As is so often the case in football, it is the hope that kills you. Continuing a long tradition of dark horses who never turned up for the races, Turkey have failed to live up to their billing in the most spectacular fashion.
Just over a week ago Senol Gunes’s side were being tipped as the team to watch at Euro 2020. On Sunday, they face Switzerland and the prospect crashing out of the tournament after two crushing defeats. To make matters worse, they haven’t scored a single goal – or really looked like finding the back of the net.
The collective rage felt in Turkey was summed by the pundit Erman Toroglu with a scathing attack on Gunes and the Turkish FA. “With this kind of Senol and this kind of football federation, this is the kind of national team we are left with. Everything is rotten. The truth hurts,” he said on A Spor.
So how did it go so wrong? Nobody expected Turkey to do this badly. They didn’t just lose. They were humiliated. They failed to register a single shot against Italy and any notion that the 3-0 defeat was solely down to the Azzurri being brilliant was dismissed after a similarly pitiful display against Wales.
The manner of both defeats was difficult to stomach from a side that showed so much promise in qualifying. You could say that the qualifying stages were two years ago and that perhaps France did not take the two games seriously in which they lost four points to Turkey. Turkey did flop in the Nations League but that failure was brushed aside under the pretext of it being nothing more than a glorified set of friendlies. But Turkey responded by beating the Netherlands 4-2 and a tricky Norway side in March’s World Cup qualifiers.
This is a strong squad composed of a talented group of young players, most of whom play in Europe’s top five leagues. Most of the squad are in their mid to early 20s and a lot of Gunes’s players will be around for the foreseeable future. This crop and the next wave coming through the ranks could still go on to become a golden generation, but not if they continue to be so woefully mismanaged.
When you have a rich and varied assortment of ingredients but still manage to serve up an inedible dish, you have to start blaming the chef. Turkey had a brilliant defensive record in qualifying. Conceding just three goals in 10 games – none from open play – and keeping eight clean sheets. Defence has been their biggest strength, but then Gunes started tinkering with the back four. Too much choice can be a problem and in the last eight games Gunes has only started the same back four twice. Turkey have conceded 11 goals over that period.
Merih Demiral was dropped for the Wales game after scoring an own goal against Italy. However, he was hardly the worst performing player. To make him as a scapegoat appears cruel and senseless. That Gunes chose not to play his tallest, physically strongest defender against a team with the 6ft 5in Kieffer Moore up front was a bizarre decision. Kaan Ayhan replaced Demiral but his partnership with Caglar Soyuncu only made matters worse. Gunes has managed to turn his biggest strength – defence – into a chaotic mess, lacking synergy.
To compound an already bad situation, Turkey are devoid of a game plan, other than trying to defend. The midfield duo of Ozan Tufan and Okay Yokuslu have imploded. This once hard working, disciplined side has looked nervous, struggled for ideas and are poorly conditioned.
Gunes is an experienced coach and has been around for a long time. He guided Turkey to third place at the 2002 World Cup, which makes some of his calls even more inexplicable. At no stage against Italy or Wales did Turkey look capable of holding out defensively or threatening in attack. The worst of both worlds. This team have not even had a memorable moment.
Turkey have been painful to watch, a soul-crushing experience for Turks. What makes it worse is knowing what they are capable of on their day.
But here is the kicker. Despite a dreadful start to the tournament, losing both games and arguably putting on the worst two performances you will see at a major competition, Turkey, in theory at least, still have a chance of making it to the last 16.
Four of the six third-placed sides will be granted passage to the next round. Beating Switzerland in Baku could end up being enough, depending on other results elsewhere. With goal difference of minus five it will not be easy, but it is not impossible.
Should Turkey miraculously manage to book a spot in the next stage, the narrative will change from tournament flops to a side that finally woke up. They have enough quality in the team to beat Switzerland. But only if Gunes gets his act together.
This is the last chance for the teacher turned manager. He has a few days to work out how to get his pupils to defend, keep possession, attack and rediscover their self-confidence. It would be a shame for Gunes’s reputation to be tarnished after what he achieved in 2002, but for Turkey this is not a time for nostalgia.