Following a depressing final warm-up match against Austria, the Turkish national team is grappling with a bit of internal disarray leading up to its first match against the Netherlands in the impending 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
In Group D of the qualifiers, Turkey faces stiff competition from the last World Cup runner-up the Netherlands as well as Hungary, Romania, Estonia and Andorra.
For now, the Turks are trying to sort out the causes of their 2-0 loss in Austria last Wednesday. Both goals were scored within the first six minutes of the match and, although they managed to regain their composure, the Turks could not recover against a defensive Austrian team. It was the first time Austria defeated Turkey in 24 years.
Keeper Mert Günok in particular has come under fire for costly mistakes, both for this match and for his performance during the Super Cup, which went to archrival Galatasaray. Günok is Fenerbahçe’s second-string goalie, and has seen an increase in playing time since Volkan Demirel got injured.
The second goal against the Turks was scored when Mert fouled an Austrian on the attack, leading to a penalty kick. It was later reported that the distressed keeper asked national team coach Abdullah Avcı to take him out during halftime, but his wish was not immediately granted.
However, one should not just point at the keeper in such situations. Whether or not these six frustrating minutes were a fluke, the team as a whole is at fault. Mert should not have had the chance to see two shots only six minutes into the match.
Luckily this was just a warm-up; however, something will have to change -- and that is more than just Mert -- before the game against the Netherlands on Sept. 7.
Playing under pressure
The Turkish national team is under increasing pressure to perform well, after missing out on Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine this summer, which followed the Turks’ failure to qualify for the last two World Cups as well. The team has struggled with changes in coaches since then, coupled with the match-fixing investigation that hung over some of the biggest names in Turkish football.
However, excuses and explanations only work for so long. The entire country now wants to see results. And Avcı is going to have to deliver, as coaching is a thankless job in a land of critical fans and high turnover rates.
“There are positive and negative lessons we will take from this match,” Avcı said after the game, noting how a brief five minutes can alter the remaining 85. He also recalled that this was the first warm-up match where his players failed to score. He is now taking those hard-won lessons into consideration ahead of the qualifying matches.
The Netherlands is expected to finish at the top of Group D. The real battle, it would seem, will be for second. Turkey, Romania and Hungary are all tough competitors and they are all determined to make it to the playoff to advance, which finishing second affords.
Hungary is currently ranked 28th in the world, two places ahead of Turkey at 30th. A Romania trying to regain its former glory is sitting at 50th, which does not mean the team will be a pushover.
A fresh start
If Turkey can spring a surprise on the Netherlands in the first match, it would make securing a berth in the world’s biggest football competition all the easier. “If we start well, we could be first. We cannot make the same mistakes we made against the Netherlands,” said one of Turkey’s finest, Hamit Altıntop, after the Austria match.
The problem is that Turkey is not known for starting well. The game against Austria is only the most recent example. “The first six minutes were unbelievably negative,” the 29-year-old midfielder noted in what seemed to be a commentary of much of his team’s history.
The Turks most recently made a name for themselves for their performance at Euro 2008, where the team became known for impressive comebacks before finally succumbing to Germany in the semifinals. Turkey has also appeared in two World Cups to date, and it has started out with losses in each.
A fresh and developing Turkey squad is looking to change that history now. Fiery playmaker Emre Belözoğlu was quick to point that out. “I believe we are a good team. Let no one doubt that this team is going to do great things in the group state of qualification,” he stated.
The new Atletico Madrid player also warned against the follies of talking about warm-ups too much. “Look how even the Netherlands, known as the group favorite, lost 4-2 to Belgium. This score does not mean that the Netherlands is a weak team. Those scores shouldn’t fool anyone,” he explained.
This may be true, but it is all talk until you prove on the pitch that you must be taken seriously.