Cengiz Under may have announced himself to Roma fans - and then the world - with a beautiful solo goal against Verona just over a year ago, but for the Turkish winger it has been no case of overnight success.
The youngster left his home when he was just 10 years old to pursue a football career - even if he never imagined it would take him to where it already has, barely months beyond his teenage year. That's really where the challenges and obstacles and dreams all began.
Here, in our latest Big Interview, the youngster explains his journey in his own words...
Tell us about what you were like as a child.
“I was born in a small town near Balıkesi, called Sındırgı. I've always been a great lover of football – I’ve always played football. My football journey began when, at the age of ten, I was called to join the youth sector at Bucaspor, in Smyrna, which is far from where I’m from.”
How was it, leaving home at such a young age?
“At the beginning, living away from home, without my family, was far from easy. After a while, the club president brought my mother out to where I was. She and my father were separated, and he stayed where we all used to live. I was a very relaxed child and only had eyes for football.”
How long did you stay with Bucaspor’s youth sector?
“Until I was 15. It’s a period that I have fond memories of. I’m very attached to the city of Smyrna; whenever I go to Turkey I go there, as well as my hometown, because it's like a second home for me. Bucaspor had the best youth sector in Turkey. The club president Seyit Mehmet Ozkan did an incredible job. Nobody put more into developing young players than him. Bucaspor was huge in my career. I have to thank all the coaches I worked with over those years. The fact I am here at Roma now is thanks to that period.”
How did you then end up at Altınordu?
“The Bucaspor president purchased Altınordu and pretty much brought all the young players at Bucaspor with him. I managed to improve even more there, before moving to Başakşehir, which led me to joining Roma.”
Who were your footballing idols when you were a boy?
“I still am a boy to be honest! I’ve always liked [Lionel] Messi – I used to watch Barcelona, like everyone else. Up until the age of 15, I saw football through a child’s eyes. Since then I’ve grown to appreciate other elements of the game and understand other things. For that reason, I’ve also been drawn to David Villa and David Silva. Even so, Messi is simply one of a kind in football. No one can come close to him.”
Did you know when you were young that you’d become a professional footballer?
“I had no doubts when I started playing – I had one target. I didn’t think about anything else – becoming a professional was all I wanted. I was the first youngster in my town to leave in order to play football far from home. Bucaspor hadn’t ever brought a youngster in from outside the local area – that’s where they’d usually find their talent. It wasn’t all down to me, however. I’m grateful to all those who’ve supported me.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career up until now?
“All the coaches I’ve had have been crucial to my development. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have become the player I am. I’m really grateful to them, for every single bit of advice they’ve given me. I’m still young, though, and I know I need to improve to become an even better player.”
What does a typical day in the life of Cengiz Under consist of?
“It’s highly important for me to live like a professional, so I have a very routine lifestyle. I try and rest after training. I live with my friend, named Serhat, who is like a brother to me. We go out to dinner together and we chat, along with another friend of mine. I like going for walks around the city, seeing people, or eating at home with my friends.”
In your first season at Roma, after a settling-in phase, you got that goal against Chievo in February and haven’t stopped since then. What memories do you have of that period?
“Things weren’t easy in that first period of the season, though I was certain I had all the tools to perform to a good level in the second half of the campaign. After playing in the two games with Sampdoria, I scored my first goal against Verona and everything flowed from that, not just for me but the whole team – we played well and had a good season. I’m thankful to all my team-mates and the boss Eusebio Di Francesco, who helped me a lot. The Champions League run was unforgettable.”
You were one of the key contributors in that run. You provided the assist for Kostas Manolas to beat Barcelona...
“A night that I will never forget – one of the most beautiful of my career. When I think about it, I still get goose bumps. At home I watch the corner kick almost every day. I often watch my games back, to analyse my performances, but then every once in a while, I put on that corner kick because seeing it always produces a different emotion – it’s difficult to explain.
"I didn't put a great ball in, but Kostas did really well – he made a good run towards the near post. Credit goes to him, obviously. It’s a day that will remain etched in my memory forever.”
On the other hand, this season the team has fallen short of expectations. Why do you think that is?
“We’ve slipped up in matches that look easier on paper and it means we’ve dropped points. As for why that has happened, I don’t know – perhaps there’s been a lack of focus. There are some games we really should have won. Over the last two weeks, however, we’ve started to improve with [Claudio] Ranieri. We’ve won two games on the trot and we need to keep this up.”
How do you see the race for fourth spot?
“We need to think about one thing, and that’s beating Inter. We want to qualify for the Champions League – it’s a tournament a team like Roma should always be in. I think we’ll do it. There are a lot of top sides in Italy and we’re one of them. We need to do it.”
This year was the first time since your arrival in Italy that you’ve had to contend with a lengthy lay-off. How was that period on the side-lines?
“It was a difficult period – the toughest since I got here. I was out for a while and now I'm working even harder, off the field too. Last year, in the second part of the season I showed who I am. I know what I can do. I have great faith in my ability and that of the team. I'm fine now. I hope to play all the matches that remain; I’ve got some minutes back in my legs. I want to score more and help my team-mates."
"I often come up against Kolarov in training. That’s forced me to really improve, because facing Alex every day is tough. If you’re to get the better of him you really have to push your limits, so it’s had a big impact on my game. Having to face him every day means you can be more relaxed when you’re up against other full-backs on match days.”
What aspects have you improved most of all with your experience in Italy?
"In Italy there are two important aspects: one is the physical side, which I struggled with initially. However, I worked a lot on my strength and my fitness, improving with training and game time. It’s fundamental in a league like this. Now I feel good and I have adapted. The other aspect is tactics.
"In Italy all the teams have a very clear game plan and I'm happy to have developed an understanding of how certain mechanisms work. I feel comfortable with the system here. Nowhere are tactics more important than in Italy. Playing in Serie A is tough but now I feel I have improved from this point of view.”
What do you still need to improve?
“I need to improve physically, that’s for sure.”
In training at Trigoria, is there a player that particularly impresses you?
“There are lots. [Daniele] De Rossi first of all. It was really exciting to train with him when I came to Trigoria. There are some players who are technically very good. [Edin] Dzeko is a great player, as are [Stephan] El Shaarawy and [Diego] Perotti. Training with them every day helps me a lot. I should add that since I play on the right wing, I often come up against [Aleksandr] Kolarov in training. That’s forced me to really improve, because facing Alex every day is tough.
"If you’re to get the better of him you really have to push your limits, so it’s had a big impact on my game. Having to face him every day means you can be more relaxed when you’re up against other full-backs on match days.”
Your team-mates call you Cengo. Do you like that nickname?
“They called me that in Turkey too and to be honest I didn’t like it that much. But when they started using it with a more friendly tone, I began to like it. There are some funny guys in the squad.”
What’s your experience of the Roma fans’ passion when you’re off the pitch, in your everyday life?
“It’s wonderful to feel their passion. I like spending time with them and chatting. They are crucial to our success and even more so at this stage of the season. I’m sure we’ll reach our objective with their support.”