Salih Özcan was born to Turkish parents in Cologne on 11 January 1998 and joined his first club as an eight-year-old. However, in his very first year at SC West, he caught the eye of the youth development scouts of 1. FC Cologne and moved to Geissbockheim after only one season in the summer of 2007. Shortly after his 18th birthday, he joined Cologne's Regionalliga side. But the highly-talented midfielder wasn't in the Regionalliga for long, as former head coach Peter Stöger selected Özcan, who was captain of the German U19s national team at the time, in his squad for the second Bundesliga match of the 2016/17 season. He would go on to make his first team debut two games later.
It took just 60 seconds on the pitch for Özcan to make his mark in the match against FC Schalke 04, beating defender Naldo to set up Simon Zoller for his side's third and final goal in the 3-1 win. Eight days later, he was rewarded with his first professional contract. The defensive midfielder got plenty of playing time, making 13 appearances in his first Bundesliga season. "He had to work to earn every appearance," said Peter Stöger. In 2017, Özcan was awarded the Fritz Walter gold medal by the German FA (DFB) awarded to the best young player of his year group. In the 2017/18 season, between Matchdays 6 and 31, with just three exceptions (including one due to a suspension for picking up five yellow cards), he was the first choice for the Geißböcke, but they finished the season bottom of the table.
After playing 15 matches in the second tier, helping Cologne secure promotion, Özcan extended his contract in Cologne and was loaned out to Holstein Kiel in the second division, where he played in 29 of a possible 32 matches and only failed to make the starting line-up twice. After returning to Cologne, the 6-foot-tall athlete played in 28 and 31 Bundesliga games respectively during the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons. Kicker magazine described him as an "aggressive defensive or box to box midfielder with good passing skills, who can shut down opponents by acting like a wall in front of the back line." On 21 November 2021, he scored his first of two goals in the top tier in the match against Mainz 05. In the 2021/22 season, Özcan impressed not only as a midfield enforcer – in total he contested most duels of all Cologne players, winning a respectable 52 percent of them – but also going forward, with a passing success rate of 88%. Not only is he strong in the tackle and good in the air, he is also fast and reads the game well. After Jonas Hector, he drew the second most fouls for Cologne last season (53).
"Salih Özcan is one of the biggest success stories of the Bundesliga season and was instrumental in Cologne's successful season, operating as a central defensive midfielder. He is incredibly strong in the tackle and good in the air. He is not afraid to put his body on the line and uncompromisingly gives everything for his team to succeed. His mentality and his physical prowess, coupled with his ability to read the game, will benefit our team," said sporting director Sebastian Kehl about the new signing. Özcan was clear: "There are very few clubs that I would have left my city for. The energy of Borussia Dortmund, which you can really feel, plus the ability to play regularly in the Champions League, ultimately made up my mind. I am very ambitious and ready to give it my all."
Özcan played for Germany's youth teams at all levels starting with the U15s and won the European Championship with the U19s in 2021, starting in the 1-0 win against Portugal in the final. In March 2022, he made the decision to switch allegiances and play for Turkey. He played his first of five games for the senior team (correct as at June 2022) as Turkey lost 3-2 to Italy on 22 March 2022.
And the footballer has not only made headlines on the pitch: as a 15-year-old, he saved an 11-year-old who had been hit by a train while riding his bike by quickly stepping in to take care of the seriously injured boy until paramedics arrived on the scene.