He almost has Bayer 04 in his DNA – Cem Türkmen is now in his thirteenth season under the Bayer Cross. A true homegrown talent. A big childhood dream came true for the 18-year-old on 3 December 2020. In the 3-2 away win for the Werkself at Nice in the Europa League, the youngster was brought on by head coach Peter Bosz on 68 minutes – the first-team debut for the man born in Cologne.
It was almost by chance that the 18-year-old learned that he would be on the trip to the Côte d'Azur with the Werkself. Türkmen looked at the blackboard in the first-team changing room and scanned the squad list for the Nice game. And right at the end was '39 Türkmen'. The midfielder had to take a second look.
"I was incredibly happy when I read my name. At that moment, it didn't matter if I was playing or not. I was really looking forward to being part of it and just wanted to enjoy it. I thought if I play at all then it would be for a couple of minutes at the most," he recalled. It turned out to be 22 minutes in a really important match.
It did not take long for the flood of congratulations to start coming in. "A lot of people asked me what it was like. I couldn't really say because it felt so hard to describe. It was definitely a childhood dream come true. I've been playing for this club since I was six years old and I always hoped it would happen at some point."
This year has gone really well for the youngster in general. When the youth leagues were suspended in the spring due the coronavirus pandemic, Türkmen was able to train with the first team. Peter Bosz strengthened his group in training with a few U19 players in March – that included Türkmen. And by the beginning of the 2020/21 season the talented youngsters were regularly part of the squad – and their chances of getting a game were growing.
The time came in Nice: On 65 minutes, Peter Bosz turned to Cem Türkmen and his U19 teammate Emrehan Gedikli and said: "Lads, you're going on now!" The chosen one recalled: "I wasn't really nervous at that moment but more full of anticipation. I just want to show what I could do." The head coach gave Türkmen a few motivational words before he went on. "He said I should just play like I always do in training. Play football really relaxed." And when he stepped on the pitch he was fully focused and then it was only about the game of football.
A week later, Türkmen also came off the bench in the Europa League game against Slavia Prague for another 16 minutes with the first team in his second appearance. He was also in the squad for the Bundesliga fixtures against Schalke 04, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich but did not play.
The U19 player made rapid progress in spite of his league twice being suspended this year due to the pandemic. The U19 Bundesliga West was suspended during the lockdown in spring - as were the training sessions for the Bayer 04 youth teams. From that point, Türkmen was one of the few youth players who were regularly allowed to train with the senior squad. "At the start, it was a bit difficult to find my feet. I noticed a couple of times that I was a bit lacking in terms of pace and physicality. But now it's going really well," he laughed.
His first experience with the first-team squad came when he was 16 – with participation in training sessions, friendlies and also at the first team summer training camp in Salzburger Land in 2019. Türkmen admits the step up from the youth side to the first team was a big one. "You need a certain talent. But that's not enough on its own. You have to be determined and receptive and able to deal with criticism. If you make it to the U19s then you think you're good enough. But you notice when you're in the senior squad: You're not as good as you thought," he said with a smile.
One example: "I thought my stamina was really good – perhaps it was for U19 players – but it was not enough for the first team. It’s something I had to work on and will continue to do." Cem Türkmen is not one to rest on his laurels. He's always hungry, wants more and more as he says. "I'm relatively confident on the ball, I have good technique and can hold onto the ball well. But you could say I’m too much in love with the ball. There are certain things I can work on," he adds with a grin.
The fact Cem Türkmen has a certain talent in football was evident to his coach at his first club S.u.S. Nippes '12 from the north of Cologne who did everything he could 13 years ago to have Cem with him at an indoor tournament. "I shouldn't have been playing. My mother and father didn't have time to drive me there and they'd already cancelled it with the coach. I really wanted to play as it was one of the bigger tournaments back then," recalled the now 18-year-old. However, his coach did not give up and offered Türkmen’s parents to pick their son up and bring him home again. "My mother wasn't convinced at first and I had to beg a bit and that helped," recalled the Cologne-born youngster. Nobody at the time could realise how important taking part in the tournament would be for the future.
Cem's mother was able to pick up her son from the sports hall and, at the end of the tournament, two people wanted to talk to her about her son. It quickly turned out they were scouts. Bayer 04 and Rhine rivals FC Köln were interested in Cem and invited him to take part in trials. "To be honest, I didn't want to join either club. Not because I didn’t like the clubs but simply because I wanted to stay with my team. That's where my friends were and where I felt at home..."
His parents left the decision to him and Cem wanted to try it out in the end. It was a massive opportunity at the end of the day. But insecurity crept in on the day of the trials. "It felt like there were a hundred children there. My mother said to my father: 'What are we doing here? There's far too many of them…' And I didn't really believe they wanted me." But they did. Both clubs wanted him but Cem opted for the Black and Reds.
Türkmen, who completed his vocational diploma in the last academic year and considered studying business administration or international management, has already appeared on the international stage. Due to his dual nationality – German and Turkish – both national associations came knocking on the door of the Türkmen family. And Cem used both opportunities with a game for the Turkey U17s against Croatia in February 2019 and a number of courses with Germany youth teams. But at some point the decision will have to be made about which country to choose. "Turkey is a beautiful country and has created great conditions for developing youth players but if I have to decide then I'd choose Germany. The whole package with the DFB is more convincing."
What happens for Türkmen, who admired Andrés Iniesta in a Barcelona shirt, after the U19s is currently up in the air. The initial dream of making his first team debut has been achieved. "I very much hope it carries on. That I regularly make it into the squad, play more games that we win and consistently be part of it. That was always my big target."