Turkey has stalled – but there’s a potential heavyweight on the edge of Europe

The whistle blows. The ball is rolled backwards and before Hong Myung-Bo can settle, he’s been dispossessed. Just over ten seconds into the World Cup third placed play-off, one half of the stadium erupts as Hakan Şükür rolls the ball past Woon Jae-Lee and into the back of the net.

Şükür’s goal capped a magnificent tournament for the Turks, despite the striker’s own struggles in front of goal in 2002.

 

Turkish football was at its zenith: having qualified for the finals for the first time in almost fifty years, the national team came third just two years after Şükür’s Galatasaray had become the first Turkish team to lift the UEFA Cup.

A year later the Turks would not only overcome Brazil in the Confederations Cup but repeat the feat. At Euro 2008, only a German goal in the last minute of extra time would induce semi-final agony.

The triumphant headlines of 2002 seemed vindicated: this was a new footballing order, with Ankara (or more realistically Istanbul) on a par with Rome, Berlin, or Madrid.

Now, Turkish football has stalled. The national team has not qualified for a major tournament since 2008. Galatasaray finished bottom of their Champions League group in 2014 but at least managed to reach the group stage, thus bettering Fenerbahçe.

In the Europa League, modest Club Brugge knocked out Beşiktaş in the round of 16.

Şükür is little remembered in England other than for a brief stint at Blackburn Rovers. The name of Turkish football is more redolent of knife crime and violence than success. The golden era, it seems, has been squandered.

Rightly, Ugur Meleke recently turned attention to the violence ‘killing Turkish football’ and the need to address some of the deeper social problems surrounding it.

Where he is wrong, however, is to paint a bleak picture of doom: the barriers to Turkish advancement are systemic and curable, not social and inoperable.

It may not seem it, but 2015 is no less a moment of opportunity than was a decade earlier.

The attack on the Fenerbahçe team bus by a gunman after a league match against Çaykur Rizespor in April was not, it seems, enough to deter Robin van Persie, Nani or Simon Kjaer from making the switch to the Sukru Saracoglu stadium this summer. Nor were Lukas Podolski, Mario Gomez or Samuel Eto’o sufficiently worried as to avoid high publicity moves to Turkey.

Violence may be a problem for Turkish football – but it’s not killing it. Despite such problems, the Süper Lig proves capable of attracting greater talent than ever before.

 

Sensational (if unlikely) transfer sagas, as of Galatasaray being linked with Zlatan Ibrahimović, or Antalyaspor with Ronaldinho, would have been as unthinkable a decade ago as the idea that a player of the calibre of Wesley Sneijder would be at the core of a title winning Galatasaray side.

Nor is violence unduly affecting attendances. The problem of matchday violence is no worse than ever: rather, as Fenerbahçe Chairman Aziz Yıldırım notes, it is supporters’ groups boycotting matches in protest against the controversial Passolig ticketing system that has caused attendances to plummet.

Turkish football has an opportunity many other emerging leagues would kill for. The third most populous nation in Europe, with a large diaspora to boot, has huge potential for growth. Only Real Madrid and Barcelona have a higher number of followers on Twitter than Galatasaray.

Turkish clubs are attractive brands, with Champion’s League football. Like the FA in the 1980s, however, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) is failing to realise the gold mine it is sitting on.

The Süper Lig is hardly shown on European television. Nor are Galatasaray wise enough to convert their huge online following into cash; negotiations over sponsorship are protracted and tedious, whilst preseason overseas tours in the lucrative markets of the Far East are non-existent.

Similarly, clubs continue to be dominated by interest networks and sentimentality. Despite a mediocre season, thirty year old Galatasaray defender Sabri Sarıoğlu signed a contract extension securing him more money than Paul Pogba.

If this is a bad joke then it has come straight out of the closeted dormitories of just one high school, from which the directors that compose the club’s board are almost entirely drawn. Perhaps it’s one of those where you had to be there to get it.

Turkish football is held back by a lack of business sense, caused by selecting from a limited and skewed pool of candidates, and the subsidising of mediocre Turkish players.

This has allowed technical development and training to lag well behind the rest of Europe; despite huge success in Turkey, Şükür flopped on both his sojourns to Italy.

 

This is not due to a lack of talent; diaspora Turks like Nuri Şahin, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Ömer Toprak have proved highly successful in the Bundesliga. Rather, it is the clubs of the Süper Lig that hold back development and make players like Arda Turan the exception and not the rule.

But this is an era of change, sweeping like the wind from the Bosporus and across the Anatolian plateau. This marks the first season in which the cap limiting each team to eight foreign players has been lifted by the TFF, and clubs are taking full advantage of it.

Combine the advent of a more modern, attractive, international style of football pioneered by the likes of Sneijder and Roberto Mancini with the pledge of Duygun Yarsuvat to end Passolig if elected TFF president and the Süper Lig might be about to become more popular than ever.

This is a moment of opportunity: the importing of big European names could provide the impetus for change. Turkey’s introduction to the wider European transfer market will see more moves like that of Enes Ünal to Manchester City and more players like Emre Belözoğlu leave Turkey for pastures anew and return with vital overseas experience and knowledge.

In the face of challenge from more capable, more professional players from overseas, figures like Sabri will be unable to demand such high wages. Turkey’s exposure to European football can only drive standards up and stimulate demand, raising important revenue and forcing clubs to adopt a more business-like strategy.

If Turkey can capitalise on this moment then Europe’s third most populous nation can increase competition, demand and revenue both at home and abroad. Hakan Şükür endured a torrid World Cup in 2002 but it is for his goal in Daegu that he is remembered.

Turkish football could learn from its hero: however fortunately, when presented with a golden opportunity the course of history can be changed.

The Author

Thomas Wyer

Student and football fan. Aspiring Guillem Balague but have more in common with Chris Kamara. Managing to support both Ipswich and Galatasaray which, like being indifferent to marmite, makes me a bit of an oddity.

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