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Sport 'I was my own biggest enemy': Football star fights to overcome drug ban

02:30  31 may  2020
02:30  31 may  2020 Source:   smh.com.au

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My biggest enemy and my biggest problem is myself. Having been handed a ban more than three times that Diego Maradona served for cocaine use in 1991, Bulut is fighting to get it reduced. Kerem Bulut is pleading to have his four-year drug ban reduced, having already served two years.

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a man holding a football ball: KEREM BULUT scores for the wanderes during the Western Sydney Wanderers Vs FC Seoul at Parramatta Stadium  Photography Brendan Esposito smh,sport,7th April © Brendan Esposito KEREM BULUT scores for the wanderes during the Western Sydney Wanderers Vs FC Seoul at Parramatta Stadium Photography Brendan Esposito smh,sport,7th April

Kerem Bulut doesn't have a right eyebrow. In its place is tattooed the word "unbreakable".

It is one of the many markings on his face that contributes to his "bad boy" image, but of all his tattoos, it is the one at risk of becoming redundant.

Once Australia's brightest attacking prospect, 28-year-old Bulut is facing the prospect his career is already over. The former Young Socceroo is halfway through a four-year ban for testing positive for cocaine and if he has to serve the remaining two years, the suspension could leave him a broken man.

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"I don't know if I can last any longer," he says. "I try not to break because if I break that will be it."

His playing career was brought to an abrupt halt in May 2018. While playing for Turkish second league club Menemenspor, a drug test returned a positive for cocaine. It was his first offence and immediately Bulut offered an early guilty plea, admitting to having been offered the drug at a party away from competition. Hoping honesty would lead to leniency, he was dealt a cruel blow when Turkish authorities slapped him with the maximum possible penalty.

"I thought, 'Is this how it ends?'" he says. "My whole body went numb when I saw it; I just went into shock."

The four-year ban he was given is the longest being served by an Australian athlete for a first-time recreational drug offence.

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The true gravity of the situation didn't sink in until he returned home. Once a cult hero at Western Sydney Wanderers, he would regularly be swarmed by fans whenever he stepped out of his home in Auburn. So adored by supporters was he that he was once the surprise guest at the birthday of a young Wanderers' fan. However, after news broke of his positive test, the only thing Bulut felt was the glare of the thousand-yard stares.

"You have to show face to your family, friends and the people who look at you," he says. "You let a lot of people down."

Bulut had always enjoyed attention. If anything, he did his best to attract it. Often it was for the right reasons, such as when he won the golden boot at the 2010 Asian under-19 championships, or netted a brace on debut for the Wanderers in a Sydney derby in 2015. Other times were less glamorous, such as a charge of malicious wounding and robbery in 2010 or a charge of intimidation after an incident at a McDonalds in 2015. All charges were later withdrawn.

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Since a young age, Bulut's sublime ability in front of goal was plain to see. Socceroo Rhyan Grant played alongside him at the NSW Institute of Sport, Sydney FC and with junior national teams, and recalls a "larrikin" who was a natural goal scorer.

"He loved to have a laugh and he got along with everyone," Grant says. "He would always score, no matter if we were dominating a game or not, he would always pop up and score. He was everywhere. He would defend from the front as you expect from strikers these days, but he was doing it back then."

However, life away from the field was very different. Bulut's father spent time in jail while crime was never far from the crowd he hung out with in Sydney's west.

"I lived a hard life," Bulut says. "I grew up in a rough area; I had family issues and other issues."

Now 28, and having spent two years doing little more than reflecting, he takes ownership of his mistakes.

"The only damage I do is to myself," he says. "My biggest enemy and my biggest problem is myself. I look at myself in the mirror and think that's my biggest enemy sometimes."

The confident persona he would present was, at times, a mask. By his own admission, he lacked self-confidence. Now older and wiser, Bulut is taking greater responsibility and working on the relationship that often matters most: the one he has with himself.

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"Me and myself have become good friends now; I am not my enemy any more," he says. "I was never sure of myself. It's hard to explain ... it's just a battle with your head and once you win that mental game with yourself, you can relax and calm down and it's all worked out. I am in a better than before."

To help with that battle, Bulut sought a mentor in an old friend, former Socceroo Ahmad Elrich. The former Fulham player has turned his life around after serving a four-year jail sentence for gun possession and is now training Bulut, physically and mentally.

"We went to the same school," Bulut says. "He is a top guy. He gave me a lot of advice because he's been through it. I take lessons from him and he said it's not worth it. He taught me to overcome the struggles in my head and get back to football."

It has inspired Bulut to become the popular figure he once was within his community. He is mentoring through his mosque and now cites his life goals as settling down, starting a family and becoming a role model for youngsters. To do that, Bulut needs to return to football.

Having been handed a ban more than three times that Diego Maradona served for cocaine use in 1991, Bulut is fighting to get it reduced. A change in WADA's penalties for cocaine has given him a glimmer of hope that could shave almost 18 months off his sentence, according to the players' union.

"He came to us once the processes in Turkey had been exhausted, which is incredibly unfortunate," Professional Footballers Australia chief John Didulica says. "We think that the ban he received was incredibly heavy-handed. The advice we have given him since is that, given the circumstances of the offending, we think he can be back playing well in advance of four years and should be able to restart on January 1, 2021."

Getting the ban reduced is one mountain Bulut has to climb; gaining a professional contract again is the other. Much like the tattoos, there's no hiding his history, but the once-troubled star is desperate to gain control of his future. He's vowed not to take another chance for granted, but promises that - for all the changes he's made in life - some habits will remain.

"As a player, you will still see the same hunger, you will see the workhorse that I was," Bulut says. "As a person, though, you will see a man, not a kid any more. I know that in the future I will respect the sport more and respect myself. I'll never put myself in that position again."

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