When people talk of a tournament team, they are generally thinking of three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners Germany or reigning world and European champions Spain, but in Emre Belozoglu’s opinion, Turkey fully deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
Guus Hiddink's captain told FIFA.com: “In the past, we've often had to contend with problematic qualifying campaigns, but when we have made it through to the finals, we've always shown we're a good tournament team."
The nation whose greatest achievement was third place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ once again find themselves at the end of a problematic qualifying campaign. The men in red finished second behind Germany in their group, and now take on Croatia in play-offs tomorrow and on Tuesday for a place at UEFA EURO 2012.
“In my opinion, the Croats have been drawn against very strong opponents,” Emre declared. “The recipe for success is fighting all the way and concentrating hard. And let's not forget there are two matches. If we come away from the first leg with an advantage, all we have to do is defend it in the return."
When the sides meet for the first leg, a lot will depend on the near 50,000 crowd packed into Istanbul's Turk Telekom Arena. The stadium, opened in January 2011 and home to domestic giants Galatasaray, has hosted four internationals so far, yielding home victories against Estonia (3–0), Kazakhstan (2–1) and Azerbaijan (1–0), and a painful 3–1 loss to the Germans.
I don't think we’re as strong as Spain, Germany or the Netherlands. But once we make it to a major tournament, Turkey always pushes the countries I've mentioned all the way.
Defeat is not an option for Turkey in the re-run of the EURO 2008 quarter-final. In that match, played in Vienna on 20 June 2008, Ivan Klasnic looked to have booked the east Europeans’ place in the last four with the opening goal a minute from the end of extra time. But with seconds remaining, Semih Senturk came up with an equaliser, and his side went on to win the penalty shoot-out. Emre and Co ultimately fell to a narrow 3–2 defeat by Germany in the semi-final.
The 31-year-old said: “You have to remember we missed out on the 2010 World Cup, so we have to make it this time. I've personally played at two major tournaments, the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan and EURO 2008, but I missed out on EURO 2000 with injury. I regard myself as an experienced player, and this could be my last tournament, so my team-mates and I want to make it there at all costs."
Emre recognises his special duties and status as team captain: "It's a big responsibility. But we have three or four players who could fill the role. I try and set a good example for my younger team-mates. You have to embody the moral values of your home country, and live in a way which commands respect from everyone."
Emre knows, given his age, opportunities will be thinner on the ground in the future. Falling to Croatia would rate as a bitter setback, and even if Turkey claim a place in Poland and Ukraine, there is no guarantee the former Inter Milan man will make himself available for selection: “The priority is reaching EURO 2012, but after that I'm going to discuss everything with my family and close friends. I'm under a lot of strain mentally and physically, so I'm not ruling out retirement [before the finals]. Having said that, right now I've got a very good feeling about it."
Whatever happens, the schemer can look back on a magnificent personal career. Emre has been a superb ambassador for his country's football in spells with Gala, Inter, Newcastle United and Fenerbahce, whom he joined in 2008.
“I've been playing for the national team for more than 11 years, and if it hadn't been for injury, I'm sure I'd have been our most-capped player," he said. "But your own opinion of yourself isn't important, it's what other people think of you. I've always tried to give my best. My personal national team heroes are Okan Buruk, Tugay Kerimoglu, Aykut Kocaman and Oguz Ceti, and I was lucky enough to play with all of them."
Turkey currently occupy 27th spot on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, but in the light of their roller-coaster form over the last decade, their true potential remains hard to assess. Emre is certain that, should he and his team-mates make it to Poland and Ukraine next summer, the top European nations should prepare for a fierce fight.
“I don't think we’re as strong as Spain, Germany or the Netherlands, especially when you look at our resources in terms of youth academies, strength in depth and player numbers," he remarked. "But once we make it to a major tournament, Turkey always pushes the countries I've mentioned all the way. That's because Turkish players show real character at tournaments and we have so much talent in the squad."