Selcuk Inan was the hero of the hour, the match-winner and the most loved man inside the Konya Torku Arena.
It was the Galatasaray midfielder’s free-kick against Iceland that sealed Turkey’s automatic qualification for UEFA EURO 2016 as the best third-placed side. With one swing of his boot, the 30-year-old won a permanent place in the hearts of Turkey’s proud and passionate supporters, bringing joy to a nation reeling from almost a decade of hurt at the hands of the footballing gods.
Turkey last competed at a major tournament at EUR0 2008 in Switzerland and Austria, where they defied expectation by reaching the last four. Their subsequent absence from the big stage will soon be over, and the mood among the players ahead of their long-awaited return to Europe’s biggest international stage is one of understandable optimism. “We believed in ourselves, we fought hard and we managed to do it. Now we’re relieved that we didn’t disappoint all those fans that always had faith in us,” said captain Arda Turan.
Yet while Inan’s place in Turkish folklore is assured - and rightly so - the contribution of another player proved equally important to the campaign's happy conclusion, even if it was celebrated to a far lesser degree. The name Islambek Kuat may not mean much to the average Turkey fan, but it was his 65th-minute goal for Kazakhstan against Latvia – a game played at the same time as Turkey’s clash with Iceland – that ensured Latvia finished bottom of qualifying Group A. This would prove decisive for Inan and his team, for when it came to deciding the best third-placed side, Turkey’s head-to-head record against Latvia – two draws – was discounted, with their two wins against Kazakhstan taken into consideration instead.
Highest ranking since 2009
Turkey’s resurgence is also borne out by the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. While Bosnia and Herzegovina (up 10 places to 20th), Ecuador (up 10 to 21st), Republic of Ireland (up 12 to 42nd), Paraguay (up 14 to 47th) and Serbia (up 14 to 49th) have all made impressive strides, the Crescent-Stars are the biggest climbers of all during qualification, rising from 37th to 18th thanks to a win and a draw against the Netherlands, as well as victories over Czech Republic away and Iceland at home in their final two matches.
Turkey’s current standing is the team’s highest for six-and-a-half years since they occupied 12th place in the Ranking back in 2009. There were times during qualifying when their place at EURO 2016 looked in doubt, but the aim will now be to prove that the nation that finished third at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ still belongs to the footballing elite almost a decade and a half later. “We have a young team and that makes us all even prouder that these young guys have qualified for the EURO,” said coach Fatih Terim.
Next generation waiting in the wings
The 62-year-old tactician could bring his squad’s average age down further still ahead the tournament next year. While Bayer Leverkusen playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu – already a well-known name in international football – shone in qualifying despite being just 21, another Germany-based player, Yunus Malli, could soon be joining him in the national team set-up.
The Mainz starlet was born near Frankfurt and played in Germany’s youth teams, but has opted to represent Turkey at senior international level. A pacy and elegant dribbler, Malli has been in excellent form for his club this season, and he made his international debut in a 2-1 friendly win over Qatar two weeks ago, having scored seven times in 12 matches for Mainz.
“This is the next step in my career,” said the 23-year-old after his run-out against the Qataris. While he hopes his maiden cap will be the first of many, Terim may well have found another young talent to help restore the national team to its former glories.