Turkey Brings Home Hope
The last few years have been lacking in positives for Turkey fans.
After being one of just two third-placed sides to crash out of UEFA EURO 2016 at the group stage – albeit having been pitted against Croatia and Spain – they missed out on their fourth successive FIFA World Cup™ before getting relegated to UEFA Nations League C under former coach Mircea Lucescu.
To put it bluntly, the glory days of winning bronze at Korea/Japan 2002 really do feel their full 17 years ago. However, you’d forgive a few fans for getting nostalgic lately.
After a enticing taster in their two games in March, Senol Gunes will take the reins once again – having not been at them since 2004 – after bringing four years at Besiktas to an end.
His return to the dugout promises much, with swagger-infused wins over Albania and Moldova seeing them rubbing shoulders with world champions France at the top of their EURO 2020 qualifying group.
While meetings with Les Bleus and fellow Russia 2018 competitors Iceland pose sterner tests, there look to be reasons for optimism as they look to climb from 39th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
More than just memories
The emotional connection to Gunes, and the respect it garners, is undoubted. Having also clinched third at the FIFA Confederations Cup, he is the national team’s most successful coach. But he has far from earned his return through nostalgia alone.
Now with 30 years in the dugout, the 66-year-old has enjoyed the best spell of his coaching career of late. Back-to-back titles at Besiktas – his first from the bench – have seen his stock rise and, while having had to settle for missing out on silverware these last two seasons, hopes are that his knack of getting the best out of his players shunts the national team back on track.
Having signed a four-year contract, sights are certainly set on guiding them back to their first World Cup since he left the hot-seat.
An emerging generation
Combining the old with the new looks set to be a defining feature of the team. And, as is so often the case, the new is something exciting plenty of Turkish fans.
The lightning-quick Cengiz Under is at the crest of this new wave. Direct, with exceptional close control and a thunderous shot, he is a purely explosive force cutting in on to his left foot from the flanks. The fact they flourished in Gunes’s first games despite Under being ruled out through injury adds optimism for their challenging encounters ahead.
Defensively is where they look to have a real host of options emerging, though. Teenager Ozan Kabak has been a mainstay for Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, while Zeki Celik and Merih Demiral have impressed at Lille and Sassuolo. Cagar Soyuncu – who moved for big money last off-season – is still hoping to nail down a place in Leicester City’s defence, while up top, an 18-minute hat-trick for Gunes’s Besiktas has people talking about 20-year-old striker Guven Yalcin.
Experience on hand
Amazingly, Gunes’s arrival coincides with the departure of the last player to feature in 2002 still playing the game: Emre Belozoglu. While the departure of the 38-year-old, who enjoyed a return to the squad in March, will finally see the end of an era in Turkish football, plenty of experience remains. Besiktas duo Burak Yilmaz and Gokhan Gonul offer seasoned presences at either end of the pitch, with Fenerbahce’s veteran midfielder Mehmet Topal – into his second decade of national-team duty – creating a battle-hardened spine.
But the likes of dead-ball expert Hakan Calhanoglu, who has been a consistent feature at AC Milan this season, represents maturity beyond his 25 years. Having pulled on the captain’s armband for the first time in November, he looks primed to be a focal point of side from the left flank for some time to come.