Have you ever seen a player kissing the opponents coach's hand? Such incredible scenes could be witnessed when Emmanuel Emenike played for Spartak Moscow against Fenerbahce in the Champions League qualifiers in 2012. When the Nigerian striker, who signed for Al Ain this summer, was substituted after scoring a crucial goal for the Russians, he went to the Fenerbahce bench and astonished coach Aykut Kocaman with a warm kiss. Spartak won 2-1, salvaged a 1-1 draw in the return leg in Istanbul and put Fenerbahce out of the competition, but Emenike was popular with the Canaries’ fans nevertheless.
To fully understand this unbelievable script, we have to go a couple of years further back. Emenike was totally anonymous when joining the small second division outfit Karabukspor from FC Cape Town in the summer of 2009. The move went almost unnoticed, even by Turkish fans, but Emenike made a great impression, scoring 16 goals to lead his team to an unexpected promotion. The Nigerian continued his rich form in the 2010/11 season, becoming one of the most feared strikers in the Super Lig.
He was so good that Guus Hiddink, Turkey national team coach at the time, wanted to call him up and the player himself, angry at the Nigerian FA, was ready for the switch. Nigeria coach Samson Siasia personally went to Istanbul to persuade the striker to abandon the plan and remain with the Super Eagles. His star continued to shine brightly, before his absence from the home fixture against Fenerbahce in May became suspicious in the extreme.
It was an extraordinary season, as Fenerbahce fought head-to-head for the title with Trabzonspor, and both knew that they simply couldn't allow themselves to drop points. Both kept winning on a weekly basis, and at times it simply didn’t look logical. When Emenike was mysteriously missing for that Fenerbahce match, claiming to be injured contrary to the doctors’ view, Trabzonspor – and football fans all around Turkey – were outraged. Karabukspor duly lost 1-0 without posing an attacking threat, and Fenerbahce eventually won the title.
Just three days after the season ended, the champions signed Emenike for €9million (Dhs36m). Naturally, everyone assumed that the deal was closed before the aforementioned league match, and that made the Nigerian a suspect in the match fixing investigation that was opened in the summer and shook Turkish football. The striker was arrested and thrown into jail, where he spent four days on bread and water.
“They treated me like a criminal”, he later said. The trauma was immense for Emenike, whose dream summer suddenly turned into a nightmare, and he was afraid to stay in the country after being released. He wanted to run away as quickly as possible, and Fenerbahce helped him to do so. Two months after arriving in Istanbul, without playing a single minute for his new club, he was sold to Spartak Moscow for €10 million (Dhs40m). As far as Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim was concerned, it was a great piece of business to make a profit in such a grave situation.
That was probably Yildirim’s only reason to celebrate those days. As the investigation progressed, the Turkish FA prevented Fenerbahce from playing in the Champions League, and Trabzonspor took their place. Eventually, the president was convicted and sent to prison, but he is now appealing the verdict – and expects to win the case – in one of the longest, most bizarre sagas in Turkish football history.
In the meantime, Emenike was making headlines in Russia. He fitted in well as part of the Spartak lineup, impressed everyone with his sheer force, fierce shots and smart movement off the ball, and helped his new team to finish second, leapfrogging the big Moscow rivals CSKA on the last day of his first season in Russia. That unexpected triumph sent the Red-and-Whites, coached by Valery Karpin, into the Champions League qualifiers, where they were drawn against Fenerbahce.
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Emenike couldn’t believe his eyes. The danger of another arrest was real long into the 2011/12 season, and Spartak even had to move their winter training camp from Turkey to Cyprus in order to keep their striker free from incarceration. Now, though, he was allowed to travel to Istanbul without facing additional charges.
For Fenerbahce it was a surreal script. They signed Emenike to help them succeed in Europe's premier competition, only to find him standing in their way a year later. It was extremely difficult for the Nigerian himself. He considered Fenerbahce coach Aykut a father figure, and was grateful for the help he got from the club when escaping Turkey. That is why he kissed his hand after scoring against his team. That is also why Fenerbahce fans accepted him warmly, even though he was about to prevent their team from playing in the Champions League.
Quite absurdly, it was when Emenike played for Spartak that he was most loved and adored by Fenerbahce fans. A year later, in the summer of 2013, when his form for Spartak dipped significantly, the Nigerian was sold back to Istanbul for about €13million (Dhs53m). He was supposed to lead the front line alongside the Senegalese striker Moussa Sow, and the duo did indeed delight the crowd with imaginative dances after scoring goals, but Emenike was celebrating enough.
The striker scored 12 goals in the league in 2013/14, when Fenerbahce won the title but were prevented from participating in the Champions League because of the match-fixing scandal. Last season, the Nigerian fared significantly worse, netting just four times, and growing increasingly frustrated at events.
His lowest moment came in March, when fans loudly booed him during the fierce derby against Besiktas. Hurt and enraged, Emenike took his shirt off and tried to walk off the pitch, even though the coach Ismail Kartal hadn't made a substitution. Such a measure was forced on him eventually, and the striker had to apologise for his behaviour after the final whistle. “I was very angry for a moment. The truth is that I never wanted to disrespect the shirt I am wearing and let my teammates and my club down”, he said.
Fenerbahce ended the season empty handed, and it was obvious that they wanted to offload the 28-year-old to make room for a bigger star to arrive – Robin van Persie. Emenike was loaned out to Al Ain, where he hopes to shine brighter than in Istanbul and enjoy his football once again. Emenike’s career has been highly unusual so far, and the journey is far from over.