Few people gave Turkey any hope of qualifying for Euro 2016, let alone doing well at the tournament, following their dismal start to the qualifying campaign. The Turks qualified as the Best 3rd Placed Team in qualifying, behind group winners Czech Republic and runners up Iceland.
Many people won’t give this team a chance, but in truth they are dangerous dark horses filled with passion in a young balanced team.
The ‘Crescent Stars’ have a history of poor qualifying campaigns, failing to qualify for an international tournament since 2008, despite possessing a team with an abundance of talent. The Turks will be hoping to replicate their gutsy performances at both the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008 where they defied expectations to return to a proud nation.
In the 2002 World Cup, joint hosted by Japan & South Korea, the Turks performed above and beyond expectations. Living in Turkey at the time, the belief and support of the nation was immense. For more than an hour before the semi final, the whole country was cheering, singing and swaying. Then, as the game started, the nation was silent, all eyes were set on a TV screen showing the match, whether it was on a large screen in Taksim Square or in every home. Fans had begun the day with unparalleled optimism – surely the team that had come so far against all odds could manage one more victory?
It was not to be, as eventual winners Brazil overcame Turkey in a narrow 1-0 victory. Turkey went on to beat South Korea 3-2, in the third place play-off finishing on a high after beating the host nation. For many Turks, the World Cup was a turning point in Turkish football, a wildly patriotic and football-mad country making great strides on the international stage.
The belief and conviction in Turkish football from the World Cup success was broadcasted and carried into the next generation of young Turks. This next crop of players, including a 21 year old, Arda Turan, qualified and outperformed yet again on the international stage six years later. Following an opening defeat by Portugal, the side, managed by current manager Fatih Terim, the team beat Switzerland and Czech Republic, both secured by late goals, to progress to the knock-out stages of Euro 2008. Another late goal by Turkey came in the 123rd minute of the quarter finals, which saw their game against Croatia head to penalties. Turkey went on to beat Croatia 3-1 on to progress to the semi-finals. However, their heroic run came to an end, again, this time suffering the heartbreak of a late winner from Germany’s Phillipp Lahm in the last minute of the match. Yet again, the over-performing Turks returned home as heroes and to jubilation from the proud football nation.
A sight which would not be seen if England managed to reach the semi-finals. Maybe it’s the over-expectation that the media heaps on the English team, or the underdog status of the Turkish team. Or simply, the madly passionate nature of the Turkish football fan.
Unlike English footballers are sometimes criticised, when the Turkish national anthem is playing, you know the proudly patriotic team will know the words. As a child, growing up in Turkey, I sang that national anthem every single day before the school day started, along with every other child at the school, and every other Turk at every other school. Not only that, but a framed version of the national anthem typically sits proudly above the blackboard in the classrooms of Turkish schools, accompanied by a Turkish flag.
The theme of the anthem is of affection for the Turkish homeland, freedom and faith as well as praise for the virtues of hope, devotion and sacrifice. And aspects of this clearly show through the way the Turkish national team approach and play football.
As last minute goals were a speciality the last time Turkey played at the Euro’s, it was only right that qualification this time round was secured through an 89th minute goal against Iceland, slipping into Euro 2016 as the best 3rd placed team, ahead of an underperforming Netherlands.
The team is led by 62 year old tactician, Fatih Terim, the same manager who managed the team to the Euro 2008 semi-finals, known for his aggressive style of football. The Emperor, as he is affectionately known, does not lack any winning experience, lifting six league titles and seven cup competitions in his club managerial career, including Galatasaray’s UEFA Cup victory over Arsenal in 2000.
Despite the poor start to their qualification campaign, the fighting spirit of the team emerged yet again, picking up form just when it mattered. Under Fatih Terim’s third tenure, the team have undergone a resurgence, not losing a fixture since November 2014, winning their last three fixtures in qualifying without conceding a goal.
Their improvements in form have led them to become the best mover in the FIFA World Rankings, currently sitting in 20th place, their highest ranking since 2009. Half of the other teams qualified at the Euro’s sit below them in the rankings, and the Turks will not have any doubts that they can beat any team on a given day.
Their most recent friendly results, a narrow win against Qatar and a goalless draw against neighbours, Greece, were disappointing for a team that sees themselves as one of the big guns in European football. Yet a quick look at the squad sees four debutants, along with another four youngsters who have featured for the national team less than three times.
Fatih Terim’s, willingness to test out the young talent highlights that this is an exciting time in Turkish football. Fatih noted: “We have a young team and that makes us all even prouder that these young guys have qualified for the Euro’s”. Of these youngsters, three starlets in particular stand out.
Already proven on the international stage is one of the young stars of Turkish football, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, who has appeared 15 times for his ancestral Turkey, scoring four goals. The 21 year old, who represents Bayer Leverkusen at club level, plays across midfield and is well known for his outstanding free kicks and long shots, drawing him comparison with Brazilian legend, Juninho. The Bayer Leverkusen star who has been linked with Barcelona and Manchester United has emerged as one of the Bundesliga’s most highly-rated youngsters over the last 18 months and will be key to Turkey’s success.
A newcomer on the international scene, Yunus Mallı, of FSV Mainz, has played two games for the national side. Recently subject to a £10 million bid from German heavyweights Borussia Dortmund and interest from Tottenham, the 24 year old is Mainz’s current top goalscorer and has been one of the relevations of the Bundesliga season so far. The playmaker has developed remarkably, scoring six goals in the second half of last season, along with another ten in the Bundesliga this term. The attacking midfielder who is becoming known for his finishing, through balls and counter attacking threat attracted the attention of head coach Fatih Terim back in October who persuaded the youngster to play for his ancestral Turkey rather than Germany who he represented at all youth levels.
The most internationally experienced of the three youngsters is Ozan Tufan who plies his trade in his native Turkey for Fenerbahce. The 20 year old played the most games out of any Turk in qualifying, bringing his total international appearances up to 18, scoring one goal in the process. The defensive midfielder, who can also fill in at right back plays with a maturity far beyond his tender age and plays his club football alongside experienced midfielder, and national teammate Mehmet Topal.
Despite the depth in young talent, the nation will look to two experienced midfielders for leadership to steady the ship in Mehmet Topal and the hero of the hour Selçuk İnan who scored the winning free kick against Iceland to ensure a place in the finals. Similar to a large portion of Turkey’s squad, both play in Turkey, Mehmet for Fenerbahce and Selçuk for rivals Galatasaray. Both have a depth of international experience, having played over a hundred games for the national side between them.
With a plethora of talent across midfield, there is a slight lack of firepower up front, with only recent West Ham target Burak Yılmaz proving his worth as a striker, having scored 19 goals in 42 games for the national side. The forward has an eye for goal and scored 9 goals in just 15 games for Galatasaray this season, before transferring to Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super League, in the wave of European players moving to East Asia. The 30 year old who made his debut for the national side in Fatih Terim’s previous spell in 2006, also proved imperative in qualifying, scoring six goals in seven games despite being hampered by injuries.
The star man in Turkey’s resurgence is Arda Turan. The 29 year old captain has turned out 86 times for the national team, scoring 16 goals in the process. The Barcelona man, who has recently been cleared to play following the lift of Barca’s transfer embargo in January, has been ever present in Barca’s push for the La Liga title as he has played 14 times since the beginning of the year. The £25 million man will be key to Turkey’s success after already being central to his former club, Atletico Madrid’s La Liga triumph in 2014.
Upcoming friendlies against Sweden (24 March), Austria (29 March) and England (22 May) will be tests for Turkey, to see if they have what it takes to perform at Euro 2016.
The Euro 2016 draw pitted Turkey in Group D against qualification rivals Czech Republic, Croatia and the 2008 & 2012 Champions Spain. The new format not only means that an extra eight teams have qualified for the tournament, but that 16 out of the 24 teams qualify into the knock-out stages, with the top two in each group and four best third-placed teams securing progress to the next round.
Their first fixture of Group D kicks off on the 12th June in Parc des Princes, Paris against a Croatia side brimming with talent including playmakers Rakitic and Modric alongside Turan’s former teammate and profilic goalscorer Mandzukic. From the Premier League, high-flying Leicester’s Kramaric and Liverpool’s Lovren will likely make the squad. The last time Turkey beat Croatia was in the dramatic quarter finals in 2008 between the two sides, where Semih Şentürk‘s goal deep into extra time sent the game to penalties, where Turkey emerged victorious. The Croats got their revenge four years later where they beat Turkey in the Euro 2012 play-offs, lengthening Turkey’s absence from a major international tournament further.
Despite both teams having changed since both meetings, in the last five fixtures between the sides, four have ended in draws in normal time. These two evenly matched sides will be keen to start the tournament with a bang, knowing that their toughest fixture against Spain is yet to come.
Turkey’s second fixture in Group D pits them against current holders Spain five days and over 500 miles later in the Allianz Riviera, Nice in the Cote d’Azur region on the south east coast of France. The Turks will be keen to capitalise on captain, Arda Turan’s five years playing experience in La Liga, competing alongside and against many Spanish internationals. Arguably, this will be Turkey’s toughest opponent, facing a team they last beat in 1967. Spain will be keen to regain the trophy they have won for the last two tournaments and make up for the disappointment at their group stage exit in the 2014 World Cup.
Turkey’s last fixture in Group D comes against recent qualification opponents, Czech Republic, who they face on the 21st of June in the Stade Bollaert-Delelis over 600 miles north at the home of RC Lens, also the stadium where the highly anticipated fixture between England and Wales in Group B will take place. The Turk’s easiest fixture will be their last one. Turkey beat Czech Republic as recently as November 2015, overcoming them in a 2-0 victory. Despite the golden age of Czech football falling behind us, they still have Arsenal duo Rosicky and Petr Cech who will be keen to make an impact alongside a predominantly Czech based squad.
If Turkey were to pull off the remarkable feat of topping Group D, they would play again in the same stadium four days later, against one of the four best third-placed teams. If they finish as runner up in Group D they will face the winner of Group E, containing Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Sweden. If they were to qualify as one of the four best third-placed teams, they would face either the Winner of Group A or B, where they could face host nations France or England.
Following their near decade of hurt from failing to qualify for an international tournament the nation’s hopes rest on the shoulders of this young national side who have already proven to be full of passion and desire. Through the individual skill of some of the stars in the squad, coupled with the unbreakable team spirit and never say die attitude, there is no reason that this Turkish team can’t upset a few top sides and have a successful campaign, reminiscent of their performances at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008.