This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Turkey cruised through the Euro 2020 qualifiers, finishing second in their group behind France. Indeed, Senol Gunes’ side took four points off the world champions and only narrowly missed out on the top spot. It was the defence that stood out in qualifying, conceding only three times and keeping eight clean sheets.
The Crescent Stars have traditionally been all about passion, flair and a lukewarm attitude towards defending, but after years of eye-watering blunders, Turkey have managed to turn their biggest weakness into their biggest strength. They enter the Euros with arguably their best side since the 2002 World Cup, when they finished third (under Gunes). “I want to finish the group in first place,” he said after the draw pitted his side in Group A with Italy, Wales and Switzerland.
In defence, Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu is perhaps the best-known name but he is just the start. There are options galore. Juventus’s Merih Demiral is a rugged 6’2” man mountain, the type who will be seen doing fist pumps after a perfectly timed sliding tackle.
The right-back Mehmet Zeki Celik has been brilliant at Lille for the past few seasons while Ozan Kabak made a good impression on loan at Liverpool before getting injured. Then there are options in Mert Muldur, Ridvan Yilmaz and Kaan Ayhan in what is a very young defence. Soyuncu, in fact, is the most experienced of the likely starters at 25. The only weakness could be at left-back, where Gunes does not have strength in depth, but Umut Meras and Yilmaz, who is 20, could make a name for themselves this summer.
Most of these players are based abroad and Gunes wants that trend to continue, saying: “We have around 15 players in Europe but Brazil has 6,000-7,000, Serbia have 700, and we need to produce more talent.”
Okay Yokuslu, who spent last season on loan at West Brom from Celta Vigo, is the unsung hero in defensive midfield with box-to-box pocket dynamo Ozan Tufan by his side. Yusuf Yazici had a brilliant breakthrough season at Lille and will be tasked with providing attacking flair but faces competition from Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu, as well as Kenan Karaman and Cengiz Under.
In attack, Burak Yilmaz has been ageing like a fine wine. The in-form striker could not stop scoring for Lille this season. “Burak is still learning every single day, he is a great example to the younger players,” Gunes says. Turkey are going to be difficult to break down and pack a punch going forward. They are potential dark horses.
Senol Gunes cemented his hero status in 2002, when he steered Turkey to third place at the World Cup. That side is remembered as the golden generation, but it looks like Gunes may have created something equally exciting this time. Gunes qualified as a teacher before entering the world of football and used to work at a village school on a mountain top in Trabzon, on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast. “I still see myself as a teacher, nothing makes me more proud than seeing the players succeed,” he has said.
Caglar Soyuncu pretty much sums up this new Turkey side with the Leicester defender the rock in the heart of the back four. The chisel-jawed centre-back comes from humble origins and bypassed the Turkish top-tier to move to the Bundesliga and then on to the Premier League. His popularity in Turkey is based on him being a well-known player in the most popular league in the world. Hard-working, professional and humble, he is rarely in the media spotlight and does not care much for social media. Ironically, it has made him even more popular in Turkey. Has done adverts for Rexona, which is the same brand as Sure in the UK, but is by no means omnipresent in his home country.
Thankful for a year’s delay
The postponement was a blessing in disguise for Turkey because Merih Demiral, Yusuf Yazici and Ozan Kabak had all been ruled out of last summer’s tournament through injury. The star trio have recovered and enjoyed impressive seasons with their clubs, although Kabak has been injured again of late. The squad is undoubtedly far stronger than it would have been 12 months ago.
What the fans sing
The Turkish pop star Tarkan is responsible for the song most connected with the Turkey national team: “Bir Oluruz Yolunda”, which basically translates as “On the road to becoming united”. Tarkan may come under competition this year as another musical heavyweight, Mustafa Sandal, is launching a song for the team before the Euros.
What the fans say
Biz bitti demeden bitmez! It’s not over until we say it’s over (a reference to Turkey’s history of comebacks against the odds).
Etten duvar ordu A wall of meat (The Turkish equivalent of parking the bus).
Kalesinde devlesti! Became a giant in goal (Reserved for goalkeepers who are having a good game).
Ozan Tufan held Zoom meetings with students at a school in Hatay, on the Turkish-Syrian border. He also invited one of the children who wanted to become a footballer to train with him at Fenerbahce when the pandemic was over and donated 1,907 books for a new library.
Emre Sarigul writes for turkish-football.com.
Follow him on Twitter @Turkish_Futbol1.
For a profile of Caglar Soyuncu click here.