This article originally appeared in Issue 21 of the now defunct Football Pink fanzine.
With England’s success at the World Cup a not-so-distant memory, BORA ISYAR looks back at Turkey’s similarly unlikely experience in 2002 and warns of the dangers that reverting to type can have on the country’s image – both at home and abroad.
The summer of 2018 will always have a special place in the hearts of English football fans. It will be remembered as a time when England didn’t “expect” and yet (or perhaps, therefore) were rewarded; a time when despite the ostensible lack of “star” players – with the exception of Harry Kane, because after all, not many outside of, or even in England, thought of Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier, or Jesse Lingard as “stars” – their side performed admirably and reached the World Cup semis whilst star-studded sides like Germany and Argentina struggled to make any meaningful impact. Last but not least, it will be remembered for the humility shown by the staff, players, and fans throughout the tournament, which transformed England from a team whose demise was celebrated around the world (at times, even in England) to one that was applauded for their effort and drew the sympathy of fans around the globe. Personally, England’s journey this year helped me remember a time that I, like so many other Turkish football fans, have very fond memories of: the summer of 2002.
I have never been an ardent follower of the Turkish national team. In my childhood years, the successive humiliations suffered by the national side at the hands of not only the powerhouses of European football (8-0 against England, not once, but twice; 4-0 against Yugoslavia; 5-1 against Germany; 4-0 against USSR) but also weaker sides (such as Romania, Northern Ireland, and Finland, among others) contributed to my disenchantment with it. Winning matters a lot to a child (at least it did to me) and I remember secretly wishing I had the “right” to support England as I watched a young John Barnes dismantle the Turkish defence on an October evening at Wembley.
As I grew up and started to develop a different approach to the game, and also, became interested in politics, my stance against the Turkish national team hardened. It was no longer the results that left me disillusioned, but rather, what the national team signified. Before every international fixture newspaper headlines would call for the heads of our opponents; nationalist and racist chants would be heard at every game, particularly singling out the Kurdish population with whom the state had been at war for some time; pundits, staff, players, and officials would rage against the entire world, which they judged to be conspiring to cheat Turkey out of its “deserved” glory on the pitch. Feelings of resentment, rage, and hostility would dominate public opinion, damaging the game for the likes of me almost beyond repair. Then things changed, unexpectedly, and albeit for a short while, in the summer of 2002.
To this day, I don’t know what distinguished that particular side from both its predecessors and successors. It was most certainly a combination of factors that made the team so “likeable”, for lack of a better term. Unlike his predecessors, “Emperor” Fatih Terim and Mustafa Denizli, under whose management Turkey had qualified for EUROs 1996 and 2002, the coach, Senol Gunes, was modest. He wasn’t angry all the time and didn’t warn fans of backstabbers or international conspirators before the tournament even started. He oozed tranquillity during media appearances (whereas during games, you could actually sense his nervousness, and when Turkey scored, he jumped up and down, and ran aimlessly like a child). And he asked the people of Turkey to support the team and to enjoy football. In that way, he was like Gareth Southgate: excited but not provocative; determined but not antagonistic; confident but not arrogant. There was, however, a notable difference in fashion sense. Whilst Southgate was praised by many for his “elegant style”, Gunes’ choices were described as “being unfortunate” at best.
The squad was young and affable, and even the old guard (who were known for their antics, violent behaviour and sense of entitlement) were unexpectedly cordial throughout the tournament. There were no accusations aimed at the press for secretly wishing them to fail; there were no inexplicable outbursts of anger directed at the opposition, referees, or one another; and there was no moaning about delays in the payment of bonuses. The squad’s modesty (Hasan Sas admitted that he didn’t celebrate a goal against Brazil because he couldn’t believe how lucky he was to have had the chance to score at a World Cup); their gratitude for being there; their friendliness towards opponents and fans, and their unbridled manifestations of both joy (after beating Senegal 1-0 with a golden goal in the quarters) and despair (after losing to Brazil in the semis) made fans in Turkey and elsewhere feel “they were just like them”, “regular youngsters” who enjoyed playing football without restraint or conceit. A similar mood seems to have prevailed in England after photos were published of players unable to control their tears, and Southgate hugging his wife in the stands long after the final whistle had blown. The English team showed the world that they were enjoying their football, without feeling entitled to the trophy. They seemed grateful to be there, and to be given a chance to compete.
In the case of the 2002 Turkish side, there were signs that what took place was exceptional, and not the birth of a new Turkish football. As Turkey made it to the quarter final after beating co-hosts Japan 1-0, a handful of influential sports journalists and commentators (all of whom had at one point worked as a coaches or managed the national team) began to beat the war drums, calling for the national team to show the rest of the world what they were made of, and demanding revenge for decades of wrong-doing the national team had been subjected to. Manager Senol Gunes remained calm, reiterating his wish that the players enjoyed the World Cup and see where this “adventure” would take them. As for the fans, there was only one incident in which old nationalist habits resurfaced. As Turkey beat Senegal with the golden goal by Ilhan Mansiz, some organised celebratory marches chanting “Kurds are next in line” as the Senegalese and Kurdish resistance flags carry the same colours. But these were small incidents that didn’t alarm us. Or, we were enjoying ourselves too much to want to acknowledge them. Even Eduardo Galeano praised the national team for their energetic, positive style of football and called Turkey one of the pleasant surprises of a tournament that, truth be told, didn’t impress anyone in terms of quality of football.
Yet the Turkish national team’s biggest success was also the beginning of the downfall of Turkish football.
I believe that the story of Turkish football’s downfall could serve as a valuable lesson to every country passionate about its football, but especially to England at this particular point in history. Notwithstanding the most obvious difference between the two countries – England have been more successful on the international stage – there is one similarity between the two teams that I think justifies this belief: Both England and Turkey defied expectations by reaching the semi-finals with squads that were characterised by a lack of “star players”, in tournaments in which they avoided facing serious contenders until elimination. In the group stages Turkey met Brazil and lost 2-1 and England was beaten 1-0 by Belgium. But those games didn’t change the outcome as both nations made it to the last 16. After finishing the group above Tunisia and Panama, England faced Colombia and Sweden before losing to Croatia and missing out on the final. Meanwhile, eventual winners France faced Denmark, Peru, and Australia in the group matches before beating Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium, and Croatia in the final. In 2002, Turkey was grouped with China and Costa Rica, and then faced Japan and Senegal before being pushed out of the tournament by Brazil in the semis. Much was made of the fact that Turkey faced no European side as they clinched the third place finish by beating South Korea 3-2 in the play-off.
The two countries are alike in another, perhaps less obvious manner, namely, in their respective status vis-à-vis Europe. Geographically, both countries are on the fringes of Europe. England, as an island, and Turkey to the east are right on the borders of Europe. Of course, socially, politically and culturally, both are part of Europe, which makes their situation interesting, as they are European without physically being in Europe. But, perhaps more importantly, they are on the margins of Europe (or, in England’s case, they are about to be) because despite accepting their political, social, and cultural status as Europeans, they are not (or, in England’s case soon they will not be) formally European, putting them in limbo for an unforeseeable amount of time. So, perhaps, the experiences of one marginal country can serve as a lesson to another one that is about to share the same marginality in the very near future.
Just like the English, the Turkish players were treated like heroes on their return home from the World Cup. During that summer, fans, players, staff, and journalists reminisced about their adventures in the Far East. After a while, however, these journeys down memory lane were replaced by interrogations and discussions about what awaited Turkey and what the next step for Turkish football should be. Pretty quickly, it became apparent that there were two different interpretations of Turkey’s World Cup success, both of which, however, offered the same conclusion about the future of Turkish football. Some argued that Turkey hadn’t really been able to prove to the world that they were a great footballing country as they had not faced any serious opponents other than Brazil (to whom they lost) and that this fact alone devalued the third place finish. As such, Turkey had to show the world, urgently, that their World Cup success was not a fluke, preferably by beating some European powerhouses. Others insisted that it did not matter who Turkey overcame to finish third, because all that mattered was that they did, and as such, from that moment on, results befitting a World Cup bronze medallist should be expected, which of course, included the urgent need to beat European powerhouses for the 2004 EURO qualification. What could be better than (re)proving our worth than finally beating what for many was (and still is) the nemesis of Turkish football, England?
For a team that had not even scored against England, the expectations were very high. There was optimism, and constant references to our being the “third best team in the world”, unfortunately this time, by the coaching staff and players as well. The team had lost its humility. The 2-0 loss in England (in April 2003) created an atmosphere of uncontrollable rage and thirst for revenge. For six months, until the revanche in Turkey, all that was talked about was how the English would be taught a lesson. The games in between mattered to no one – Slovakia, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein were beaten but they were small teams who could have never hoped for a draw against a side that finished the World Cup in third place anyway. On the day of the game, headlines read “Countdown to destruction”, “England will be no more”, “Teach them a lesson”, “Show them the Turks’ strength”. The game ended 0-0 thanks to a penalty miss by David Beckham.
The first signs that the Turkish national team was once again being transformed into bullies came that day as Alpay Ozalan (a defender who played for Aston Villa at the time) rushed to Beckham right after the latter missed the penalty and started screaming profanities in his face. Still unsatisfied, the furious defender continued his antics in the corridors leading to the dressing room and was given an earful by referee Pierluigi Collina at half time. And yet, Alpay was barely criticised in the Turkish media. He cleverly played up to nationalist sentiments, explaining his behaviour by claiming that Beckham had spat on his badge (which, of course, had the Turkish flag on it): “I wouldn’t have done anything if he spat on me. But I will not let anyone dishonour this flag!”
Everything changed quickly from then on. Turkey failed to qualify for EURO 2004 after being eliminated by Latvia in the play-offs. As the qualifying campaign for 2006 World Cup started, there was no doubt left that 2002 was an exception in Turkish football. War cries were made prior to every game; conspiracies about how other teams in the group were planning to ensure Turkey wouldn’t qualify dominated sports pages; referees were blamed; FIFA was accused of being part of a plot against Turkey; and worst of all, the team stopped enjoying playing the game. Qualification was all that mattered; how it was done, whether we deserved to be there, and at what cost didn’t matter. But the results weren’t coming. The worse we performed on the pitch, the angrier we got. We had given ourselves the task of taking on the whole world and we were failing miserably. So, a decision was made: Turkish football needed a new leader in the war and who could be better suited to that role but the “Emperor”, Fatih Terim. As he signed his contract, Terim looked at the cameras and told Turkish fans what they needed to hear: “We will qualify! One way or another, we will qualify! We will deal with reforming Turkish football after that. The first task is going to Germany (World Cup 2006).”
Results did come, and Turkey managed to finish the group second, securing a place in play-offs against Switzerland. The first leg was lost 2-0 with the second leg to be played in Turkey four days later. The atmosphere was tense, expectations were high, and Terim was there to give assurances to us all: “Victory will be ours! There is no other alternative…”
What happened on that night is well known and documented. Despite losing 4-2 Switzerland advanced, and with the final kick, Turkish players and staff attacked Swiss players. A photo of Fatih Terim pointing towards Swiss players, like the emperor he was, was printed in newspapers around the world. So was coach Mehmet Ozdilek’s kick on Valon Behrami as the player ran towards the dressing room (it is interesting to note that Ozdilek had not received a single red card in his playing days and was known as one of the kindest footballers Turkey had produced. After the game, he confessed to not being totally in control of himself, and that as a reflex the first thing he thought of doing was kicking the players making a run). At that point, one would assume, Turkish football would show some self-reflexivity and question how the team that deservedly drew so much sympathy in 2002 was transformed into a repulsive bunch of bullies. But that didn’t happen. As FIFA discussed how Turkey would be penalised, the Turkish FA initiated a massive campaign to justify the violence: the Swiss had provoked us; this was one part of the centuries long war that the world was waging against us; Turkey was being punished as the world, and especially Europe, couldn’t accept our successes on the pitch. Even Terim was excused as he claimed he was pointing to Swiss players because he wanted his players to go and congratulate them. It was surreal, bizarre…And the beginning of a tragedy that lasted for over a decade.
In 2008, Turkey managed to qualify for the Euros and actually managed to make it to the semis, which they lost 3-2 to Germany. But the experience was very different from 2002. Throughout the tournament, all we heard in Turkey was how this was the comeback, the opportunity to show them (and by them, what was meant was everyone other than Turks) who we were, and what we were made of. Players loved winning but didn’t enjoy it. You could see it in their faces after every goal they scored; the rage, the look that said, “this is our revenge”.
Ever since 2002, in victory or defeat, Turkey couldn’t manage to attain that likable status again. The attitude of “world against us” turned many football lovers against us. Many in Turkey didn’t enjoy football anymore either. Sure, people enjoyed winning, but that was it. When we lost, our anger grew; when we won, all we felt was the feeling of revenge. And we didn’t talk about it. We went on as if this was the normal state of affairs. Those who questioned that state of affairs were in the minority – writing columns in newspapers with the lowest circulation numbers, commenting for serious football shows that never attracted as many viewers at those with angry, provocative debates. They were on the margins, and they weren’t heard. Until June 27th, 2016.
As Iceland beat England 2-1 in the round of 16 to the immense joy of neutral fans around the world, the Turkish commentator on state network TRT drew a deep breath and said: “Maybe it is time we try to be more like Iceland. Such a small country, such a great achievement… But most importantly, everyone cheers for them… Everyone likes them.” It was a bizarre moment, as no one had expected to hear these words on a state-sponsored channel. The words had immense effect. Within minutes, social media was swarmed with messages of support for the commentator. It was as if in a single second, people had woken up to reality; veteran pundits began to voice the same desires, columnists reminisced over the 2002 experience, players confessed to the need to sit back and think about what kind of a footballing country we desired to be. Soon afterwards, Terim was sacked (tellingly, the reason for his dismissal was a serious physical altercation with a restaurant owner in the coastal town of Cesme, Izmir) and Turkish football began to engage in a dramatic soul-searching, unprecedented in its history. What the outcome will be remains to be seen…
Interestingly, England engaged in similar soul-searching after that very loss to Iceland. And it seems, at least for now, that it helped them as they reached the semis in the World Cup and were generally praised for their attitude throughout the tournament. But now they face the more difficult task of remaining likeable and liked. So, what can the Turkish experience teach England about that?
First, remain humble. England run the risk of appearing arrogant when it comes to football and that could damage all Southgate and his players achieved in 2018. Even during the World Cup, the “Football’s Coming Home” slogan, which for many simply meant good memories of Euro ‘96 or just a decent chant to support the national side, was seen as a sign of arrogance. Football fans, especially neutral ones, do not like arrogance. England should enjoy and appreciate being in these international tournaments and refrain from displays of entitlement if they wish to continue to maintain their newfound status as one of the more likeable national sides.
Second, manage expectations. Success in an international tournament depends on a variety of factors (chance included) and having a very good team doesn’t guarantee success. England do have a good squad with quality players, but so do many others (sadly, as I write these lines, I am hearing a Sky commentator claim that Jordan Pickford is currently the best goalkeeper in the world. Whether or not that is true, such labelling, and the expectations that follow, can really do damage to a young and talented player like Pickford). Every tournament has its own dynamics and you cannot foresee what will happen in those 3-4 weeks. The best approach is to do your best (as Turkey did in 2002 and England in 2018) without claiming “this is our year”.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, do not try to take on the whole world. The world never unites in its enmity towards a single country (if it didn’t happen in the Second World War, it is not likely to ever happen). Claiming to be standing on your own against the whole world does nothing other than alienate everyone, and even if it motivates you and brings you victories, the damage it does to the footballing culture is not worth it, as the Turkish example has shown. We have already seen in debates on Brexit that some groups have adopted that attitude as their world view (that England doesn’t need others, that as a nation it can stand on its own and take on the rest of the world), and English football should do everything to distance itself from that stance. In fact, as a member of a community that has been on the fringes of Europe for so long, I can assure you it is best to distance yourself from and resist that stance not just in football, but in all fields of life.
BORA ISYAR – @febinga