ROME (AP) From unknown status to Roma’s savior. From future star to national hero.
In the space of 2 1/2 weeks, Turkey winger Cengiz Under has undergone quite a transformation.
That’s what five goals in four matches do for a 20-year-old footballer.
Add in Under’s pro-military salute after his two-goal performance against Benevento this month, and it’s easy to see why he’s become an emblem for the government of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The salute was seen as supporting Turkey’s offensive against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.
A day after the brace, Turkey Minister of Youth and Sports Osman Askin Bak tweeted “No need to explain” next to a photo of Under saluting. The tweet included emojis of a Turkish flag and clapping hands.
The reception comes in sharp contrast to what NBA player Enes Kanter has faced from his home country.
Turkish prosecutors are seeking more than four years in prison for the New York Knicks player on charges of insulting Erdogan.
Kanter cannot return to Turkey because his passport has been canceled. He is a vocal supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Turkey for last year’s failed military coup.
Likewise, former national soccer team players Hakan Sukur and Arif Erdem have been stripped of their medals by the government for criticizing Erdogan.
As for Under, Erdogan reportedly called him in July to offer good luck when he completed a 13 million euros ($16 million) transfer from Basaksehir, an Istanbul club owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
But Under was not involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma and was starting to be seen as a misplaced acquisition by new sporting director Monchi.
Until he scored 43 seconds into a 1-0 win over Hellas Verona at the start of the month that ended Roma’s five-match winless streak in Serie A.
Then came the brace and an assist as Benevento was beaten 5-2.
“Under has done extraordinary things and improved a lot,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said. “Right now he’s a decisive player.”
In a 2-0 win at Udinese last weekend, Under scored the opener with a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area.
The fine form extended to Under’s Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. Under’s opener in a 2-1 loss kept alive Roma’s hopes of advancing after the second leg at home in three weeks.
While there have been no more salutes from Under since the Benevento match, that hasn’t lessened his popularity.
“Our national pride scored his first goal in the giants’ league,” the Haberturk newspaper headlined on Thursday.
Up next for third-place Roma and Under: AC Milan on Sunday.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.
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