When the UEFA U-17 European Championship began in May earlier this year, all the spotlight was centred on the usual favourites: eight-time champion Spain, three-time champion Germany, Italy, England, France Netherlands.
However, there were a few surprises when the five teams to earn berths became known — Italy and the Netherlands did not make the cut; France lost in the quarter-finals before stealing a spot thanks to a play-off win over Hungary; Turkey edged into the semi-final to seal a spot for the U-17 World Cup.
Turkey’s inclusion was surprising given that they have only made it to two World Cups at this level before — at the 2005 edition they made it all the way to the semis before finishing fourth while four years later, the Turks were unlucky to lose 5-3 on penalties to Colombia in the quarter-finals. (As an interesting aside, even the senior national team from Turkey has only ever made it to two FIFA World Cups.)
What makes Turkey’s presence at the World Cup even more striking is the fact that the team had not competed in the European Championships for the last six years after winning the title in 2005.Interestingly, Turkey were also partly responsible for Italy not making it to the U-17 World Cup. They were part of a strong group including Spain, Croatia and Italy at the UEFA U-17 European Championship, with only the top two teams making it to the quarters.
Having made it to the showpiece event, coach Mehmet Hacioglu, who has been at the helm of Turkey’s U-17 team since 2014, is more than pleased with his wards.
“It is our primary goal that Turkish national teams consistently take part in international tournament finals in all age categories. We are delighted that we have achieved this goal. We also want to show once more how well football can be played in Turkey on the international platform,” Hacioglu had told Firstpost back in July.
He added that the team’s result at the European Championship was a mixture of a robust youth system in place at the national as well at the club level.
“The squad consists of the children we have followed regularly since the age of 13 and called up to the national teams at the age of 14 after being selected by the national team technical staff,” he said before adding: “All the clubs have an academy for young players to join. It is a project that the Turkish Football Federation has put into practice since 2008.”
Back in July, Turkish Super Lig club Galatasaray gave the team as many as seven players.
At the time, Hacioglu had said: “We have identified about 10 players in the Galatasaray’s youth teams, seven of those 10 players are currently in our squad now. I think this is an extremely important detail in terms of both the reflection of the effectiveness of our clubs when investing in infrastructure and the existence of team spirit.”
There are still seven Galatasaray players in the squad named by the coach to represent the country at India 2017. What’s intriguing is that four of the players named in the 21-member squad ply their trade in the German Bundesliga — while defender Berk Cetin plays for Borussia Monchengladbach, midfielder Umut Gunes (VfB Stuttgart) and strikers Ahmed Kutucu (FC Schalke 04) and Malik Karaahmet (Karlsruher SC) also benefit from the acclaimed youth systems in place at the German clubs.
The team now has trained its sight on more surprises at the World Cup in October.
One being asked what a realistic target for the team will be in India, Hacioglu said: “Our goal is to progress step by step in this tournament as well as (achieve) the goals we have already set in the U17 European Championship. First of all, we want to qualify from the group and continue step by step to enter at least the last four like we did in the U17 European Championship and then, we’ll look after our way to reach to top.”
At the World Cup draw held in Mumbai in July, they were drawn in the relatively easy Group B which also has Paraguay, Mali and New Zealand. But the rest of the field will have some of the world’s biggest names like Brazil.
Their preparation for the World Cup has not gone exactly as per plan. They participated in a four-nation tournament in England last month, where they lost all their three matches, to England (2-3), Italy (0-2) and Scotland (0-2).
The World Cup too won’t be easy by any means. But neither was qualifying from an uber-competitive zone as Europe.
“Of course it was not easy to achieve qualification for the World Cup. We have reached this success with the effect of our discipline during the games. Our whole goal is not to train individual players, but to focus on the team because we think that the stars can only get better with a good team system while playing. We have achieved this success because we can apply our tactic as a whole team whether we are controlling the ball or not during the game. If we can continue like this, I do not see any obstacles to reaching this goal in the U-17 World Cup as well,” he said.