On the verge of his second World Cup, Socceroos veteran Aziz Behich is just trying to take it all in – ABC News

On the verge of his second World Cup, Socceroos veteran Aziz Behich is just trying to take it all in
The road from Dundee to the University of St Andrews is everything you'd expect from a drive down the south-east coast of Scotland. 
After a gentle crawl out of the city and across the Tay River bridge, the A92 curves slightly inland before spilling out onto a wide horizon of rolling green farmland.
The highway passes through villages with names like Drumoig, Pickletillum, and Kincaple; some no more than a few cottages wide, ringed by ancient trees or low fences of stormy-grey stone.
Old wooden posts separate one crop of lush vegetation from another, bobbing like buoys up and over the distant hills. If you turn your head at just the right moment, beyond the farmhouses and orchards and clumps of firs, you can catch a glimpse of the flat North Sea. Every couple of kilometres, on either side of the road, there's a golf course.
It's not far from Dundee to St Andrews — about half an hour by car — but Aziz Behich is taking his time. He still can't quite believe he's here at all.
"Us footballers, our lives are 100 miles an hour at times," he tells me on the way to the university where his club, Dundee United, trains.
"The other day, I was sitting here thinking, 'I left Australia 10 years ago.' Now I'm in Scotland. Time just flies because we're training every day; you're just focusing day-by-day to make sure you're improving and staying on top of your game.
"But as I've gotten older, it's starting to feel a little different. With the World Cup coming up, I kind of know what to expect now, so I'm really wanting to try and appreciate it as much as I can."
Dundee feels like a different planet compared to the north Melbourne suburbs of Essendon and Broadmeadows where Behich grew up.
Behich's dad, Yasar, was a Turkish-Cypriot migrant who arrived here in the 1970s after fleeing a coup in North Cyprus. His mum, Cemaliye, followed a few years later, and together they had five children, of which Aziz is the second-youngest and only son.
His parents were, in Behich's words, "a typical migrant story". Yasar worked multiple factory-floor and cleaning jobs to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, while Cemaliye took care of the kids and tried to maintain order in their too-small house.
"Our parents did an amazing job," he said. 
"It was probably difficult for them, but we never saw that part of it. They hid it from us. They did whatever they could to make sure we had the best life possible."
It was through his dad that Aziz's love of football started.
Yasar was a famous player back in North Cyprus; so famous that his image was printed on the inside of a chewing-gum wrapper.
Behich recalls photos his mother had taken of him sitting on the boot of their old car or draped over a fence watching his dad run around on Melbourne's community fields, a secret superstar from half a world away.
While most kids his age grew up watching the Premier League on television, Aziz and his dad would instead follow the Turkish Süper Lig, memorising the players and stats and titles of clubs like Beşiktas, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray.
Those formative years planted the seed of Behich's footballing dreams. But they were almost flattened before they'd had a chance to grow.
After shining for Green Gully SC in Victoria's state league, he was signed by Melbourne Victory's youth team in 2009, and even wore the captain's armband the following season.
He was regularly invited to train with the A-League team alongside players like Kevin Muscat, Archie Thompson, and Ricardinho, and made a handful of senior appearances for the club. 
But despite all this involvement, Victory never offered him a senior contract.
"That was hard for me to take," he said.
"No A-League club wanted to give me a chance, so I kind of had to take a backwards step.
"One part of me was saying, 'this could be it. Maybe it's just not my time.' So I went back to Hume City, which was my local team in Meadow Heights, got a part-time job at a factory and then went to training in the evening. I thought I'd just stay there forever.
"But lucky enough, Melbourne Heart got formed that season. They offered me a week or two trial out in Ballarat, so I'd travel up every morning just for training sessions, and eventually they offered me a six-week contract. I had time to prove myself then, ended up doing well, and stayed there for a few more years. The rest is history."
History is the most fitting word for what happened next.
Following break-out performances with Melbourne Heart in the A-League, where he transitioned from a winger into the full-back position he now plays for the Socceroos, he began to attract interest from the Netherlands and Germany.
But there was one league that always called to him. The league he spent countless, precious hours obsessed with in his childhood.
"When I got the offer from Bursaspor in Turkey, it was a no-brainer for me," he said.
"Two years before I'd gone there, they'd won the league. They'd just played in the Champions League. They were one of the best clubs in the world.
"I grew up watching that league. I knew everything about that league. I wanted so much to experience that, but I never thought a club of Bursaspor's size would be interested in a kid from Meadow Heights.
"I'd only just played by first game for the Socceroos at the time, too, so I was on a high. Everything felt like it was falling into place."
In 2013, Behich became the first Australian to sign for the storied club and, at that time, just the 15th to play in the league. He wouldn't realise it until later, but it felt like a kind of homecoming.
His first season was a whirlwind: he had never been to Turkey before, with his only knowledge of the country filtered through the memories of his own family.
"It was ruthless," he said.
"My first six months were so difficult. I didn't play a game. There were coach changes all the time, which you don't see much in Australia. I was getting left out of the squad because obviously I wasn't well known there, and I was a young kid as well, so they didn't really care.
"So it was a really difficult period: I went from being a name coming out of the A-League, just playing my first game for Australia, to pretty much being non-existent over there.
"There were definitely times where I was like, 'let's just go home, it's easier back home'. But the other part of me said, 'you've come this far, you've taken this big plunge forward. If I was to come back now, I would think I'd failed myself.' I never want to feel like that. I'm grateful I had that mentality, because it's got me here today."
Pushing through those early difficulties ended up changing Behich's life.
He stayed at Bursaspor until 2018, eventually earning a big-money move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven for a reported $4.5 million — one of the highest fees ever paid for an Australian overseas — before circling back to play in Turkey for the next four years.
But it was off the field where the bigger transformations happened.
Behich already spoke Turkish thanks to his parents, but living there for the better part of a decade meant he learned to read and write it fluently. He immersed himself in the history and the culture of the country; its music and its food, its sport and its stories. It became his second home.
It also gave him a better understanding of his family's complex relationship with the country: that tangle of love and sadness that many first-generation migrants feel when separated from everything they ever knew.
Over time, his understanding of himself began to change, too, as he was figuring out who he was and where he belonged.
"I always felt Australian, but I do have the Turkish blood in me, so I was always the player caught in-between," he said.
"You'd have the foreigners, and then the Turkish locals, and I was always the player in the middle, which was good and bad.
"I always got asked by them why I didn't play for Turkey. But it never crossed my mind. I always wanted to play for Australia; I grew up there, I started my football there. They gave my family a life.
"Even my dad said, 'the best decision you made was playing for Australia.' Australia gave us a chance. I've always felt like I had to give something back."
Another part of Behich's identity that Turkey allowed him to explore was one that had taken a back seat while he focused on football: his faith.
His family was Muslim, and his childhood was structured by visits to the local mosque with his dad, or hanging out there with friends on Friday afternoons after school. He'd participate in traditions like Ramadan and Eid, but he didn't have much interest in Islam or its teachings back then.
Now 31, Behich has become more reflective and curious about his religion; the ideas and principles and lessons he can incorporate into his life as his post-playing days draw nearer.
"I'm a very proud Muslim," he said.
"I'm not sure why, but as I've gotten older, I find I'm moving more towards it. Living in Turkey and learning off my mum and my dad, asking them all sorts of questions, has made me open myself to it more.
"It's difficult sometimes with football with things like fasting. It's not the healthiest thing to do; I've tried before but your body doesn't cope well. I get down to the mosque when I can, though, and I'm reading a lot more about it now.
"I try and be a role model as best as I can be. When I represent Australia, I'm also representing the Muslim community in Australia. At the end of the day, everyone's beliefs are their own; I just try to show that it's possible to conquer your dreams.
"For me, it's just about being a good person, on and off the field. Growing up, the main thing my parents taught us kids was to be grounded, to be respectful of everyone around you, and to be a good person no matter what. So that's what I've always tried to be."
Behich hopes he can take that reflective mentality to Qatar to compete in his second consecutive World Cup with the Socceroos this November.
He still gets goosebumps when he remembers walking out against France at his first tournament in 2018, standing alongside his countrymen and in front of his family, looking up at the bursts of yellow in the stands as they all sang the Australian anthem together.
"It's difficult to explain that feeling to people," he said.
"And that's what I tell the younger [players]: once you have that experience, nobody can take that away from you. It's adrenaline. It's pride. It's emotion.
"After I had a taste of that, I said to my dad, 'I'll be there again in four years' time, I'll do whatever I can.'"
He felt it all again when Australia defeated Peru in a famous penalty shoot-out in June.
He wasn't nervous in the tunnel before that game; if anything, he was as confident and determined as ever. He recalls turning to fellow veteran Aaron Mooy after the first play-off against the UAE and saying: "this could be our last chance to go to a World Cup. We can't go out like this. We have to go back."
Behich is less than two months away from it now and is doing everything he can — including moving half-way around the world to Scotland — to experience it for what could be the last time.
As he pulls into the car park at the university, I ask him what it means to him to be a Socceroo.
He pauses.
"The Socceroos mean something different to everyone, but for me personally, it's everything," he says.
"All of my decisions in football have been to play for the national team. Once you play for your country, there is no feeling like it.
"This is what I say to the younger boys coming through, you can't take it for granted. This is what drives me every day. I'll be 32 this year but I still feel that passion. The Socceroos are the reason I wake up every day and work hard and try to do well.
"I'm so grateful to have an opportunity to go to another World Cup. It goes by so quickly that you don't really realise how special it is.
"When you look at our squad, we're so multicultural. It's not something you see so much with other national teams — and it's a great thing. We learn off each other constantly.
"Everyone comes with a different background, different religion, but we're all here representing Australia for the same reason: we want to wear that jersey and make the country that raised us proud."
This story is part of ABC Sport's "Socceroos In The Spotlight" series in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup. You can read part one on Mitch Duke here, and part two on Ajdin Hrustic here.
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