Turkey look to the future
© AFP

Back in mid-October 2009, when Turkey’s last hopes of reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ vanished, time seemed to briefly stand still in this football-mad country. Expectations had been raised following a semi-final appearance at UEFA EURO 2008, but in the end fans had to settle for third place in the group behind Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Having also failed to qualify in 2006, Turkey would have to sit out yet another FIFA World Cup.

Despite this bitter disappointment, the focus is now firmly on the future, and a rise of six places in March to 35th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is a step in the right direction. Turkey had fallen to 42nd in recent months, their worst ranking for more than ten years.

Under interim coach Oguz Cetin, Turkey won their opening fixture of 2010 with a 2-0 win over South Africa 2010 participants Honduras, a result which showed the European side can still compete with quality opposition. Fans now have the appetizing prospect of facing Czech Republic and another South Africa 2010 qualifier, USA, in May in the run-up to this year’s showpiece event.

However, the team’s long term prospects will depend greatly on new coach Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman takes the reigns on 1 August with the aim of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine.

"I chose Turkey because I see great potential in the team. The players have a great fighting spirit. The [2008] European Championship semi-final against Germany showed that this is a side capable of holding its own against the best in the world," said Hiddink in the press conference to announce his appointment.  "We promised a good coach and have delivered on that promise," added Turkish FA president Mahmut Ozgener with no small amount of pride.

Hiddink is by no means an unknown quantity to Turkish fans after his period in charge of Istanbul giants Fenerbahce in 1990/91. In a coaching career spanning almost 30 years, the 63-year-old has claimed six Eredivisie titles with PSV Eindhoven, one European Cup (1988) and steered three different countries to the finals of the FIFA World Cup: his native Netherlands (1998), Korea Republic (2002) and Australia (2006). It is a sequence he is aiming to extend with his new charges in 2014, following the team’s failure last time out and subsequent resignation of his predecessor Fatih Terim.

"People in Turkey live out their emotions," explained Turkish superstar Arda Turan a few months ago in an exclusive FIFA.com interview. Asked what Turkey needed to do to join the world elite, the winger was very clear: "The more experience we have, the further we can go."

I chose Turkey because I see great potential in the team. The players have a great fighting spirit.
Guus Hiddink, new Turkey coach.

Recent history shows that the land of the crescent star is more than able to compete with the cream of world football. After appearing at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 1954, it was another 48 years before Turkey again graced the sport’s premier event. Some might argue it was even worth the wait, as the team stormed to the semi-finals under then coach Senol Gunes before losing by the tightest of margins to subsequent champions Brazil (1-0). Victory just days later over co-hosts Korea Republic in the match for third place remains the crowning achievement of Turkish football to date.

A total of nine players from the 2002 squad were plying their trades at top international clubs, including stars such as captain Hakan Sukur, Rustu Recber and Yildiray Basturk. Others such as Turan, Nihat Kahveci and the Altintop twins Hamit and Halil have now taken their places. "The team is in a transitional period and, while the necessary technique, system of play, talent and motivation are important, we also need experience," Gunes said prior to the qualifiers for South Africa.

And while missing out on South Africa 2010 was not part of the plan, the focus is now squarely on reaching the European Championship finals in two years. The road to Poland and Ukraine will pitch Turkey against three-time world champions Germany, with whom Turkey already have an old score to settle. After all, it was Die Mannschaft who eliminated Turkey in the semi-finals of EURO 2008 and denied them the chance of reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time.

Acquiring the services of coach as experienced and capable as Hiddink represents a major step forward, and it will come as no surprise if Turkey continue to ascend the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Emulating their highest ever position, 5th place in June 2004, may be a long way off, but it remains the standard they aspire to.