There is a famous panel from a Turkish comic that lampoons the typical plight of the country’s national soccer team. “So what happened? Is it impossible for Turkey to qualify now?” one character asks. “No, if Turkey draws this game against Poland, and France beats Bosnia while Hungary loses to Holland at home, and if Tajikistan smiles at Germany while they fart … then we will be through to the next round,” replies another.
Turkey couldn’t conjure such a feat for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, its hopes of qualification extinguished in a 3-0 capitulation at home to Iceland last October. There was something poignant about one of the largest nations in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Europe’s soccer federation, being humbled by a country with a population roughly the same size as that of the Istanbul suburb of Basaksehir.
Turkey should be one of Europe’s strongest soccer nations. It has a youthful, soccer-mad population of around 80 million people. And, since it came to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has lavished Turkish soccer with unprecedented attention and money: helping to hugely inflate revenues, embarking on at least 30 new stadium construction projects across 27 cities, building a swanky training complex for the national team, and repeatedly bidding to host international tournaments. The AKP is led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself an ex-semiprofessional soccer player who uses the sport as a way to burnish his populist credentials. Under Erdogan, the game has become an ever more important nexus of political and economic power.
Yet Turkey has never qualified for a World Cup under the AKP. It last qualified in 2002, advanced to the semifinals, and finished in an impressive third place. Ever since, the Turkish national team has largely struggled. The domestic league has not fared much better, in spite of having UEFA’s seventh-largest revenues and with clubs signing major (if aging) stars. The vast majority of Turkish fans support one of the big three Istanbul-based teams: Besiktas, Fenerbahce (which can count Erdogan as a fan), or Galatasaray — all bitter rivals. Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup (now UEFA Europa League) in 2000, but since then no Turkish side has reached a major European club final. Turkey has stayed fairly stable in UEFA’s country ranking for club football over the past 15 years, usually ranked 10th or 11th.
Turkey has long been a soccer underachiever — before 2002, Turkey had only previously appeared in the World Cup in 1954 — and over time UEFA has become more competitive. But still, with Turkey’s economic growth and development under the AKP and with so much political, social, and financial capital invested in the sport, it is surprising that the national team has not been more successful. It is poor value for money.
Part of the problem is that the money is not being invested where it should be. “There is a close web of relations between politics, business, and soccer in Turkey,” said Ozgehan Senyuva, a researcher on Turkish and European soccer at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “It affects meritocracy, and this in turn leads to bad governance.”
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