Six months after quitting the A-League for Turkey, Socceroo Bruce Djite is still not sure what’s surprised him most about playing football overseas.
Sure, there’s added professionalism, the five-star training facilities at his club Genclerbirligi (pronounced Gench-Lair-Beer-Ligi) that include the pick of several pitches, a sauna, steam room and swimming pool.
Off the pitch, there’s the Muslim call to prayer five times a day and Ankara traffic where drivers think nothing of brazenly reversing down a four-lane freeway if they miss their exit.
If pushed, the former Adelaide United striker nominates a unique pre-season ritual as the greatest divide between football in Australia and Turkey. Djite had been warned what to expect by fellow Socceroo Mile Sterjovski, a former Genclerbirligi player, but was still unprepared for the reality.
"Mile said to wait until they bring out the goat," Djite said. "I thought he was joking. Then, the day of the first game of the season, we’d just eaten lunch, got told to go to the training fields. It was time. They were going to sacrifice a goat."
In many European countries, preseason prep is crowned by visiting a local church but, in Turkey, things go up a few gears. Djite confessed he baulked – along with several other foreign players – at the slaughter of a goat but the ceremony went ahead as it does every season.
The gods must have been unimpressed. Genclerbirligi’s season began poorly. A coach was sacked but a few other adjustments were made.
"It obviously didn’t work out how they planned it so about six weeks later they sacrificed two more goats," Djite explained. "It’s interesting in Turkey. I’m learning a lot."
Djite (pronounced Jee-tay) has quickly climbed the ladder of Australian football. In many ways, he should be the poster boy for local development. The 21-year-old played junior football in Sydney’s northern suburbs and attended the NSW Institute of Sport. He made the Australian Institute of Sport and was signed by Adelaide United in 2006, voted the A-League’s Young Player of the Year the following season.
He was a mainstay in qualification matches for the 2008 Olympic team before being bizarrely overlooked for the eventual goal-shy squad that travelled to China.
Djite may not have fitted into coach Graham Arnold’s Olyroos plans but Socceroos boss Pim Verbeek spotted enough potential to see him as a possible heir to Mark Viduka’s up-front role.
Earlier this year came the inevitable move to Europe that any ambitious young Australian player covets, a talent drain that will likely never be plugged. Djite claims he ticked all boxes before leaving home.
"I went the way that FFA would want you to do it but everyone has to pick their right time," he said. "There’s no right or wrong way but if I stayed in the A-League for another season, what if I had a bad year? Or what if I had a really bad injury? You have to take your chances when they come."
Djite joined a club that had previous form with Australians. Josip Skoko is still spoken of in glowing terms three years after leaving while Sterjovski and Nick Carle had short spells with the club last year. Fringe Socceroo James Troisi joined Djite in August.
Elsewhere in Turkey, Harry Kewell is reborn at Galatasaray – "Harry is loved in Istanbul," said Djite – while Michael Petkovic at Sivasspor has acquired legendary status for scoring a goal – as a goalkeeper.
According to Djite, there’s added pressure on foreigners to prove they bring something to a team that a local can’t, plus extra off-field attention that doesn’t exist in Australia.
"In Turkey, you get so scrutinised for going out at night. It’s a more quiet lifestyle and good for a young player who just wants to concentrate on football," he said. "The speed of the game and the intensity of the training was the hardest thing for me.
"I’ve picked up a bit of Turkish and everyone says that I’m learning quickly," he said, adding that his fluent French helped build rapport with teammates from Africa.
"There are no black people in Turkey. If you’re dark, you are [automatically considered] a footballer. I say I’m a student at university half the time."
Djite made his debut for the Socceroos this year in a friendly against Singapore. He has a background unique even among the multicultural heritage of many teammates and was eligible to be selected for four national teams. He was born in the United States to academic parents from the Ivory Coast and Togo, his family moving to Australia when he was three.
"I never wanted to play for any other country but Australia," Djite said. "I learned my football in Australia. I’m Australian."
His father is a professor at the University of Western Sydney. Was there pressure to follow a different career path?
"You have no idea," he laughed. "But I wanted to be a footballer since I was seven. I went to the Ivory Coast when I was six and went to a school there for a couple of months and everything there was football. I came back home to Australia and joined a local club. By the time I was 10 or 11, I was only concentrating on football."