2016 was supposed to be different.
2016 was supposed to signal Turkey’s long-awaited return to football’s world stage.
Turkey is a country of football-mad fanatics with a population of over 80 million, a country with an extraordinary passion for both their domestic and national teams.
This was a country that produced a side that shocked the world in 2002 when it finished third at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. They then won hearts and minds six years later by repeating the trick at the 2008 European Championships.
By the time the European Championships take place in 2021 it will be just the fourth tournament Turkey have competed in during the previous 20 years. If 2002 and 2008 were the pinnacle of Turkish football, 2016 was the relative abyss, considering all those tournaments they missed out on qualifying for. After losing 1-0 to Croatia in the opening game four years ago Turkey couldn’t get the results they needed to even go through as one of the best third-placed teams in the group stage.
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Next year though, next year could be different.
For whatever reason Turkey appear poised on the cusp of another golden generation, a group who can follow in the footsteps of the 2002 team.
The headline act, of course is Cengiz Under. The baby-faced trickster who has taken Serie A by storm. He’s a wizard, the sort of player fans love to dub something like “the Turkish Messi” which is to do his own talents a huge disservice.
Cenk Tosun (Turkey) against Albania
Image credit: Eurosport
He came through at the fascinating Altinordu before spending just a season in the Turkish top-flight prior to his move to Italy. Both his fearless style and the path he has take can explain his role as a standard-bearer for this new generation, namely that so many of these young Turkish stars appear to be unafraid to fly the nest earlier than ever before.
There are the exceptions of course, such as central midfielders Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahce) and Dorukhan Tokoz (Besiktas) but it seems as if the ‘Big Five’ European leagues have decided that Turkish is back in vogue.
There’s another at Roma with Under, centre-back Mert Cetin, whilst Lille have two hugely exciting young talents in right-back Zeki Celik and attacking midfielder Yusuf Yazici.
Let’s focus on the defensive unit as a whole. Everyone knows that to triumph at an international tournament you need a rock-solid back line and Turkey have that. Caglar Soyuncu has emerged as one of the best defenders in the Premier League at Leicester City and Merih Demiral remains an exceptional talent even if the move to Juventus hasn’t worked out as he would have liked. There’s also Kaan Ayhan whilst Celik is a force at full-back as we touched on already.
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The goalkeeping options are solid as well and in 19-year-old Berke Ozer, they have a prospect who could end up being better than the legendary Rustu Recber. Next summer’s finals might come too soon for him but he is poised for a period of dominance in between the sticks for his country.
Speaking of the older guard there are some in this squad, the three captains are Emre Belozoglu (still going strong at 39), Burak Yilmaz and Hakan Calhanoglu.
The mastermind of the whole operation may be a familiar name, it’s Senol Gunes, who was in charge in 2002. Gunes was brought back in February 2019 after the federation dispensed with the services of Mircea Lucescu. He is the one who led the team to Euro 2020 qualification, beating world champions France 2-0 along the way.
That night in Konya was the perfect example of why Turkey are going to be so difficult to beat next summer. They are well-organised and difficult to break down whilst posing a real threat on the break. Of course the raucous crowd certainly helped as well, in that regard it is a shame that Turkey will not host any of the games in the multi-city format.
France's Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris leaves the pitch at the end of the Euro 2020 football qualification match between Turkey and France at the Buyuksehir Belediyesi stadium in Konya, on June 8, 2019. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FRAN
Image credit: Getty Images
Aside from the lack of home advantage the only real obvious hole in this team is up front. In Gunes’ 12 matches in charge Turkey have only scored more than two goals twice, both times against Moldova. Rather worryingly this run included two matches against Andorra.
Yilmaz will b3 35 when the tournament comes around following the coronavirus delay and neither Cenk Tosun or Enes Unal are flourishing in the way fans would like.
20-year-old Ahmed Kutucu could be the answer. A product of Schalke’s famous academy he has been used frequently off the bench by David Wagner and the one-year delay might give him just the time he needs to develop even further.
It is hard to pinpoint the reason for this sudden renaissance within Turkish football. The federation has constantly tweaked the rules concerning the number of Turkish players in each club’s line-up with no real obvious results but teams recently have seemed more committed to investing in their youth set-ups.
Perhaps the answer comes from the increased pressure from UEFA and the federation for clubs to sort out their finances, the threat of being kicked out of European competition is enough for any side to make changes.
Regardless of the reason this is an extremely exciting time for Turkish football. The pressure will be as intense as ever, the Turkish media and fanbase is as unforgiving as they get but this generation might be the ones who can get through that and achieve something truly special.