ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored an improbable three goals in just 15 minutes as he took to the field in a football friendly to mark the opening of a new stadium in Istanbul.
Erdogan is standing in a presidential election on Aug. 10 and made sure no one forgot his candidacy during the game by wearing the shirt No. 12 – if elected he would be the 12th president of modern Turkey.
The 60-year-old prime minister, an avid football fan who played as an amateur in his youth, took part in a match to mark the opening of the new stadium of the Istanbul Basaksehir team.
Clad in a bright orange football strip, Erdogan saw his team fall behind 0-3 in the opening minutes of the game late Saturday.
But then with almost his first touch of the ball, he smashed a shot past the goalkeeper and into the net with an impressive right foot strike.
Then even better was to come, when he sent a deft left-footed chip flying over the goalkeeper’s head.
Some 15 minutes after the first goal, Erdogan completed his hat-trick with an easier shot after being given almost all the time in the world by the opposing team’s defenders.
His night’s work done, Erdogan was substituted and eventually watched his team turn out as easy winners. Just hours earlier, he had given a campaign speech in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in Turkey’s southeast.
The game was given live coverage on Turkish state television with the commentator yelling with excitement as Erdogan scored his goals.
“Our prime minister scored one classy goal after another. It was a unique experience to have the chance to play with our prime minister,” said the goalkeeper on Erdogan’s side, Ufuk Ceylan, who will play for Basaksehir this season.
Erdogan was given a rousing reception on the pitch where supporters held up adulatory placards like, “As long as you live, Turkey will remain the champion.”
Turkish social media users Sunday argued vociferously over the merits of Erdogan’s performance, with supporters swooning over his prowess but critics slamming the game as a crude pre-election stunt.
“A president who sweats, runs and scores goals. Just as he has been throughout his political life,” tweeted Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Erdogan who was notoriously photographed kicking a protester after the deadly Soma mining disaster in May.
But Twitter user Serdar Akinan sighed: “Wish he [Erdogan] played just football ...”
Another, Mustafa Bozkurt, said “Turkish politics in a nutshell: offside goals, rivals unable to defend themselves, immodesty ...”
Erdogan declared that the new stadium would be named after Turkey’s national football coach Fatih Terim.
His side in the match included Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, basketball star Hidayet Turkoglu and Erdogan’s son Bilal, who was implicated in corruption allegations against the premier’s inner circle last year.