When Tolgay Arslan was playing for Udinese in Serie A, he had a premonition about a life in Australia. Now, that dream is a reality, and the Melbourne City star, who has played on club football’s most prestigious stages, has big plans for his time in Australia, a country he already speaks about with a passion that A-Leagues fans will love.
“I love (that) Australia has many sports, now that the Matildas have done very well, also the men’s national team in Qatar did very well and we can see a new generation is coming,” he tells KEEPUP Studios for this week’s episode of A-Leagues All Access.
“Players like me, older players, who were lucky to have that experience in Europe and to have played against the best players in the world, we can give the young boys our experience so they are going to be ready.
“Soccer is the next big thing in Australia.
“I know, there are many sports, and I love it, I went to a footy game, I watched cricket, but I have to be honest, there is one sport in the world, doesn’t matter if you go from here to a village in Africa, in China, there is one sport everyone is doing.
“When I see here, my son also plays, how many kids play soccer, they are ready for it. I think we should help them. We should make them stronger.”
He concluded: “This country has so many things to show, to be proud of, and I hope it will be soccer now.”
Arslan arrives in Australia fresh from Serie A in Italy. His CV is as good as the Isuzu UTE A-League Men has seen for some time. Two league titles with Besiktas in Turkey fill his trophy cabinet, while he has stories for days from the superstars who were his teammates.
“My brother,” he says endearingly of Tottenham sensation Son Heung-Min, whom he grew with at Hamburg, in Germany.
“I remember we were only young ones who were close to the first team and played; we had such an amazing time together, 24-7 together.
“We had many sleepovers. His mum, she cooked for us. Until today, we have a good relationship. I am just so happy for him, how his career went.”
Or, for example, on Portugal legend Pepe, notorious for being his on-field mischief: “You will not believe (he) is maybe the nicest guy in my career I have ever met!
“He was amazing, even when we had fights in the training he would go in between and say ‘please no fights!’ We were just in shock. His career and his numbers say all about him.”
Or scoring the winning penalty to knock Liverpool out of the Europa League?
“My life changed. I couldn’t go out anymore!”
So, why is Arslan here, aged just 33?
“I felt like I needed something new. With my uncle (who lives in Australia), we catch up, we try to speak every month… I said ‘hey I had a dream I lived in Australia’ and he was like ‘seriously?!’
“(He said) because they were asking about you, if would you come, and I said ‘no you wouldn’t come’!
“I said: no, tell them I would like to come! That was the story behind it. I heard about Melbourne City, and in a few days it was done.
“My mum, my dad weren’t so happy because it is so far away, but when I see today, I am really happy to join this club, this amazing country, to meet incredible people and the culture, which was something I can give to my kids.
“I have seen many countries in the world and I am quite new but I can definitely say this is the best.”
Melbourne City have landed a player incredibly motivated – not just for himself, or his team, but already speaking with a big picture vision in his new home. Indeed, he talks as if his time in Australia is his calling, or a higher mission.
“As a family it is a big honour to be here…my goal is to show my love on the ball and I can touch a few young kids. It is not that I try something – I have to – for that reason I came here.
“My dad said: you’ve got to have some reasons (purpose); maybe it is my one here, to bring the love for soccer to the young kids.”
He already has a very firm view on Australian football, and its potential.
“I decided to come now, in a good shape; in soccer, this is a hard league, I couldn’t imagine it is (such) a tough league,” he observed.
“We can see a new generation is coming; I can still learn from young players, I am still learning.
“The Australian people have one big advantage: they are strong and fast. I don’t think one other country is stronger, that is why I have seen some good young kids.
“I am one of the lucky ones who could live their dream, but I think with hard work everyone can just…dream big.”
Nestory Irankunda is one such player dreaming big. Speaking after being on the receiving end of his free-kick at AAMI Park a fortnight ago (before his weekend red card), Arslan used Irankunda as a reference point for his view of Australian football.
“When we can give them a little quality, even more on the ball, on the touches, on the finishing, tactically, we are going to see many Australian players in Europe because from the physical, from the fitness, from the strength, I think no country is stronger.”
On Irankunda: “He is such a big talent, but he has to take Australian character, he cannot lose that, he must stay humble, down to earth, to train, to work.
“I have seen many young players in Europe. In one game they can make you a big star but soccer is fast and no one will speak about you.
“An example, like the guy from Udinese (Simone Pafundi), he was 16 when he was with us, he made his debut with the national team, six months everyone was talking about him; I still follow my old club, now nobody is talking about him.”
Arslan’s quality on the park has been immediately obvious. This All Access episode will reveal a quality off the park for Isuzu UTE A-League fans to embrace.
“The most important thing is to show them (the kids) the love; it is not just soccer, you have to love your job…
“For me, it was an escape room, I could move from my problems, from things I didn’t have in my childhood. There, everyone was equal. I don’t know if you have more toys, or (live in) that side of the city, but on the pitch you are equal…when we can translate to the young kids, with our stories, our experience, the way we play and to show them we are not here for a holiday, but to improve ourselves.”
He added: “My kids went to international schools overseas, I tried to give them the best; things I didn’t have in my childhood.
“I heard a lot about Australia, so when I see them now, even the school…the standards are way higher. It was a choice for the kids to live in a safe country, where people are down to earth, humble; it is just important, I did the same in Italy as well. We moved here, so we have to accept the culture here, get closer to the culture. That is one reason I learnt the language in six months.
“Be thankful to live there.”