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Off-the-radar: The foreign duo from Gipuzkoa

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Sarthak Kumar writes about the duo that tore up La Liga - Darko Kovačević and Nihat Kahveci

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In light of Barcelona's upcoming fixture against Real Sociedad...

They came from thousands of miles away, banged in goals and tore La Liga apart - all from Donostia, the capital.

Darko Kovačević began his career with his birth-town club FK Radnički Kovin, but was soon spotted by Zrenjanin based Serbian top league club FK Proleter at the young age of 19. Spending two seasons with the club, Kovačević managed over a goal every other game, and was quickly snatched up by Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade. Kovačević flourished at the Belgrade club, becoming one of Europe's hottest prospects and earning a call-up to the Yugoslavia national team. Netting in an astonishing 37 goals in just 47 games, Kovačević was eventually picked up by Premier League club Sheffield Wednesday in December 1995 for £2m.

Initially, Kovačević looked good, impressive in the air, and even scored 2 goals in one game against Bolton Wanderers in a 4–2 victory that saw him likened to Les Ferdinand. But Kovačević's transfer turned out to be a disaster for Sheffield Wednesday as the striker managed only 4 goals in his lone half-season at the club.

It was the signing that everyone wanted, but half a year later it was the signing everyone wanted to write-off. And while many would have balked at the negativity in the press, Darko had other ideas.

Kovačević moved to La Liga side Real Sociedad in 1996. It was with the Spanish club that Kovačević put on some of his best performances and became one of Europe's best once again. Larger clubs soon came calling, with Italian giants Juventus acquiring the big Serbian in 1999.

At the Turin based club, Kovačević found goals in both the Serie A and competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup, becoming their leading European goal scorer one season. Yet the Juventus management felt Kovačević was underachieving and soon both parties were looking for a move out of Italy, with clubs such as Rangers willing to offer £12m for the Serbian's services. In 2001, Kovačević spent a brief time with Lazio (as part of a swap deal with Marcelo Salas) before moving back to Spain in the middle of the season.

History had repeated itself - another failed six-month spell. And history would repeat itself again - because another move to Real Sociedad followed.

Kovačević would go on to spend 6 more seasons at the club, netting in 51 goals in his second spell with Sociedad. The 2006–07 season would be Kovačević's last season with the Spanish side, ending in the club's relegation.

In 2007 Kovačević signed with Greek champions Olympiacos. Kovačević once again reached top form for the Piraeus based club, scoring 17 goals in the Greek Superleague to lead Olympiacos to the league championship, and adding 3 goals in the Champions League as the team reached as far as the Round of 16.

In early 2009, he was diagnosed with a blocked artery; he successfully underwent heart surgery to improve the flow of blood to his heart. His doctors had advised him that he should retire from football, and Kovacevic officially retired in May 2009.


Nihat Kahveci is a product of Beşiktaş's youth system and was discovered by Hürser Mustafa Cindir when Nihat played in Beşiktaş in the 1996–97 season. He joined the first team at Beşiktaş in the 1997–98 season when he was just 17, at the time John Toshack was the coach. Since then, Nihat became a key player.

In January 2002, Nihat was transferred to Real Sociedad for €5 million by then Beşiktaş coach Toshack, joining his Turkish team-mate Tayfun Korkut in Spain. In the first half of the season, Nihat played 11 matches and scored one goal.

In 2002-03, his second season in Spain, he finished the season with 23 goals making him the league's joint-second highest scorer for the season behind Roy Makaay (29 goals) and tied with Ronaldo. That season, Real Sociedad finished second in the league that season, just two points behind Real Madrid, mostly thanks to a very fruitful strike partnership with Serbian forward Darko Kovačević.

In his third season at Real Sociedad, Nihat made 32 appearances scoring a total of 14 goals. Nihat also played in the UEFA Champions League with Real Sociedad as the club was paired with Juventus, Galatasaray and Olympiacos. La Real qualified to the knockout stage, but was eliminated by Olympique Lyonnais, losing 2–0 on aggregate. By the end of the season, Nihat won the Don Balón Award for Best Foreign Player.

In his fourth season, Nihat made 23 appearances and scored 13 goals. In the middle of the season, Nihat tore his ACL during a match against Sevilla which caused him to be out of action for six months.

In his fifth and last season at Real Sociedad, Nihat made his return from injury in a 3–0 loss in the Basque derby, against Athletic Bilbao. He went on to make 32 appearances and score seven goals. During that season, Nihat was about to sign for Russian club Spartak Moscow but had to stay for the remainder of the season due to Kovačević's injury.

In May 2006, Nihat would go on to play for Villarreal CF, where another torn ACL would derail his first season. He seemed to catch up form in his second season with 18 goals in the league and 4 goals in the UEFA Cup, helping his club to finish the season as second in La Liga where he formed a formidable offensive pair with Robert Pirès. However, in the 2008–09 season, due to injuries again, Nihat made 19 appearances equalling 764 minutes of playing time but failed to score a single goal.

In 2009, Nihat would return to Beşiktaş, but after two seasons, 34 appearances, and three goals, he left with a distaste for playing in the Turkish league, and formally retired six months later. In 2012, he became assistant manager of Villarreal's youth team.


They were individually brilliant too - Nihat, almost singlehandedly, led Turkey to a Euro 2008 semifinal berth - he scored two goals in the final three minutes to turn a 2-1 loss against Czech Republic into a 3-2 win in their final group game. And Darko led Yugoslavia to a 1998 World Cup Round of 16 berth, as well as a Euro 2000 quarterfinal berth.

But, together, they led Real Sociedad to being a 3-2 loss against Celta Vigo away from lifting a third title, to being unbeaten at home including a 4-2 win against Real Madrid and 2-1 against Barcelona. They led Real Sociedad into Europe. And they stayed even when the side was struggling, refusing to listen to bigger offers from bigger clubs.

Darko's strength and aerial ability, combined with Nihat's knack of terrorizing opposition defenses that weren't careful enough, gave La Liga its greatest foreign striker duo of the decade.


This article is reproduced from a series on the faces of Spanish football. You can read it here.