I scored the winner and I didn’t even celebrate,” Steven Caulker says of his goal in Alanyaspor’s behind-closed-doors victory over Gaziantep. It was one of the final games before the Super Lig was suspended in Turkey, one of the last countries to take the decision amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Atmospheres in Turkey are known for being boisterous and vociferous, and the absence of supporters was a reminder of what makes football the game it is. With and without fans it has been a successful season for Alanyaspor, who sit sixth in the table and lead their cup semi-final against Antalyaspor 1-0 heading into the second leg at home. The club has never won major honors in its 72-year history.
“We tried it one week here without fans and it wasn’t good,” says Caulker, who joined Alanyaspor in January 2019. “It wasn’t enjoyable. It made me appreciate more playing in front of fans every week, especially when you go to the big Istanbul clubs. I have never experienced an atmosphere like those in Istanbul, even in the Premier League. The atmospheres are really special and without that, what is football? It is really hostile at these grounds but I love it. That is what I play football for, it gives you a real buzz. I am glad they stopped the league as without the fans it’s not the same.”
Although lifting a trophy is still part of the thinking for all involved at Alanyaspor, the players and staff have not lost perspective. The league’s authorities were criticized for delaying the postponement of fixtures and no one knows when matches will restart. Players have returned to training to maintain fitness but are permitted to work only in pairs, with four allowed on site at any time. Away from football, social distancing is being maintained.
“We’re all being sensible about it, in the sense that the priority of everyone at the club is our health: the health of our families, the health of our supporters and the people of the city. Yes, it is frustrating, but there are definitely bigger things at stake. We’re just trying to do our bit by staying at home as much as possible.
“Alanya is a coastal city, it’s about 25 degrees right now and it’s got the beach. It relies on tourism but the place is empty as tourists can’t get into the country, so the restaurants are closed and only offering home delivery; the cafes are closed. It’s not a lockdown but they are strongly advising people to stay home and to not go out unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
As a player, Caulker is known for his calm demeanor and he is maintaining such an outlook off the pitch. However, the former Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers defender’s son and parents are in England, keeping him apart from his loved ones. “My family are back home, which I do find really tough. I had flights to go straight back after the Istanbul game on Sunday but all the flights were canceled, so it’s really difficult. At times like these, I want to be with my loved ones but thankfully we have video calls to stay connected as much as possible.”
Caulker has spoken about his battle with addiction in the past and maintains routine to keep up with his Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. The defender prays and writes gratitude lists every day in addition to helping others. “In order to come out of a dark place it has taken a lot of work and a lot of self-inventory and I maintain a lot of that still to this day. Every morning I write down 10 things that I am grateful for. It can be things like access to food and clean water, earning a regular income and being able to keep a roof above my family’s head.
“I do my bit by speaking to others in a similar situation on a daily basis, whether it’s a couple of young footballers who I speak with or someone in a similar position to me. We talk through stuff, like their struggles, and we spend 10 to 15 minutes on the phone – it’s a safe space for them and me to share stuff and that sets me up for my day nicely and keeps me grounded which is important.”
As coronavirus takes a firm grip across the globe, Caulker, who has traveled to Africa and India to carry out charity work and has witnessed the daily suffering in those countries, is looking for light at the end of the tunnel. “What an opportunity this is to come together, to unite, to learn – there are so many lessons to come out of this. Football has been stripped back, the banks are closed, everything is on hold. What we are left with is each other and it is important for us to remember that. Right now the world is experiencing this but the likes of Iraq and Syria have been experiencing this for a long time.
“When the world does heal from this virus, I think that it is important that we remember that there are still people suffering in Africa, India, and Syria and we can all do our bit to support it. It doesn’t have to be financially, as you can see now there is a lot of kindness in people, just making phone calls or going round to make sure people are OK.”
Footballers are often the ones who receive the headlines and public praise but Caulker says others merit the limelight. “There are so many key workers out there that we need to appreciate, from the medical staff to the bin men that are keeping the streets clean. These jobs are so important to our society and it is important that we take a step back to make sure we see and appreciate them.”