This may seem like the most obvious selection of our entire Youth Countdown, but that doesn’t make it any less deserved. Roma’s Turkish Delight, well, delighted last season, and at only 21 years of age, the sky looks to be the limit for Cengiz Ünder.
Number One: Cengiz Ünder
Current Club: A.S. Roma
Future Comparison: Paulo Dybala
Who Is He?
Cengiz Ünder was born in Sındırgı, Turkey on July 14, 1997, only two and a half months after yours truly. Unlike yours truly, however, Cengiz showed near-immediate promise with a football at his feet, and by the age of ten he joined the youth system of Izmir-based Bucaspor. Seven years later, Ünder moved on to Altınordu FC, making his first professional appearance and quickly becoming a first-team regular. After scoring eleven goals in 51 appearances, Ünder secured himself a €4.7 million transfer to İstanbul Başakşehir. Then, after continuing to impress while plying his wares in the Turkish Süper Lig, freshly-minted Roma Director of Sport Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo scooped up the then 20-year-old winger for a cool €13.4 million. In a sign of what was to come, we were all blessed with these wonderful welcome videos:
Even last August, it was clear that Ünder had the space to quickly turn into something special for Roma. To quote my article on Cengiz for the 2017 iteration of this countdown,
“There isn’t very much standing in his way; Mohamed Salah is playing in the Premier League, Gregoire Defrel isn’t really a right winger, and as of right now it seems unlikely that another right winger is going to say “Forza Roma!” before the start of the season. It certainly helps his cause that Eusebio Di Francesco is known to provide chances to youth, and with no other right winger prospects coming out of the Primavera system, it almost looks like the right winger spot is Ünder’s to lose.”
Then the season actually started, and it only took a couple months for Ünder to exceed even those admittedly lofty expectations. When all was said and done, the Turk clocked in eight goals and two assists across all competitions. That’s impressive enough for a 20-year-old; it’s even more impressive when you remember he was learning a new language and acclimating to Serie A at the time, and more impressive still when you realize that his first of those eight goals happened on February 4th. Simply put, Ünder had a stunning spring, and all signs point to the idea that this is just the beginning for the winger.
What Can He Do?
If you squint a little bit at the video above, you might find it hard to tell the difference between Ünder and Paulo Dybala. Although all player comparisons should be taken with at least a grain of salt, it’s no coincidence that Ünder has been called the Turkish Dybala for quite some time, although in my eyes Dybala is just the Argentinian Cengiz Ünder. Both players cut open opposition defenses with their pace, dribbling, and powerful left feet. Both score screamers seemingly on a weekly basis, with enough curl on the ball to force you to watch the replay again. And again. And again.
But Ünder isn’t just a Dybala clone (although that in itself would be a wonderful thing, particularly if that clone didn’t play for Juventus). Towards the end of the season, Ünder also showed off a knack for crossing the ball into the box for a ready-and-waiting Edin Džeko, intimating to Romanisti that much of his potential is yet to be tapped, particularly on the playmaking side of things. Perhaps his only weak area right now is his overall passing ability, but at only 21, there is certainly time for Ünder to grow.
What Can He Become?
A 2017 article from The Guardian shed some light on Ünder the seemingly-grounded person, giving us mere mortals a chance to say, “Hey, millionaire football wunderkinder, they’re just like us!”:
Under has a long way to go but he is hard-working and has big aims for the future. “Some players will complain about training but I’m the opposite. I love it. If there is shooting practice I like to continue practising after the session has finished. I have come a long way in a short time. I like to prove people wrong and exceed expectations. I’ve been doing it since the age of 10.”
Despite his rapid elevation to the Roma side, Under has managed to stay remarkably grounded, a far cry from the lazy stereotype often associated with young players hailed as a wonderkid. He feels he has a wider responsibility to improve the reputation of Turkish football abroad: “It is an honour to be called a wonderkid. I keep receiving messages on social media from people telling me how proud they are of me so I feel in a way I am acting as an ambassador for them and my country abroad.”
If Ünder is able to keep this mentality into the future, there’s no doubt that he can become one of the shining stars of world football. It takes quite the player to come close to hitting double-digits in the goal tally as a 20-year-old, especially under the defensive pressure Serie A is known for. Pair this with a seemingly positive relationship with Eusebio Di Francesco, Francesco Totti, and the club in general, and all signs point to Ünder playing a large role in Roma’s success this season.
Whether you call him a young Dybala, a young Salah, or a young Ünder, he’s got the skills to pay the bills. We just have to hope that he’s paying the bills in giallorossi colors for a while longer.