Players have been called 'fighters' and 'warriors' many a time, but rarely have those terms been more fitting than when applied to Werder Bremen centre-back Ömer Toprak, who survived a life-threatening accident a decade ago to become one of the Bundesliga's finest defenders.
The 30-year-old has become the newest addition at the Wohninvest Weserstadion, his arrival following the signings of Niclas Füllkrug, Marco Friedl and others as Florian Kohfeldt builds a squad ready to make another tilt at European qualification this season.
Back in the summer of 2009, Toprak had just helped the Black Forest club earn promotion to the Bundesliga in his maiden season as a professional, featuring in 30 of the team's 34 league games to finish five points clear at the top of Bundesliga 2.
On 9 June that year, enjoying a well-earned break during the off-season, the then 19-year-old went go-karting. "It was one of the worst days of my life," Toprak recalled in an Instagram post recently. "I had an accident and sustained burns on over 40 per cent of my body. I barely survived. After seven emergency surgeries and three weeks in intensive care, I was told I would never play football again."
Thankfully, and as testament to Toprak's extraordinary perseverance and strength of character, he not only survived, but went on to confound that initial diagnosis: "Ten years and 227 Bundesliga games later, I'd like to thank all my doctors, my family and my friends who helped me during this time. I'm very grateful to have been given a second chance. I love this game. If it was only a job, I'd probably never have played again after my accident. I'm living proof that you should never give up."
Throwing in the towel was never an option. Incredibly, just 110 days after the accident, Toprak was back at the Freiburg training ground. "Ömer has resumed light jogging exercises and is back doing laps around the pitch," said Robin Dutt, head coach at the time, before sounding a note of caution. "We'll have to wait and see whether he's able to play again."
Dutt needn't have worried. Toprak's persistence paid off and on 16 January 2010 he made his first-team comeback as a 65th-minute substitute in Hamburg, his return largely mitigating the disappointment of a 2-0 defeat. It was by no means a sentimental gesture, either. Toprak was ready. He went on to make another 13 top-flight appearances in that Rückrunde and 24 more the following campaign, helping Freiburg stay in the Bundesliga both seasons.
Indeed, so impressed was Dutt with Toprak's mentality and ability that he made him his first signing when he took over at Leverkusen in summer 2011. Veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink was equally enthralled and gave the Ravensburg-born defender – who won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship with Germany in 2008 – his senior international debut with Turkey in November that year.
Rugged in the tackle and assured in possession, he was well suited both to the international stage and Die Werkself's attack-minded style. He stayed at the club for six years, making 203 competitive outings in the process, before catching the eye of Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund during the 2016/17 season.
Tuchel had departed by the time the defender arrived in summer 2017, but he was still able to settle into the side, thanks in part to his friendship with Turkish compatriot Nuri Sahin, who had immediately offered his help in the wake of the karting accident. Toprak appeared 26 times in the Bundesliga in his maiden season with BVB, but a series of niggling injuries meant he was unable to pin down a regular starting berth under Lucien Favre as Dortmund ran Bayern Munich close to the title in 2018/19.
Competition for places was fierce going into the new campaign, with Manuel Akanji, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Leonardo Balerdi and the returning six-time Bundesliga winner Mats Hummels competing for two centre-back berths, signalling that Toprak's playing time may be limited in 2019/20.
And so begins a new chapter in his career, one in which more success should follow. Toprak’s timing in the tackle, elegance in possession and positional awareness should mean regular football alongside defensive leader Niklas Moisander. Furthermore, like his former team-mate Sahin, who has also found a second home in Bremen, his experience of European football means Toprak will have bags of wisdom to impart upon the rest of the squad.
"Ömer is a quick central defender who has played at the highest level for several years," said Werder coach Kohfeldt. "We're thrilled he's chosen us. He had a very good game in the Supercup against Bayern and will help us right away."
The defender himself added, "I'm happy to be here. I'm convinced by the development and concept of Werder and want to play my part in continuing that process."
Toprak has the potential to be a decisive signing for a Bremen side that have openly stated their objective of qualifying for Europe. With that expectation comes pressure to deliver, but having already overcome more than his fair share of adversity, one suspects he is unlikely to be fazed by the challenge.