Tugay welcomes the next wave of Turkish talent

Blackburn's experienced international delays retirement to play key role in his nation's European Championship plans
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The Independent Football

"Welcome to hell." A decade after the banner was unfurled to greet Manchester United's arrival in Istanbul, this is the image most often associated with Turkish football. Not Galatasaray's victory in the Uefa Cup final three years ago, nor Turkey's third-place finish in last year's World Cup which should have transformed perceptions of football on the edge of Europe, but the implication is still that journeys to Istanbul are ones laced with fear.

Tugay Kerimoglu was born and brought up in Istanbul and until his move to Rangers and then Blackburn, he played virtually all his football in this great, astonishing city. "I don't recognise the images of Turkey that are portrayed in the media here," he said forcibly. "There are millions of people coming as tourists to Turkey each year and they wouldn't recognise it either.

"It's easy to focus on the side-issues like the 'Welcome to Hell' banners rather than the football, especially when your team, whether it is Manchester United or Arsenal, has lost. It is a shame the English media focus on a fanatical element which I have seen in all the clubs I have played for. You have to look at the Glasgow derby for that.

"People don't want to talk about the good things in a game, they just want side-issues."

There will be no side-issues when Tugay runs out in Fenerbahce's stadium next Saturday evening for the match that will decide whether Turkey or England qualify automatically for the European Championship or have to endure a play-off. And, for the home side, only a win will do.

It was to have been his last match before his international retirement. At the age of 33, Tugay wondered how many more games for his country his body might take if he is to fulfil his ambition of two or three more Premiership seasons.

The Turkey coach, Senol Gunes, however, persuaded him to delay his departure until next summer's tournament. "And if we succeed in Portugal, I will be very grateful to him," Tugay smiled.

Gunes, who resurrected Tugay's international career after he was sent home from Euro 2000 after a disagreement with the then coach, Mustafa Denizli, is under quite as much pressure as his England counterpart, Sven Goran Eriksson. When qualifying for the last World Cup, the Turks faced a similar situation to the one which confronts them now.

They had to beat their main rivals, Sweden, in Istanbul in the penultimate fixture virtually to ensure their safe passage to Japan and South Korea. Leading 1-0 with three minutes left, they conceded twice to Henrik Larsson and Andreas Andersson and were condemned to the play-offs. Gunes, a studious man who makes his team repeatedly watch videos of the opposition and who, unlike most people in Turkish football, is not from Istanbul, had to be talked out of resigning. Turkey regrouped, thrashed Austria 6-0 on aggregate in the play-offs and made it to the semi-finals.

On their return, their plane was escorted home by fighters from the Turkish Air Force, and Muzzy Izzet compared their reception to the kind of adulation heaped on David Beckham's shoulders. "There is a big difference between the media in Turkey and in England," Tugay said. "For instance, the Turkish press are always at the training sessions but if you keep a distance from the press, then they stop hassling you. I am always being stopped on the streets of Istanbul for autographs and pictures. I have no problem with that. But the press is different.

"The reaction back home to the World Cup was astonishing. When I spoke to my family in Turkey they said it was like a curfew on match-days. Schools were closed to watch the games and afterwards there were enormous street parties. It was memorable to be welcomed back, looking out of your airplane window and seeing the fighter planes. That made me very proud."

Teams which finish third in World Cups, like Croatia in 1998, Sweden four years previously and Poland in 1982, often fade away, and Turkey's progress in Group Seven has been occasionally patchy. They almost lost disastrously at home to Macedonia, while their goalkeeper, Rustu Recber, commented that their defeat by England in Sunderland was a product of over-confidence.

"I would agree with Rustu," Tugay said. "We were not able to play to our full abilities. We did not reach that level which had carried us through the World Cup and we must find that again." What Tugay sees as the great strength of this Turkey squad - the fact that many of them have grown up together and know each other's game - is also a weakness. The team are getting old, too many players are in their 30s, although given the way the Under-21 side dazzled against England at St James' Park, the solution may already be at hand.

"We have a tremendous wave of talent breaking into the Turkish team and the Under-21s at the moment. Players like Tuncay Sanli at Fenerbahce and Okon Koc at Genclerbirligi," Tugay said. "These are players who have already broken into the national team. The atmosphere you see in the Istanbul stadiums, Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, you now see growing in the provincial teams. Football is no longer confined to Istanbul [although only one team from outside the city has won the Turkish championship] and the passion is spreading out."

This is Tugay's third season in the Premiership with Blackburn, a club who might have expected slightly more than a League Cup and one top-six finish with the talent at Graeme Souness' disposal. However, to do so, they will have to cure their habit of playing well against the big guns of English football and losing to the also-rans. After Sunday's defeat by Fulham at Ewood Park, today's game at a shambolically performing Leeds United should prove an interesting one.

"I see the Champions' League as a realistic objective for this season with the players we have got," Tugay said. "My ambition is to play another two or three years in the Premiership. I am under contract to Blackburn until June 2004 and then after that we will have to see what happens. When I stop playing I intend taking a large holiday and then decide the rest of my life."

He has long known his manager. He was Souness' captain at Galatasaray, present when the Scot marched on to the pitch after beating Fenerbahce in the Turkish Cup final and planted a club flag, 15-feet high, in the centre circle of his rivals' own Saracoglu stadium. "He is still the same person he was then," Tugay said. "A very good technical coach. As for his Turkish, he knows a few words. He would use an interpreter who worked with him but the language of football is the game itself.

"It's easy to communicate without speaking. My playing style changed when I came to Blackburn, Souness allowed me to express myself more. It was something Senol Gunes approved of and got me back into favour, although I believe I would have played for Turkey again even if Denizli had stayed.

"When Souness walked out with the flag, the players were very surprised but the fact you are asking me about it now shows that it was a meaningful gesture. It was simply expressing how he felt by winning the Turkish Cup final. It was such a charged affair."

The atmosphere will be no less charged in the same stadium on Saturday, although the game could do with rather less flag-waving and rather more attention paid to what, in the final analysis, is only a game, not a vision of hell.