Affiliated to FIFA since 1923, Turkey had to wait over 30 years before taking part at a FIFA World Cup finals event, and their first appearance in 1954 was a notably up-and-down affair. Kicking off with a 7-0 victory over Korea Republic, the Turks were then brought straight back down to earth by a 7-2 loss to West Germany.
Ten failed attempts to qualify followed next, but Turkey finally returned to the foreground by booking themselves a place at Korea/Japan 2002. They arrived in Asia with an experienced team that featured no fewer than nine players stationed at the best clubs in Europe.
Their opening match ended in a narrow 2-1 defeat to Brazil, and the encouraging signs witnessed in that performance were soon confirmed in a 1-1 draw with a solid Costa Rica side and a 3-0 triumph over China PR that sent Turkey through to the knockout stages for the very first time. It was here that the Turks really came into their own, however, displaying an impressive thirst for victory that helped them see off Japan 1-0 in the Round of 16, before Ilhan Mansiz's golden goal defeated Senegal by the same score-line in the quarter-finals. Senol Gunes's men eventually fell at the semi-final stage, losing 1-0 to Brazil, but they took third place in the competition after beating Korea Republic 3-2 in their final outing.
According to Gunes, Turkey's exceptional tournament owed everything to "a new generation of coaches". "Most of us were playing in the 1980s, a period when Turkey didn't win a single important victory on the international scene," explained the former international goalkeeper. "The players then became aware of their true value. Today, our coaches are world-class. We managed to learn from our mistakes."
Fatih Akyel, Yildiray Bastürk, Umit Davala, Tugay Kerimoglu, Ilhan Mansiz, Rustu Recber and, of course, Hakan Sukur had already taken Turkey to the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2000, where they lost 2-0 to Portugal. If that performance offered solid proof of Turkish football's emergence, so did Galatasaray's historic UEFA Cup final triumph over Arsenal a few weeks prior, an achievement masterminded by current national coach Fatih Terim, who has been in charge since 2005.
But the Turks did not have to wait long for a double dose of disappointment, beginning when they failed to qualify for UEFA EURO 2004 after losing to Latvia in the play-offs (1-0; 2-2). Two years later, they were also absent from the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany ™, having failed to get the better of play-off opponents Switzerland.
Turkey have learnt from those setbacks and dream of a repeat of their 2002 heroics, which Gunes firmly believes is within their grasp. "The team is being rebuilt at the moment, but look out," he said. "If technique, strategy, talent and motivation are essential, then experience is even more so. And now we have all of those things."