Netflix’s latest German series, Dogs of Berlin, tracks two Berlin policemen tasked with investigating the suspicious murder of star soccer player Orkan Erdem. He’s not based on a real person, but he may call to mind the true story of Burak Karan, a German soccer player who, after ending his career in 2008, was killed in Syria five years later.
Like Erdem, Karan was a German-born son of Turkish immigrants. According to The Guardian, he was born in 1987 in the west German town of Wuppertal, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Der Spiegel reported in 2013 that, in his youth, Karan played seven games representing Germany at the under-16 and under-17 levels, and showed promise as a midfielder. But in 2008, he abruptly ended his athletic career at age 20.
Just five years after hanging up his soccer jersey, German tabloid Bild reported that Karan was found dead in October 2013. According to AS he was allegedly fighting against the army of Bashir al-Assad, and was killed during an air raid in Azaz on the Syrian border with Turkey.
Karan’s brother, Mustafa, told Bild that he believed his brother was only there to provide humanitarian aid. "If he carried a gun, then only to protect [vehicles]," he said, translation per The Guardian. "He told me he didn’t want to fight."
In contrast, Karan’s sister, Zuhal, told Bild that before his departure for Syria, seven months before his death, Karan "had started talking about jihad a lot."
On Oct. 22, per Der Spiegel, a video reportedly surfaced of Karan posing with an assault rifle, prompting speculation that the former player had become radicalized. Text below the video also reportedly claimed that "he left home to fight fisabilillah (‘for the sake of Allah’) against Bashar al-Assad’s injustice" and that he allegedly "attacked the kuffar (‘nonbelievers’)."
Der Spiegel further reported that the German government had begun investigating Karan for his alleged ties to foreign terrorist groups, but the case never went further than a preliminary suspicion.
Karan’s last coach, Thomas Hengen, told The Guardian that the news of Karan’s death was a hard pill to swallow. "When I heard about what happened to Burak, it hit me quite hard," he said. "It makes you think twice about what can happen to a young athlete: they can become these big stars, or their life can take a completely different turn. But even as a coach you can’t look into people’s souls."
All of that being said, Karan’s story differs from Orkan Erdem’s in numerous ways — especially when it comes to the circumstances surrounding each of their deaths. In addition, growing up in Wuppertal, Karan would have been removed from the gritty city streets Dogs of Berlin aims to depict. Nevertheless, Karan’s story does serve as a real-life reminder of the racial and ethnic tensions that still exist in Germany today — another theme prevalent in Dogs of Berlin.
See how Orkan’s story will play out when Dogs of Berlin premieres Dec. 7.
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