Turkey and USA head into their opening clash of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Saint-Etienne on Thursday with optimism high after best ever performances at a FIFA World Cup™ in Korea/Japan last year. Coaches Senol Gunes and Bruce Arena, two of the few to remain with their teams since the tournament ended, will hope to confirm their teams’ status among the elite of the game.

After unexpected semi-final and quarter-final finishes at the finals, both countries have subsequently risen into the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking with Turkey in 8th and USA in 10th position, behind only Brazil (1st) and France (joint 2nd) of the eight nations competing in the tournament. Turkey are currently top of their UEFA EURO 2004 qualifying group after consistently impressive performances while the US have followed up by claiming a few more notable scalps in friendly matches. According to the rankings, then, Gunes and Arena will be looking for a place in the last four to build on the foundation laid down in the Far East. But as both teams proved last year, staying at the top can sometimes be harder than getting there.

Turkey are without many of the stars that took them to third place at the Asian football finals. Striker Hasan Sas, who has struggled with Galatasaray this season after being shortlisted as one of the players of the tournament, is suffering from a persistent leg injury and will not make the trip to France. Another absentee is Ilhan Mansiz of Besiktas, who made a name for himself by scoring the golden-goal winner in the quarter-final match against Senegal. Veteran striker Hakan Sukur, whose 11-second goal versus Korea Republic was the fastest ever in a FIFA World Cup finals, has been rested, while Emre, who had a terrific season spurring Internazionale to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, has also been given time off following his exertions. The other Turkish player to have taken Europe by storm this year looks like being a victim of his own success. After a stunning year in Real Sociedad’s push for the Spanish league title, Nihat Kahveci, who has scored 22 goals this season with the Basque club, will join up with his Turkish team-mates only after the completion of La Liga season on Sunday.

New darlings
Instead Gunes has selected a squad with 18 of its 23 players (the largest number alongside Japan) plucked from its domestic league. But even with all the changes, the familiar faces of top goalkeeper Rustu Recber, central defender Alpay Ozalan, and midfielder Yildiray Basturk will be around. The old hands will be joined by a new crop of Turkish players including a number of exciting prospects promoted from the U-21 team. Huseyin Kartal, Servet Cetin, Ibrahim Toraman, Selcuk Sahin, Tuncay Sanli and Fatih Sonkaya could all become the new darlings of the vast army of Turkish support in France.

“The United States have been at every World Cup finals since 1990 and will be no pushovers,” said Gunes on Tuesday. “Our team has altered since the last World Cup. I have brought in some young players from the U-21 team and I’m looking for them to make an impression with Euro 2004 and Germany 2006 in mind.

“But as in the past, the team is more important than individuals and we will blend in the young players with the older ones.”

By comparison, Bruce Arena’s US side are largely the same players that finally convinced the American public that their nation in Korea/Japan could be a “soccer” superpower. Having claimed some fame back home, players such as strikers Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, midfielders Eddie Lewis and DaMarcus Beasley and defenders Frankie Hejduk and Pablo Mastroeni will return to the centre stage of world football.

Like many of his colleagues, though, Arena is using the tournament to mix youth into the American cooking pot, blending into the squad some top performers from the rejuvenated MLS including striker Taylor Twellman, midfielder Kyle Martino and goalkeeper Tim Howard. He will be expecting the new faces to make up for the absence of the injured Claudia Reyna and striker Brian McBride.

While Turkey are making their debut in the FIFA Confederations Cup, the US, under Arena’s stewardship, made it to the semi-finals of Mexico 99. Alongside Brazil and Cameroon in Group B, they face a tough task but if both sides can reach the last four, it will confirm their status among the world’s best and keep millions back home happy.