“What we lack as a team is consistency. We can beat anyone on our day, but unfortunately, we’ve been unable to do that on a regular basis." These were the words of Turkey captain Hamit Altintop as he spoke exclusively to FIFA.com in the aftermath of his country's disappointing 3–1 defeat to Germany in Istanbul last Friday, the Turks’ first reverse on home soil since a 2–1 loss to Spain in April 2009.
Friday’s clash was a very special occasion for Altintop, as the 28-year-old and his twin brother Halil, also a full Turkey international, were both born and brought up in Germany. “It's obviously great when you come up against so many familiar faces, and there will always be good memories when you play the country where you were born."
Rooting for the Germans
However, the negative result cast a severe damper on the mood in Istanbul, as the nation which finished third at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ could yet fail to make next summer's UEFA EURO 2012 finals. Altintop’s verdict on his team’s qualifying campaign to date included a note of criticism. “Obviously, we can't be particularly satisfied, but we've brought in a number of new players and we're in the middle of a transition phase. For all that, we still have to do everything we can to try and qualify."
Going into the final round of matches, coach Guus Hiddink's side lie third in Group A on 14 points, and must beat Azerbaijan at home on Tuesday to maximise their chances of the runners-up spot. Even then, Turkish eyes will be trained anxiously on Dusseldorf, where direct rivals Belgium (15 points) face group winners Germany. “The situation is clear enough. Our job is to beat Azerbaijan, because we can't influence the result in the other game, although we're obviously hoping Germany maintain their winning run."
Turkey's modest campaign is even more of a conundrum given the reservoir of talent in the national squad. The likes of Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Mehmet Topal (Valencia), Nuri Sahin and Altintop himself (both Real Madrid) pick up their wages from top European clubs, and are working on a daily basis with some of the best players in the world.
It's definitely an advantage that some of our players are with leading clubs around Europe. That has to be a benefit for any country.
“It's definitely an advantage that some of our players are with leading clubs around Europe. That has to be a benefit for any country, but we need to perform at our best for the national team, and we have to play as a unit."
For all the talent at the Turks’ disposal, results over the last decade or so have been patchy to say the least. Third spot at the global showdown in Japan and Korea promised a glorious future but, a semi-final berth at EURO 2008 aside, there has been little to show by way of success.
Turkey missed out completely on the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups, and may yet fail to appear in Poland and Ukraine next year. “We have to become more consistent and stay focused for the full 90 minutes in every match, and we need a taste of success with our clubs at the European level," Altintop declared.
Local media have pointed fingers at the coach in the light of a qualifying record of four wins, two draws and three defeats, although Altintop understandably refused to be drawn into the debate. “Mr Hiddink is a hugely respected and successful coach, and his work with us is utterly professional," the national captain commented.
Altintop is a respected and successful player himself, with two Bundesliga titles and a German cup success on his record. He featured in the 2010 UEFA Champions League final, and won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the same year.
Dreaming of Brazil
At 28, he can look forward to a few more years at the highest level, barring misfortune with injury. After cutting his teeth in his hometown of Gelsenkirchen with Schalke, he collected silverware in a spell with Bayern Munich, before signing a four-year contract with the Madrid giants last summer.
As for the national team, Altintop is desperate to represent his country at the FIFA World Cup. “Taking part at the biggest tournament of them all has to be every footballer’s dream," the hard-working midfielder told FIFA.com.
Given the failures of 2006 and 2010, Hamit is determined to play his part in remedying the situation en route to Brazil in 2014, where the Turks meet the Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, Estonia and Andorra in European Group D. “All the groups are full of good teams, because there are no easy opponents any more," he concluded. "But for now, we're focused on Tuesday, when we're hoping to seal second place."