How Al Ahli’s Merih Demiral made EURO 2024 history

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It took just 57 seconds for Al Ahli defender Merih Demiral to write his name into the UEFA European Championship history books. Against an Austria side that had impressed in the group stage – finishing ahead of France and Netherlands – Demiral scored the fastest goal ever recorded in the tournament’s knockout stage.

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It was the first of an unlikely brace for the center-back, his double strike handing Turkey a 2-1 victory over Austria and a place in the EURO 2024 quarter-finals against Netherlands this Saturday night. It was a frantic knockout encounter that proved one of the most entertaining contests so far in this summer’s competition.

Despite being best known for his defensive abilities, Demiral demonstrated a poacher’s instinct inside the first minute of Tuesday’s match in Leipzig. He reacted fastest when Austria failed to deal with Arda Guler’s corner, slamming a left-foot shot into the roof of the net to prompt wild celebrations from the Turkish fans at the Red Bull Arena.

Much-admired teenager Guler was the provider again just after half-time as Demiral rose to power home a header from another corner – doubling Turkey’s lead and ultimately leading his country into the last-eight of the European Championship for only the third time. It was a surprise result for Demiral and his team-mates, particularly as they had been hammered 6-1 by Austria as recently as March.

Demiral’s match-winning contribution was also a moment of personal football redemption after he made history for the wrong reason in the last edition of the European Championship. In Turkey’s 3-0 defeat to eventual winners Italy in the opening game of EURO 2020, Demiral scored an unfortunate own goal – the first time the tournament had begun with a player putting through his own net. That Demiral was playing for Italian side Juventus at the time made the own goal especially painful.

The center-back’s turnaround in fortunes at EURO 2024 will come as no shock to fans of Saudi Pro League side Al Ahli, however. Demiral joined the Jeddah club from Serie A outfit Atalanta last summer and, though he struggled at times with injuries in his debut season, the center-back has consistently been one of Saudi football’s best defenders when he has played.

Demiral, who was once a team-mate of Al Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, missed nearly two months with a meniscus injury in the first half of the season but after the winter break was a near ever-present for Al Ahli. Matthias Jaissle’s side looked more defensively sound when the Turkey international played, conceding just 13 goals in the 16 games in which he played after returning from injury in December.

He quickly developed an impressive center-back partnership with Brazilian Roger Ibañez, which gave Al Ahli a solid defensive platform that proved crucial as the club finished third in the Saudi Pro League and qualified for the AFC Champions League Elite in its first season back in the Kingdom’s top flight.

Demiral, who scored once in 2023-24 for Al Ahli in a 4-0 win against Al Hazm, should now be looking forward to a EURO 2024 quarter-final against Netherlands on Saturday night. But his rollercoaster story looks to have taken another unhappy turn.

Reports on Friday suggest he will be banned for two matches after a UEFA investigation into the way he celebrated his second goal against Austria. The Al Ahli center-back appeared to make a “wolf” gesture that is allegedly associated with a far-right group, though Demiral was quick to deny the accusations in a post-match interview.

Turkey's Merih Demiral celebrates scoring their second goal with a 'wolf' salute REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
Turkey's Merih Demiral celebrates scoring their second goal with a 'wolf' salute REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

“I had a specific celebration in mind, something connected to my Turkish identity,” Demiral said. “I am incredibly proud to be Turkish, and I felt that pride deeply after scoring. I wanted to express that, and I’m very happy I did.”

Should the two-game suspension be confirmed, Demiral’s absence will be a major blow for Turkey as it looks to reach a European Championship semi-final for only the second time in its history.

But for Al Ahli fans there will likely be a sense of relief; Demiral’s moment in the spotlight against Austria may have reminded European clubs of his talents and Al Ahli will be desperate to keep its accomplished defender in Jeddah ahead of its return to elite Asian club competition in 2024-25.

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