Turkey as world champions? Few would have staked much on that outcome at the start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 and the European hopefuls still have three obstacles to pass, but should they go on to lift the trophy, one man will be able to call himself a visionary.
In the space of a few months, Turkey U-17 coach Abdullah Ercan has managed to transform a team cobbled together at the last moment for the global showcase into a well-oiled unit capable of going on to claim the title. Three wins and a draw in which New Zealand levelled during added time have sent confidence and ambition rocketing upwards in the Turkish camp.
"So far I'm very satisfied with our performances in this tournament," Ercan told FIFA.com before leaving Enugu for Bauchi, where his charges are set to face Colombia in the quarter-finals. "What impresses me in particular is my players' energy and hunger to win, even during training."
That desire to prevail was clear to everyone who watched Turkey's Group D outings, especially their opponents, who had front-row seats. Burkina Faso and Costa Rica resisted just three minutes before conceding, while the Young All Whites held out for a further 14 minutes before picking the ball out of their net. In the Round of 16, the European outfit even beat their own tournament best by registering in the second minute against the United Arab Emirates. It is the kind of record any coach would be proud of.
Any coach except the perfectionist Ercan, that is. "We still have some problems in terms of getting the maximum out of certain individuals so that they contribute more to team play," explained the former international, who amassed 71 caps for Turkey. "On the other hand, I can't be too demanding. That kind of approach comes naturally with time and work. That said, what we need to sort out as quickly as possible is allowing our opponents fewer chances and, conversely, creating more for ourselves."
Triumph and training
The young players representing the Ay Yıldız ('Starry moon' in Turkish) can nonetheless hope to go far if they maintain their current standards, having struck eight goals so far and conceded just two. As for their coach, he is aiming no lower than the global crown itself. "We're aiming for the top because that's the most effective way to progress," said the former Galatasaray and Fenerbahce midfielder. "But to get there, the best way is to concentrate and give your maximum in every match. I want to have the impression that my team is improving from game to game."
This short-term objective forms just a minor part of the plan Ercan has set in place. "Like every youth coach, I want as many players as possible to go on and represent the senior side in the long term," he said. "That's more important than winning." Having finished third at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ Korea/Japan, the idea of winning still figures high in his list of priorities, however. "If we can do both, that would be even better."
Ercan can allow himself to set such lofty goals because he believes he has the requisite quality in his squad to meet them. "We have extraordinary potential in this generation," he explained. "Turkish football is getting ready for a great future." His own side's immediate future will be played out in the quarter-finals on Sunday, when they will hope to eliminate another of the obstacles standing between themselves and the FIFA U-17 World Cup trophy.