Excited fervour and fiery passion are the dominant emotions in the Turkey squad as they set out for the FIFA U-17-World Cup 2009 in Nigeria, which kicks off on 24 October. The Turks are sending the cream of their young talent to the tournament for only the second time, but coach Abdullah Ercan and his lads are keen to prove they more than deserve their place among the world elite in Nigeria.
After a favourable draw grouping Ercan's team with Burkina Faso, Costa Rica and New Zealand, the technically adept players from the Bosporus could well emerge from the preliminary round brimming with confidence, potentially ready to upset one or more of the bigger names in the knockout stages. "Although we finished in sixth position at the UEFA European U-17 Championship, we have the potential to go further than that. We want to achieve things at the FIFA U-17 World Cup which we couldn't at the European championships," Ercan informed FIFA.com, setting his side a lofty target for the global showdown.
Ercan drawing on experience
No Turkey representative side has ever won a world tournament, but Ercan's charges are determined to change that in West Africa. The coach, for his part, insists his lads are equipped for the task: "To achieve something like that, you need to pass through a certain process. We finally did that, and now we're one of the strongest candidates to win the tournament." The 38-year-old, capped 84 times by his country, received a positive echo when he revealed his ambition to the squad. "Without putting too much pressure on the shoulders of my players, I indicated the target - and they really liked it."
The former midfielder, who appeared for both Istanbul giants Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, speaks with the voice of experience. He was a member of the Turkey squad which stormed to a magnificent third place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ in Korea and Japan. He is now making sure to pass on what he has learned to his current charges: "The performance curve of players at this age varies all the time. And it's all about the atmosphere within the team at such long tournaments. At the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Turkey were in danger of early elimination, but after the victory against China, we went on and reached third place. A similar thing happened at EURO 2008. Although we lost to Portugal, we started a huge resurgence and reached the semi-finals. Why can't we achieve a similar thing at this World Cup?"
Test of fighting spirit
In terms of strengths and weaknesses, Ercan reckons his team will always be good for goals. In fact, over-reliance on attack is the one thing he has felt obliged to correct: "The biggest problem with young players is the desire to play with the ball too much. That produces defensive flaws, so we've tried to instil the principle of settling men behind the ball. This is at least one way to defend," mused the coach. "However, we have no problems at creating attacks. We're quite powerful at that."
The Turkey U-17 side certainly boasts individually gifted forwards, but the coach feels the real key to success in West Africa will be team unity and a willingness to fight. "At the FIFA U-17 World Cup, African teams are especially strong with their physical advantage. That means you need to rely on team football rather than focusing on individual talent. I think fighting spirit will be the key at this World Cup." If Ercan's troops can demonstrate the qualities outlined by their boss, they could well go on to emulate the success of an earlier generation in the nation's only previous FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign. The Turks made the semi-finals in Peru four years ago, where they were only narrowly beaten by Brazil.
Respect for Burkina Faso
Ercan and his team open their Group D programme on 25 October in Enugu against Burkina Faso. The coach admits to knowing little about the African outsiders. "So far I've only watched Burkina Faso twice. The first time was on DVD and I saw the second game, namely the 1-1 friendly draw against Germany, personally from the stands. Burkino Faso are not an easy team. They battle it out a lot in their games," he summarised. Turkish scouts will watch New Zealand and Costa Rica once the action starts in Nigeria.
As a successful ex-pro himself, Ercan knows the vital importance of balancing sporting ambition with personal development. He appreciates the power of a global get-together to influence talented youngsters in a thoroughly positive way. "The lads interact with people coming from different cultures and different football schools. It's an invaluable thing for their future careers."