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Monday, July 01, 2002


Turkish Soccer Delight

Prior to opening day of the South Korea-Japan World Cup, students of the impact of sport on politics overlooked Turkey. They were focused instead on the two favorites, Argentina and France. Would success for Argentina ease the pain of its devastating economic crisis? Would success for the multiethnic French side heal the wounds created by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of the recent presidential elections? The answers: We never got a chance to find out – but they’re definitely dancing in the streets of Istanbul.

They’re even happy in the streets of Athens. Greece and Turkey are bidding to be joint hosts of the European equivalent of the World Cup, “Euro 2008.” Funny enough, Turkey’s success can help Greece, and this was a month in which Turkey’s national soccer team gained worldwide recognition and admiration by surprising even itself in the World Cup and almost going all the way.

In contrast, Argentina and France exited early. Turkey did the unthinkable, by reaching the semifinal round. While it lost to Brazil by one goal in the end, it finished third overall by beating co-host South Korea, which had produced even more surprising giant-killing results than the Turks by beating Portugal, Italy, and then Spain in the earlier rounds. As the final whistle blew, some of the Korean players slumped on the field dejectedly, but, in true sporting fashion, the Turks pulled them to their feet and, clasping their opponents’ hands, orchestrated a collective salute to the Korean fans by the two teams. Can anyone think of a better way to boost national pride domestically? Can any public-relations firm come up with a better image with global impact?

National pride can be hazardous, of course. Four people lost their lives in a road accident and a fifth died of a heart attack as Turks took to the streets and celebrated wildly after Turkey beat Senegal and went to the semifinal round. Aside from those incidents, however, and several others that involved injuries, the whole country celebrated.

What this all this means in the long run is a different issue. Needless to say, political leaders tend to believe in the theory that sport reveals character. Turkish deputy prime minister Devlet Bahceli claimed that “this is the best symbol of the success of unity and union – which shows that the country will reach all its goals during the twenty-first century.” We shall see. When the French team won the 1998 World Cup with several dark-skinned players in their starting line-up, observers were quick to herald the arrival of a new multiethnic France. They saw the presence of sons of immigrants or of naturalized Frenchmen from former colonies along with white Frenchmen as proof of a French melting-pot at work.

How can we then explain the support Le Pen’s anti-immigrant platform received in April? And is it not a little bizarre for commentators to speculate on whether a multiethnic team can overturn racism in French society with a win in the 2002 World Cup? Wasn’t that matter supposed to have been addressed by the previous World Cup win four years ago?

Some politicians can take pontificating on the relationship between sport and society to new heights. Argentina was eliminated in the preliminary round after losing to archrival England on a day uncomfortably close to the anniversary of the end of the Falklands/Malvinas war between the two countries. While the rest of the world saw England beat Argentina 1-0, and ruin any chances of a soccer success softening the edge of the domestic economic crisis, an Argentinean politician stated quite seriously that Argentina had “not been defeated.”

Ordinary Turks seem to have a clearer perspective on what their team’s success means in real terms. Unlike their political leaders, they see less of an impact in domestic terms. Elizabeth Boissevain, a young American teaching and studying in Istanbul, e-mailed a friend with information that might be useful to those observers speculating on the connection between soccer and economics in Argentina. Everyone, she said, had been discussing the parallels between Argentina and Turkey. Not only had Turkey been more successful in IMF funding, but it had also reached the semifinal, while Argentina had been knocked out of the tournament much earlier. It sounded as if most people in Turkey have a more realistic view of how the world works.

Many Turks, of course, are delighted with what they see as an enhancement of their country’s international image. This, Boissevain writes, is a chance for Turkey to become known for something beyond earthquakes, beaches, and the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – Kurdistan Workers Party). In a country that is already strongly nationalistic, yet quite defensive about itself, this has been a chance to be openly proud in a world forum. Is there anything else to Turkey’s soccer success aside from ephemeral international fame, however? Leaving aside complicated speculations about sport and society, one should state the obvious: The Turks can play football.

But the reason for that has as much to do with Germany as with Turkey. Nineteen eighty-four was a turning point for the Turks. The English national team had humiliated them with an 8-0 victory; that same year, however, Josef “Jupp” Derwall, a coach from an even stronger soccer nation than England, Germany, resigned his position as his country’s national coach and went to Turkey, where he spent four years as technical director and coach of the Istanbul club, Galatasaray.

This was the beginning of a new era. Murat Zincir, a New York City-based expert on Turkish soccer, says that, before then, Turkish football was a hodgepodge of undisciplined teams and coaches with a very low level of professionalism. Bringing in foreign coaches helped bring professionalism into the country. James Davis, a sportswriter for the British newspaper, The Observer, agrees, adding that the German connection continues to the present, with German coaches heading the major Istanbul teams. However, Davis notes, the German influence runs far deeper than just coaching. Eight national-team players were born in Germany, part of the two-and-a-half million-strong Turkish diaspora in that country. Twenty-eight per cent of all immigrants in Germany are of Turkish descent, with the largest concentrations in Berlin and Cologne. Life in Germany for many Turks has not been a bed of roses, but growing up in a major soccer power obviously has its advantages.

There is, naturally, a Turkish element in this success story. As Zincir and other observers note, Fatih Terim, the first Turk to take over the national side in a long time managed to build on Derwall’s strengths. Terim moved on, but current coach Senol Gunes picked up where his predecessor left off, and assembled an organized and disciplined team in which the “German” and “Turkish” players have blended in nicely.

Current Turkish politics are not at their most stable, with Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit ailing and elections on the horizon. The afterglow of the national team’s superb showing in the World Cup will fade sooner or later, and politicians will have to find real solutions to the country’s problems. But if the legacy of the German connection is maintained, expect to see Turkey again figuring prominently on the world’s soccer stage. Who knows? Its newfound status may even help secure the success of the joint Greek-Turkish bid to host the European championships in 2008.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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