The year 2013 is shaping up to be a landmark moment for Turkish football and a year to celebrate for the Turkish Football Federation (TFF). Not only will history be made when Turkey hosts its first ever FIFA competition later this month in the form of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but the TFF is also commemorating 90 years as a member of the global football family.
It was in May 1923 that the Turkiye Futbol Federasyonu first affiliated with FIFA, a move that followed the establishment of the progressive Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Before that watershed moment, in the years of the Ottoman Empire, football struggled to gain a foothold in the country due to the ban imposed by the Sublime Porte on any Muslims wanting to play the game. For Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who ruled between 1876 and 1909, there was no question of the empire's youth engaging in a sport that originated in the United Kingdom.
Despite that hostility and the absence of a national association, a number of youngsters took matters into their own hands and launched new clubs, some of which remain heavyweights of the Turkish game today. That is certainly true of Istanbul titans Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, the former being set up by students from a French high school in the city bearing the same name in 1905. As for Fenerbahce – which literally means 'Lighthouse garden' – they were originally founded under a different name on the site of the club's present stadium in Kadikoy in 1899, before adopting their current identity in 1907.
A bridge between Europe, Asia … and Africa
Turkey's affiliation with FIFA was a key development for world football's governing body as it helped broaden the game's universal appeal. Significantly, the TFF was able to serve as a bridge between Europe, Asia and even Africa during the 1920s and 1930s, with the Turkish national team – nicknamed Ay-Yıldızlılar – taking part in FIFA-authorised competitions such as the Balkan Cup while also tackling Middle Eastern and African sides during FIFA World Cup™ qualifying.
Turkey's geographical location nonetheless posed problems when a number of confederations began to be founded in the 1950s, and in particular UEFA and the AFC. The latter were keen to integrate the TFF, but the Turkish association itself expressed a preference to join UEFA, due to reasons both sporting and geopolitical.
For a start, with the Turkish game having turned professional in 1952, it made sense for the country to engage in competitions of the highest possible standard, at a time when most of the AFC's members were still amateur. Turkey thus stressed that they had qualified for the 1954 FIFA World Cup at the expense of a European team, and that their junior side participated in tournaments on the Old Continent rather than in Asia. They also made the argument that UEFA contained another member association spanning two continents in the shape of the Soviet Union.
The desire to lean towards Europe likewise reflected the politics of various Turkish governments in the 1950s and 1960s, with the country having sided with the West by joining NATO during the Cold War. From 1959 onwards, Turkey also began pressing for membership of the European Union.
Anxious to find a compromise which suited both confederations, FIFA proposed that Turkey affiliate with the AFC but participate in European tournaments. Eventually, in 1962, FIFA authorised the TFF's definitive membership of UEFA.
The decision to compete on the European stage brought its own difficulties, however, and both the Turkish national team and the country's club sides struggled to make an impact in such a competitive environment. Even Turkey's place at the 1954 FIFA World Cup owed much to chance, Ay Yildiz drawing their play-off game with Spain and – in an era before extra time and penalties – only booking their place in Switzerland after the drawing of lots.
In fact, it took until the mid-1990s for Turkish football to truly start making a breakthrough on the international scene. While the U-17s qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cups in 2005 and 2009, the U-20s reached their own global showcases in 1993 and 2005, yet it was the senior side that really put Turkey on the map. They took part in the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup, but their greatest achievement was finishing third at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when they beat Korea Republic 3-2 to seal a podium spot. Although that run to the semi-finals owed much to Senol Gunes, who was voted coach of the tournament, in a wider sense it reflected Turkish football's tangible progress across the board, with results improving for club teams as well as the national side in UEFA competitions.
FIFA has played its own part in promoting the development of the Turkish game, and the TFF has reaped the benefits of a whole variety of programmes initiated by the global body. Since 2009, for example, it has received finance via the Goal project to help build a regional technical centre in Malatya, with the intention being to develop youth and amateur football. Turkey also receives regular funds from the Financial Assistance Programme (FAP) to aid with the development of women's football.
Given all those advances, the decision to award Turkey the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the same year that the TFF is celebrating 90 years at the heart of FIFA could perhaps even be read as a reward for two decades of progress.