Mehmet Hacioglu, the head coach of Turkey’s U17 World Cup team, starts laughing, and so do the four players seated next to him. He takes a moment, then relays the most politically correct answer for a question on the political turmoil the country is experiencing. “The situation is not so different than in other countries, but we are sportsmen, so we don’t want to comment about politics,” he says.
It’s an anti-climactic statement, given the initial reaction to the inquiry. But Hacioglu drops a subtle hint a few minutes later. “Football has always been a unifying factor,” he says. “Sometimes, it stops wars and enemies can play and enjoy together.”
For over a year, Turkey has been in a state of unrest – starting with a failed military coup d’etat against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. The violence resulted in the loss of over 300 lives, and Erdogan, who has been criticised for his dictatorial style, ordering the detention of over 35,000 people just a month after the coup – the crackdown continues to this day.
An arrest warrant was issued even against former Turkish player and national hero Hakan Suker, prompting questions on all that Turkish football has meant for its people.
But in June this year, when the U17s made an appearance in the semi-finals of the European Championships, there was hope. “When you do well at a tournament, people obviously take notice. And when we did well at the Euros, it was a moment to rejoice in Turkey,” says a member of the support staff.
The young Turks, who like the senior team, have been perennial dark horses in Europe, beat the Italians after stretching the mighty Spaniards in a 3-2 group stage loss. They made it to the semi-finals, where they remained tenacious against a strong England team.
Turkey’s U17s have won the continental title before, back in 2005. But the recent result had a profound effect given the current affairs in the country. “It put football in a special place for us,” says Hacioglu. “There was a lot of self-confidence from the boys then and even more right now.”
It was a set of performances that has kept the Turkish populace upbeat, and more is expected now. “We are here for the national team, we want to be champions and the fans at home expect us to do just that,” says Galatasaray striker and U17 national captain Recep Gül.
The federation, on its part, made an adjustment to the youth league structure, starting the tournament earlier than usual this year to give players more game time. It makes it all the more useful that seven players in the national team come from a single club, Galatasaray. “It’s an advantage because these boys know each other’s style. But at the same time, all players in the team have been together since they were 13, and some earlier,” explains Hacioglu.
Training in Doha
There was also a training stint organised in Doha, Qatar, to help the team acclimatise to the Indian heat.
The Turks have made a serious effort in their U17 endeavours. While most of the traditional footballing powerhouses claim that the priority at the youth tournament is to help players make the switch to the senior level rather than winning the event, the Turks hold a different mindset. “Even if you play on the street, with a ragged football and two stones (as goalposts), you want to win. It’s the same here,” asserts Hacioglu.
His players too have embraced the idea, despite knowing that scouts from top clubs around the world will be keeping a close watch on their every move. At the moment, each member of the squad of 21 is connected to a top-flight club – including four players based in Germany.
But for now, the teenagers have kept thoughts on their future plans on hold. “We all want to play abroad and we know the transfer talks will come. But that’s only if we do well here,” says Galatasaray midfielder Atalay Babacan.
Hacioglu isn’t concerned about his players turning professional. For he knows the players value the opportunity football gives them. Most of the players come from humble and difficult backgrounds, but have found solace, stability and a career in the sport. “Football gives them the chance to be something and build their life,” says the coach. “I know because I’ve been through it myself,” adds the former Fenerbahce player.
For Turkey, national pride is of utmost importance right now, given all that is happening back home. And the players know that every result they get can have an effect back home. It made a difference when they made the semi-finals of the Euros. Now they look to make a mark at the World Cup.