- Turkey's Oguzhan Ozyakup anticpates fierce Group I run-in
- Hopes new coach Mircea Lucescu will provide extra edge against Ukraine
- Currently working under legendary 2002 coach Senol Gunes at Besiktas
Fleeting glances from the back seat of his family car were the first tastes Oguzhan Ozyakup got of where he now calls home. Since relocating to the land of his parents six years ago, Istanbul has been good to him, bringing back-to-back titles with Besiktas, but European road trips gave the Amsterdam-native his introduction.
"Before I came here I had never really come to Istanbul, I only drove past it a few times as we went on holiday every summer to see family," Ozyakup explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "My family are from Trabzon and Ankara, so when coming by car I didn’t really have time to spend here.
"When we were small we had a big family, so it was part of the holiday, driving through a few countries to get to Turkey and then staying for six weeks," he reminisced, recalling the cross-continental trips as a boy with uncles and cousins spread across a small fleet of cars. "It took about two-and-a-half days to get to Turkey, but it was a good experience, it was different."
A rekindled Turkish journey
That was also when Ay-Yıldızlılar (The Crescent Stars) enjoyed their last trip to the FIFA World Cup™, stunning the globe to finish third at Korea/Japan 2002. Memories of getting a few hours off school to watch the likes of Hakan Sukur shine have come to the fore of late as, for the last two years at club level, he has worked under the man who masterminded that journey: Senol Gunes.
"I was very young when I watched him as a coach and as a kid I always dreamed of being a footballer, so it’s weird to then work with him and become a two-time champion."
Ozyakup has seen Besiktas go through a transformation since joining five years ago, cultivating a young side who Gunes has turned into winners since taking charge, fostering a tight unit. "He’s a really big coach, with the clubs he has had before and of course what he did for the country in the World Cup. He really likes to help young players and that’s what was really good for us.
"We have a team where the players love each other and I believe that friendship in a team, of course with the quality on the pitch, really helps."
The national team has prospered of late too, reaching UEFA EURO 2016 after narrowly clinching automatic qualification as the best third-place team. "Turkish football has really made steps over the last few years," Ozyakup reflected on his first major tournament. "We became a team when we qualified for the European Championship."
Now he is hoping for a road trip to Russia, as the business end of 2018 World Cup qualification heaves into view, where it is a close-run thing in Group I. Just two points separate leaders Croatia and Iceland from Turkey and Ukraine.
A change of personnel at the top has added a layer of intrigue to the equation, however. Mircea Lucescu’s arrival as coach brings with it some questions ahead of Turkey’s next clash with Ukraine: Will his 12 years at Shakhtar Donetsk give Turkey the edge over them? Will the shake-up disrupt their recent good form? Who will make his first squad?
For Ozyakup, the answer to that final question was at first not one he wanted to hear, as he was initially left out of the Turkish squad. However, a change of heart after a campaign from Turkish fans saw Ozyakup included in the final group for the qualifiers. Whatever Lucescu's planning for future matches, one thing is certain: four wins from their final games means they are Russia-bound.
"It’s funny that we are playing Ukraine away in his first game. It’s going to be very interesting for him. Everybody knows what he has done for Shakhtar, so I hope it will help us," he said of the coach with nearly 40 years’ experience. "We have to aim for a win because we don’t have another choice.
"When we qualified for [UEFA EURO 2016] we didn’t have everything in our hands, now it’s within our control. We have a strong team, strong group and we really have a chance.”