- The Guardian, Wednesday 27 February 2013 22.00 GMT
Scoring the most important goal in your country’s history would be the zenith in the career of most professional athletes. Ilhan Mansiz did just that at the 2002 World Cup, yet a greater challenge lies ahead of him on the road to the 2014 Winter Olympicswhere he hopes to represent Turkey once again, this time, quite remarkably, in pairs figure skating.
A nomadic footballing journey began late for the former striker and included spells at Besiktas, the Japanese side Vissel Kobe and Hertha Berlin. It was cut short in 2007 when Mansiz was knocked down by a car at a pedestrian crossing in Munich and suffered terrible knee injuries.
After surgery, eight months recovering and a brief attempt to extend playing, he was offered a place on the TV show Buzda Dans, Turkey’s Dancing On Ice. Problems with the knee persisted but after falling for his dance partner Olga Bestandigova, one of the professionals on the programme who competed at the 2002 Winter Games, the pair formed a relationship that spurred them on to victory. Now they are loved up and training in America.
"It was Oli during the show who saw my potential," Mansiz says. "I always wanted to start a second sporting career after football but I never thought in my dreams it would be pairs skating.
"We are not expecting to get a medal but to be a part of the Olympics will mean much more than winning. It is also about encouraging people that no matter what, at any age, you can reach your dreams by believing and working hard."
What makes this surprising tale even more unlikely is that Mansiz’s left knee was torn to shreds by the crash six years ago. Sustaining medial ligament damage and with cartilage seemingly beyond repair, the fact that he and Bestandigova are now practising death star spirals, flying camels and double jumps on a rink in Arizona as they bid to qualify for Sochi next year is some turnaround.
"I would be the first athlete to compete in the World Cup and the Winter Olympics," says Mansiz, who is in the midst of a gruelling regime that involves six sessions of yoga, ballet and gym work every week, with plenty of time on the ice. "I had never even watched skating before I stepped on the ice for the first time when I was 32.
"There are two ways to qualify for Sochi. First is in March during the world championships, which we are not taking part in. Sixteen couples can qualify there and four more spots will be won in September at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf. We are planning to compete there to be one of the four best non-qualified pairs."
Mansiz, 37, was part of the Turkey side who finished third in Japan and South Korea in 2002, when Hakan Sukur, Hasan Sas, Emre, Tugay and Umit Davala combined to great effect to make Turkey a surprise package, losing narrowly to eventual champions Brazil in the semi-finals.
Sukur led the forward line on his own throughout the tournament with Mansiz accustomed to coming off the bench in the second half, making an impact when it mattered most. Turkey’s quarter-final with Senegal was goalless and edging towards a penalty shootout before Mansiz expertly steered Davala’s cross past Tony Sylva for a 94th-minute golden goal that sparked wild celebrations in Osaka. He then started the third-place play-off against South Korea and scored twice in a 3-2 victory.
"It was my breakthrough at the World Cup. I was always on the bench even though I was in better shape then Hakan Sukur, and we were always trying to explain to the coach [Senol Gunes] to play with two forwards but he was afraid of it. When I scored the goal I didn’t know it would be the most important of my career but it was the most remarkable goal in Turkish history."
Perhaps Mansiz’s penchant for extravagance should have been noted in 2002. Not only did he score that crucial goal against Senegal but he produced one of the most sublime pieces of skill in World Cup history, impudently flicking the ball over the head of Brazil’s Roberto Carlos when he was being shepherded out of play.
"The flick was a move I did a lot during practise but because it was the World Cup and Roberto Carlos, people keep it in their minds. Almost anybody that recognises me asks about that flick – most of the players got mad but we shook hands on the pitch afterwards and Roberto Carlos told me it was a nice move – such a sportsman."
From such a high in South Korea, Mansiz was at a low ebb five years later. “It ended my career,” he says of the car accident. “I was on my usual morning run to the park, crossing the street I waited for the pedestrian signal. As it showed green I started to run and halfway across a car accelerated and hit me on my left side, right underneath the knee. It got twisted and I flew three metres up in the air and landed on my shoulder on the car.”
Bestandigova revealed in an interview that before she met Mansiz she was dubious of being partnered on Buzda Dans with a footballer: “As far as I know they are dumb as a candy and they don’t know anything apart from kicking the ball and running around the pitch,” she told Absolute Skating. Mansiz admits the heavy schedule can be tough on the relationship but after moving to America and committing to qualification, everything so far is going to plan. They may not be the Turkish Torvill and Dean, but reaching Sochi would represent a unique achievement.
"We have a lot of fun when we practise together. Of course sometimes it gets too much with the busy schedule because we are doing everything together, but we survive," Mansiz says. "It was a big step to move to the States but in five months we have got close to our best. The last 10% is always the hardest to reach so we are working hard to be on course."