23 September 2014 — Bayern Munich face small-town club SC Paderborn at home in the 5th matchday of the Bundesliga season. Bayern, one year into the Pep Guardiola reign, has just signed world-class striker Robert Lewandowski on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund. Paderborn, a team consisted of Bundesliga rejects or lower league workhorses, predictably loses the game 4-0.
Despite the forgettable result, the game signified the beauty of how life can give anyone a second chance. Because in the 45th minute Paderborn’s Michael Heinroth was substituted for Süleyman Koç.
There are plenty of heart-warming stories of second chances, and then there is the story of Süleyman Koç.
Facing recent World Cup winners at the iconic Allianz Arena is a remarkable feat in itself. It becomes even more remarkable considering only a year before, Süleyman Koç spent his evenings inside the walls of a prison cell.
A troubled background
Süleyman Koç grew up in Berlin, in the inner-city district of Moabit. Part of the British sector of West Berlin, Moabit directly bordered the Russian-controlled East. Situated on the periphery, adjacent to the Berlin Wall, Moabit became a remote neighborhood that attracted immigrants with its low rents. Since the reunification of Germany, Moabit has faced social problems such as drug trafficking and crime.
Koç learned quickly on the streets of Moabit the only appropriate way to respond to a slap in the face is with your fists. Koç recalled that he never called the police when he himself was attacked, but turned instead to his family or friends. Today, he believes 60 percent of his childhood friends have ended up in jail. Koç’s father, an authoritarian figure who was not shy of using violence in his household, has survived nine knife wounds to the heart and lungs during an assault and himself was convicted of attempted murder.
It was in these troubled surroundings that Koç grew up. Surrounded by violence both on the streets and home, football became his temporary shelter.
A troubled talent
Koç started his career at the local amateur level with Berliner AK 07 and Türkiyemspor Berlin. A hard-working winger, Koç signed his first pro-contract with SV Babelsberg 03, a small club from Potsdam that is currently in the 5th division.
Far away from the spotlights of the Allianz Arena, the €2,000 monthly salary was a start in the right direction for the young Koç. Babelsberg also settled him an apartment in a quieter part of Berlin.
Things started well for Koç at his new club. He became a starter, was in consideration for Turkey’s U-21 team selection, and scouts from 2.Bundesliga were interested in him. Babelsberg gave a new chance at life to a young man who grew up with the odds against him, but it did not take long before his old life caught up with him.
Feeling lonely in his new club, Koç allowed two of his brother’s friends from Moabit to move into his apartment. Koç’s brother, Sedat, and his friends were already deep into the criminal underworld and lived a life surrounded by gangs and drugs. Koç had known some of these gang members since high school, while others he had just met. It wasn’t long until he learned that the gang was planning a series of robberies.
The gang needed someone to scout possible locations to rob, one of which was scouted by Koç’s teammate Guido Koçer (photo shown below). They also needed a car and a getaway driver. On several occasions, it ended up being Süleyman Koç.
The German press nicknamed the gang Die Machetenbande, the “machete gang,” on account of the gang’s habit of wielding machetes during robberies. Consisting of men aged 18 to 21, the gang robbed seven cafes, arcades, and shops in Berlin between February and April 2011.
Süleyman Koç always waited in the car while his brother and accomplices robbed the premises. Although he may not have done the dirty work himself, Koç wasn’t oblivious to the fact that innocent people were being pepper-sprayed and severely beaten by fists, feet, and once even an ashtray.
Koç’s bad decisions caught up with him on the morning of 18 April 2011. Police officers raided Serdat’s apartment when the two brothers were there with four other Moabit youths.
A second chance
Why a promising talent would turn to a life of crime is puzzling, though one can’t help but speculate that in Süleyman Koç’s case it was a combination of having the wrong friends, peer pressure, and fraternal love.
Although Koç has affirmed that he will never turn to a life of crime again, he has never questioned his love for his brother. When questioned by the authorities, Koç refused to talk. He did not apologize to the victimes until his trial, where he claimed he couldn’t say no to his brother whom he loved so dearly.
By then it was too late: Koç was sentenced to three years and nine months imprisonment by the state court of Berlin. He sat in prison for eleven months because of his silence. He did not appeal.
Leaving life in the streets for the inside a prison, Koç received protection from inmates who knew his father. He has recounted becoming numb in the seven square meters of his single cell. He took sleeping pills so he could sleep 12 to 14 hours at night and often only saw the outside of his cell for one hour a day. He tried to force a smile when looking at himself in the mirror but oftentimes ended up in tears.
Then suddenly, at the initiative of one of the guards, everything changed. A guard had decided to let some of the prisoners to play football on a small artificial grass pitch. After watching Koç play, the guard grabbed him and simply said (Bundesliga Fanatic):
You’re good, make your second chance count.
Koç later stated in a heart-warming interview with 11Freunde, that playing football was the only thing that made him feel good during a period he calls the worst of his life:
It gave me hope… So, I started to work out in my cell. I kept the faith.
Football became his shelter once again.
Against all odds
Koç was granted an early release in the spring of 2013 for good behavior and was welcomed back by Babelsberg. President Thomas Bastian stated (Bundesliga.com):
If he regrets what he’s done, he deserves another shot… That’s what we’re about.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for a young man whose wrong choices were shaped by his surroundings and the people he associated with. Koç father has mentioned that they had to stop sending him jogging suits in prison because he kept giving them away, feeling sorry for his fellow inmates who had nothing. Some of his Babelsberg teammates, who regularly wrote him in prison, have also said that they always saw him as a good footballer and not a gangster.
Koç himself has stated that he wants to become a role model (Bundesliga.com):
Football gave me a new lease on life. I want to show people that football goes way beyond the pitch. I want to be a role model for disengaged kids. My parents can be proud again.
Koç netted eight goals in 14 appearances for Babelsberg and joined Paderborn in January 2014.
Then on 23 September 2014, he was on the same pitch as Thomas Müller, a footballer who is the same age. A year before, Müller went home with his sports car to his horse farm while Koç was incarcerated. The fact that they shared the same pitch is almost miraculous.
Koç is still playing professionally today for Adana Demirspor in the Turkish 1.-Lig.