This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 expert network, a collaboration between some of the best media organizations from the 24 countries that have qualified. theguardian.com is previewing each day from two countries in the run-up to the tournament, which begins June 11th.
Turkey drove through qualifying for Euro 2020 and finished second in their group behind France. In fact, Senol Gunes’ team took four points from the world champions and narrowly missed the top spot. It was the defense that stood out in qualifying, only conceding three times and eight times without conceding a goal.
The Crescent Stars are traditionally all about passion, flair and a lukewarm stance on defense, but after years of tearful mistakes, Turkey have managed to turn their greatest weakness into their greatest strength. They are entering the euro with arguably their best team since the 2002 World Cup when they finished third (under Gunes). “I want to finish the group in first place,” he said after his side drew in Group A against Italy, Wales and Switzerland.
On the defense, Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu may be the most famous name, but it’s just the beginning. There are tons of options. Juventus’ Merih Demiral is a rugged 6’2 ”Mannberg, the guy who makes fist pumps after a perfectly tuned glider.
Right-back Mehmet Zeki Celik has been brilliant at Lille over the last few years while Ozan Kabak made a good impression at Liverpool before he was injured. Then there are options in Mert Muldur, Ridvan Yilmaz and Kaan Ayhan in a very young defense. In fact, at 25, Soyuncu is the most experienced of the most likely starters. The only weakness could be the left-back, where Gunes has no depth in depth, but Umut Meras and Yilmaz, who is 20 years old, could make a name for themselves this summer.
Most of these players are based abroad and Gunes would like this trend to continue: “We have around 15 players in Europe, but Brazil has 6,000 to 7,000, Serbia has 700 and we need to produce more talent.”
Okay, Yokuslu, who was loaned to West Brom from Celta Vigo last season, is the unsung hero in defensive midfield with the box-to-box pocket dynamo Ozan Tufan at his side. Yusuf Yazici had a brilliant breakthrough season in Lille and is tasked with offensive flair, but faces competition from Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu as well as Kenan Karaman and Cengiz Under.
In the attack, Burak Yilmaz matured like a good wine. The in-shape striker couldn’t stop scoring for Lille this season. “Burak is still studying every day, he’s a great example for the younger players,” said Gunes. Turkey will have a hard time collapsing and taking a blow in the future. They are potential dark horses.
Senol Gunes cemented his hero status in 2002 when he drove Turkey to third place in the World Cup. This site is known as the golden generation, but it looks like Gunes created something equally exciting this time around. Gunes qualified as a teacher before entering the world of football and worked in a village school on a mountaintop in Trabzon on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. “I still see myself as a teacher. Nothing makes me prouder than seeing the players doing well,” he said.
Senol Gunes is already a hero in Turkey after leading the team to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Caglar Soyuncu sums up this new Turkish side pretty well while the Leicester defender plays the stone in the heart of the back four. The central defender with the chisel jaw comes from a humble background and bypassed the top Turkish group to move to the Bundesliga and then the Premier League. His popularity in Turkey comes from being a well-known player in the most popular league in the world. He’s hardworking, professional, and humble, rarely in the media spotlight, and doesn’t care much about social media. Ironically, it made him even more popular in Turkey. Promoted Rexona which is the same brand as Sure in the UK but is by no means ubiquitous in its home country.
Thankful for a year late
The postponement was a blessing for Turkey as Merih Demiral, Yusuf Yazici and Ozan Kabak were injured from last summer’s tournament. The star trio have recovered and have had impressive seasons with their clubs, although Kabak has been injured again recently. The roster is undoubtedly much stronger than it was 12 months ago.
Turkey’s likely line-up
What the fans are singing
The Turkish pop star Tarkan is responsible for the song most associated with the Turkish national team: “Bir Oluruz Yolunda”, which basically means “On the way to unification”. Tarkan could run into competition this year as Mustafa Sandal, another musical heavyweight, puts out a song for the team ahead of the euro.
What the fans are saying
It doesn’t end until we say it’s done! It’s not over until we say it’s over (a reference to the history of Turkish comebacks against the odds).
Flesh wall A meat wall (the Turkish equivalent of parking the bus).
He giggled in his castle! Became a giant in goal (reserved for goalkeepers who have a good game).
Pandemic hero / villain
Ozan Tufan held Zoom meetings with students from a school in Hatay on the Turkish-Syrian border. He also invited one of the kids who wanted to become soccer players to train with him in Fenerbahce after 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.