning. Demirel was trying to digest a dramatic 1-0 win over Kasimpasa, secured thanks to Christian Atsu’s stoppage-time free-kick.
‘Inside the stadium there was a level of love that probably hadn’t been felt for hundreds of years,’ Demirel tells Mail Sport. ‘If there was a day I had 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 shudders. Some tell-tale signs are unmistakeable: ‘The building will sway from side to side,’ Demirel explains. So he knew almost immediately that the first of two deadly earthquakes had struck this corner of southern Turkey.
But this time? ‘It started feeling like it was coming up from underneath.’
Hatayspor manager Volkan Demirel has opened up on the devastation of the Turkish earthquake
Demirel’s wife and two daughters — aged nine and five — were with him. They do not live in Hatay. They would ordinarily fly back to Istanbul. But, on this night, snow left them stranded near the epicentre of one of this century’s worst human tragedies.
‘My reaction was to jump on top of my younger daughter so that, if something fell, it would fall on me rather than her,’ the 41-year-old explains. ‘My wife jumped on our older daughter.’
After around 100 seconds of fear and frenzy, Demirel led his family out of the hotel. Then came another shake that lingered for some time. Eventually, they headed for the Hatayspor training ground.
‘It should just be a three-minute drive,’ the manager says. Not on that night. Not when everyone else was pouring on to the streets, too. Not when buildings were toppling like dominoes and casualties were piling up. ‘I’m normally a very composed person but that is the night I cried the most in my entire life,’ Demirel says.
No area of Turkey saw such destruction as Hatay and, 100 days on, the death toll in the country is nearly 50,000.
Among them? Hatayspor sporting director Taner Savut. Two youth players. An academy coach. The cook. Another member of Demirel’s backroom staff. And Atsu. The body of the 31-year-old — once of Chelsea, Everton and Newcastle — was found 12 days after tragedy struck. Thirteen days after his first goal for the club.
‘We had a free-kick in the last seconds. Normally in those scenarios, I’d say: “Cross the ball!”’ Demirel remembers. ‘Christian, with his own initiative, decided to shoot… I ran to him after he scored and lifted him up. I was so happy for him.’
Hatayspor player Christian Atsu, previously of Chelsea and Newcastle, died in the earthquake
Atsu died at the age of 31, just 13 days after he scored his first goal for Hatayspor
Hatayspor sporting director Taner Savut and two youth players were among those who died
The winger had been waiting for this chance. ‘Sadly, I didn’t know that would be the last time I could hold him in the air. And celebrate with him. And be alongside him.’
Demirel is speaking from Istanbul but he still makes the 650-mile trip to Hatay every week or so. Offers from other clubs have arrived and been turned down. ‘I promised I wouldn’t leave or desert them,’ he says. ‘I have to go back and help.’
Families are living in containers. Buildings remain too fragile to enter. Hatayspor’s stadium became a sanctuary for the victims.
Demirel has emerged as an unlikely hero but his own face is showing signs of the struggle. Not for the first time, he is growing out his beard as a ‘symbol’ of suffering. ‘I do that when people I love — one of my players or colleagues — are going through difficulty,’ he explains. ‘I know it’s not doing anything.’ Still, he knows words and gestures matter. Hence why, these days, the question he finds hardest to answer is simply: how are you?
‘I can’t say I feel good,’ Demirel says. ‘Because I know what people are going through… but I can’t say I’m bad because I’m still alive.’
He finds it difficult to recall those first few hours after the earthquake struck, when many of his players and staff gathered at the training ground. Some did not — four coaches and Atsu were among those missing. So Demirel went on the hunt.
‘We tried to go through the town but it was very busy,’ he says. ‘We tried to go on the motorways and the main roads but they had closed all of them.’
Thankfully, over the course of that long night, most people were accounted for and around 100 people hunkered down together.
Demirel was amongst those who searched when Atsu and four coaches went missing
The following morning, Demirel released a heartbreaking appeal — crying and pleading down the camera for supplies. ‘In the days after, wanted to try to get the team and coaches over to Istanbul,’ he explains. ‘We needed to take the team coach. But we couldn’t find any petrol anywhere.’
There was another problem. ‘One of my coaches — his wife and one-year old baby had been in hospital overnight. We went to get the baby but obviously we needed medicine, milk, all that sort of stuff.’
Fortunately, they located all those essentials and eventually some fuel. But a couple of days later, Demirel returned to resume the doomed search for Atsu and his sporting director.
‘When you have hope, it’s possible to continue but when you don’t and you hear the news, it feels like you’ve come to the end of the road,’ he says.
Atsu had been in Turkey for only a few months but he had struggled with injuries and playing time. The winger had threatened to leave before that late winner.
‘He’d had a few false dawns,’ Demirel says. ‘This was his chance.’ The coach already knew his character. ‘Earlier in the year, on New Year’s Day, Christian had come in with gifts,’ he recalls. ‘He said: “I want to help people who work in the training ground. I want to give back to them.” This is the kind of guy he was.’
No wonder the club are considering retiring his shirt. Several of Atsu’s team-mates, who survived the earthquake, have been sent on loan. Others have been allowed to leave. Some carry such mental scars that they have been given time off.
‘I’ve learnt that every day you go to bed, every day you put your head on the pillow, it could be your last,’ Demirel says.
Soon, Hatayspor will attempt to rise from the rubble of destruction. Preparations for next season are underway. They were among the teams who dropped out of Turkey’s top flight following 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 started a campaign to try to help,’ he says.
Demirel says that Hatayspor want to continue giving people joy amid the struggle
The hope is that Hatayspor will play a friendly there this summer.
For now, though, the club are on the hunt for kits and a new home. Demirel claims nearly half a million Hatay residents fled a few hours away to Mersin. He hopes the team can be based there.
Those who stayed have been trying to rediscover some shoots of normality. ‘Life has to continue,’ Demirel says. ‘God willing, we’ll be able to get them back to a good position and prepare well because it’s important to bring a bit of happiness to the people,’ he adds.
‘In Turkey, football is a massive part of the culture. People wait until the weekend for the game — it’s the highlight of their week. We want to continue beyond all the difficulty and struggle to try and give people their joy.’