FIFA World Cup fever grips sunbaked Antalya
© LOC

It is the end of April. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky and even now temperatures are pushing 30C. Amid the high-rise buildings, children are at play. Every street corner is its very own football pitch and for many kids the ball their dearest companion. Not a day goes by without 12-year-old Ismail Arda Kismet having a kickabout, but that is just how things are in this part of the world.

And it is no different for Ismail at his local Grassroots Festival, a youth football programme scheduled to take place in every host city and already up and running in Antalya two months prior to the hotly anticipated kick-off of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013.

"It’s really enjoyable because it isn’t all about winning or losing. We just play football and have fun," Ismail Arda told FIFA.com. He is one of the lucky ones, one of a handful of children from all seven venues chosen to be in Kayseri for the opening ceremony of Turkey’s first-ever FIFA World Cup. "It’s great that I’ve been chosen. I can’t wait for the World Cup," he enthused.

"Grassroots is a fantastic imitative for the kids," explained Sedat Oztokmak, the Grassroots Coordinator in Antalya. "Life these days is so competitive. Be it in school or on the pitch, it seems to be all about winning or scoring points, but Grassroots is simply about enjoying football and fair play. That really does the kids good."

Buckets of enthusiasm
Each year, millions of tourists descend on the Mediterranean coast of southwestern Turkey in search of sun, sea and, in Antalya's case, football. This is where teams of holidaymakers, regardless of age, gather on the sunbaked beaches to enjoy the beautiful game.  

People here cannot wait to witness some of the finest young talent in their very own stadiums, where top-class football, fantastic weather and boundless enthusiasm are a given. "It’s going to be really warm in June and July during the World Cup, said Mehmet Ozdilek, head coach of Turkish first division outfit Antalyaspor, himself a former Turkey international."That’s why the right kind of preparation is so important. It’s best to arrive early to adapt to the climate and conditions."

In all, six teams will be in action in Antalya during what is sure to be a fiercely competitive group phase at Turkey 2013.

Among the big names present in Antalya for the festival was Isaac Promise. The Antalyaspor striker was a runner-up with Nigeria at the 2005 edition of the competition, losing to an Argentina side boasting none other than Lionel Messi. "That World Cup was the turning point of my career, after which my journey as a professional footballer really took off," recalled Promise.

Following that FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, Promise made the move to Turkish outfit Genclerbirligi, before spells at Trabzonspor and Manisaspor led him to Antalya, where he has scored seven times since the start of the current campaign. "Many of us, like Messi and others, have used the U-20 World Cup as a springboard. For us to be part of such a tournament was really important," explained the Nigerian.

A once in a lifetime experience in Turkey
Ergun Teber also holds fond memories of the tournament, as FIFA.com found out. The left-sided player represented Turkey in the Netherlands eight years ago, and to this day still fondly recalls the atmosphere. "Five other teams were staying at the same hotel as us. I was able to get to know so many other footballers, so it wasn’t just the games that were enjoyable."

Teber turned out 93 times in the red and white of Turkey, albeit for the youth teams, and knows all too well what such an event can do for a player. "These types of tournaments are always important for a player’s development. You can compete with players the same age as you, and the support in the stadiums is immense."

And that will be no different in Antalya, where local fans are just as excited about the prospect of seeing England, Iraq, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Uruguay as they are the host nation. After all, stirring support is what Turkish football is known for and something the players can all count on come June and July.