Turkish Football

Mirror of National Identity

With its dramatic ascent to the semifinals of the Euro 2008, the Turkish team has impressed the world of football. But how much potential does Turkish football really have? Amin Farzanefar in an interview with sports journalist and Turkey expert Tobias Schächter

With its dramatic ascent to the semifinals of the Euro 2008, the Turkish team has impressed the world of football. But how much potential does Turkish football really have? Amin Farzanefar in an interview with sports journalist and Turkey expert Tobias Schächter

Turkey defeated Croatia in a penalty shoot-out following a remarkable last few minutes of extra-time in Vienna Friday (photo: AP)
Turkey defeated Croatia in a penalty shoot-out following a remarkable last few minutes of extra-time. With impressive fighting spirit Turkey makes it for the first time to the semifinals of the Euro 2008

​​Mr. Schächter, what was the mood like in Basel before the tensely awaited match between Switzerland and Turkey? After all, there were fears that the horrible scenes at the qualification game two years ago in Istanbul could be repeated.

Tobias Schächter: I think both teams learned their lesson. The tabloids also abstained for the most part from publishing mutual provocations. I spoke about this with a Swiss parliamentarian of Turkish origin, who told me that the very liberal Turkish community in Basel had been extremely ashamed of the incidents back then. With 18,000 Turkish residents, Basel has the largest Turkish community in Switzerland – you might even call the "Little Basel" district the "Swiss Kreuzberg." So there is a decent block of fans, and many Turkish-born Germans will also be coming to see the match… The parliamentary representative does see a certain risk that these nationalists from Germany could stir up trouble.

How did things get so out of hand last time?

Back row from left, Turkey's Volkan Demirel, Mehmet Aurelio, Mehmet Topal, Servet Cetin, Hakan Balta, and front row from left, Hamit Altintop, Arda Turan, Semih Senturk, Nihat Kahveci, Tuncay Sanli, and Emre Gungor pose for a team photo prior to the group A match between Turkey and Czech Republic (photo: AP)
Victory or downfall? With the way Turkish men tend to see their roles, there is no such thing as "honorable defeat," says Tobias Schächter

​​Schächter: In the end, the agitation in the tabloid press in both countries became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Fatih Terim, the Turkish trainer, exacerbated the situation with his ultra-nationalist slogans and crude conspiracy theories. Add to this the fact that games against European teams always have a special significance. Atatürk's Turkey grew out of a defensive war against the European powers, and ever since then the country has had an ambivalent relationship with Europe. There is a striving for integration on the one hand, but also a great appreciation for cultural differences.

Third-place World Cup contender in 2002, Turkey didn't even make it through the qualifying rounds for the 2004 European Championship in Portugal; if it had now missed a chance to compete for the second time, that would have been too much to bear. This has a lot to do with how Turkish men view their role in society, always wanting to be on the winning side. The concept of "honorable defeat" is non-existent in Turkish football.

​​Football is also meant to fulfill the ideal of international understanding and exchange. What, then, is Turkey's position in the international context – and within Europe?

Schächter: Already back in the great war to liberate the fatherland under Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) there were games between Turkish teams and the occupying troops from England, held in Izmir or Istanbul. These matches were celebrated as a great victory for national Turkish identity – with the Turks showing the Europeans that they could sometimes beat them at their own game. The relationship of the Turks to Europe is a very ambivalent one, hallmarked by a major inferiority complex. Ever since Atatürk said: "We want to become a Western society" – since the break with the Ottoman Empire – international games have been viewed as an expression of national identity.

Football as crystallization of elements that have a central meaning for the nation?

Schächter: A Turkish sociologist at the University of Ankara once said: In no other country was and is football such a crystallization point for the national identity and mentality.

The depression following the defeat, the call for a new trainer, hysterical outcries from the media – does everything move faster in Turkey?

Fans after the 3:2 against the Czech team (photo: AP)
Love of football in the time of globalization – at major media events like the European Championship national identity is once again an important distinction: like here amongst Turkish fans in Frankfurt, Germany

​​Schächter: Turkey is a land of extremes, a land in constant crisis, and the stories come fast and furious every day. A small sample is the current booting out of Hakan Sükür, whom the Turkish press has been criticizing for years. The same people are now asking: "Terim, why didn't you take Hakan with you?" Such are the typical knee-jerk reactions of the tabloid papers.

You mean always pressing ahead, toward the next big thing, rather than looking back?

Schächter: It also has a lot to do with how Turkey tries to come to terms with its history. There are a few taboo themes, such as the so-called genocide of the Armenians during the First World War. The Turks always look ahead, never back to the past.

They say that Turkey is slowly opening up toward Europe. Are changes also occurring in football?

Schächter: In 2000 Galatasaray Istanbul achieved the first UEFA Cup victory for a Turkish team, in 2002 Turkey made third place in the World Cup in Asia – here the country was on equal footing with the football greats – Germany, Brazil. The precipitous fall that followed led to a widespread feeling of insecurity. There are many first-class Turkish players all over Europe, which could be an incredible boon to the national team and the clubs. But these players are never at the top of the agenda for the press: "They aren't real Turks," they say. People just have to be more open.

Many international stars play for one of the three major Istanbul clubs, and yet those who become naturalized citizens have to change their names.

Tobias Schächter (photo © Dietrich Bechtel)
Tobias Schächter worked in Istanbul for many years, reporting on sports there for Swiss and German media (photo © Dietrich Bechtel)

​​Schächter: The most well-known example is Marco Aurelio from Rio de Janeiro. In 2006 he was the first "non-Turk," as the nationalists call him, to be named to the national team. This gave rise to great indignation, and journalists spread the rumor that he refused to sing the national anthem – just because he didn't know it at the time. Now he calls himself "Mehmet" – likewise a concession to the nationalists.

What do you think is special about the German-Turkish relationship?

Schächter: With 2.4 million Turks and people of Turkish descent living in Germany, the relationship is of course going to be a special one. Besides, people in Turkey have always viewed the German footballers as teachers. It started with Jupp Derwall, who went to Galatasaray, and continued when Sepp Piontek took over the national team at the end of the 1980s. People spoke of him with great respect, and now, in 2008, journalists have been calling for a second Piontek, who would once again improve structures and bring some international influence onto the scene.

Overall: your personal prognosis for Turkish football?

Schächter: Turkish football has immense potential talent, and it also has the possibility to lastingly play at the highest level. The road ahead is clear for major tournaments and wins.

Interview: Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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