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Turkish urbanization is the enemy of Turkish football 21/05/2012 - Viewed 3689 times


There are two types of countries: Those where the police and football fans fight tooth and nail, and the other calm ones. Turkey and England are in the first group; both love football. There is a subcategory among these countries: those that have large green fields in their cities where children and young people can play football and those where the game is played only on artificial turfs by paunchy middle-aged men. Here, England is in the first group while Turkey is in the second.

There is something odd about Turkish football. As a Fenerbahçe fan who does not really like to watch games, I think football in Turkey is highly skewed. Competition takes place almost entirely among the Istanbul teams and top players are mostly foreign. This is quite odd for a society that shows little sympathy for foreigners. In the TV series sector, which is on the rise, almost all of the production is done by local actors and actresses, for instance. Anyways, what I would like to point out is that the regional and urban disparities in Turkey are closely linked to the oddness of Turkish football.

I will not dig too deeply in the regional disparity issue, as people are more or less familiar with it. In Turkey, there is Istanbul and then there is the rest. With economic activity and opportunities agglomerated in Istanbul, the football industry naturally clusters there. The answers to why Anatolia doesn’t have a strong football team and why there is no scheduled container train service from Anatolian cities to Europe are pretty much the same.

What I want to discuss here is why Turkey does not have any football stars and what this has to do with urban structure. On this account, we first have to understand what being a football star means and what it takes to become one. Let’s refer to Malcolm Gladwel’s Outliers on this, perhaps the best work on what it takes to excel. Gladwell says that everyone who peaks in their profession has to have practiced it for 10,000 hours. In order to master any complicated subject demanding skills, you have to study it for 10,000 hours. Assuming that you practice 3 hours a day, it takes 10 years to reach the top. Mozart started composing at the age of 11, but composed his first masterpiece at 21. The Beatles became the Beatles because they had the chance to play together 8 hours a day in Hamburg, years before they become famous. Similarly, Bill Gates started computer programming as early at secondary school. Gladwell does not cite anyone from Turkey in his book, but Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the first person that comes to my mind. I think he is the only star in Turkish politics today, as before he was elected prime minister, he had been engaged in politics for 10,000 hours in different posts in Istanbul.

Let’s return to football. Who do you think is the Erdoğan of Turkish football? I am sure some of you will go with Fatih Terim (Galatasaray’s coach), but I am talking about current football talent, not ego. How many players can you name? Arda Turan. Burak Yılmaz. Nihat Kahveci. Anyone else? Just 3 football stars in a country of 73 million with 466,000 registered players? It’s a joke. But why is this so?

The answer lies in the 10,000 rule and bad urbanization in Turkey. First, please see the two tables below. Table 1 lists the “rising stars” of Turkish football and Table 2 shows the global football stars of the last decade. What is the difference between the two? Let me tell you: for Turkish players, the average age of starting football (starting to play on a youth team of a football club) is 11.8. The average for the world’s top players is 7.4. There is a gap of 4.4 years. Turkish players achieve 10,000 hours of experience when they are 22, while foreign football stars master the game at the age of 17. This is major difference given that a football player at 30 is considered to be at the age of retirement.

So why do Turkey’s potential stars start playing late? This relates as much to the urban sprawl in Turkey as to the weak reserve teams of clubs.

Turkish champion teams are composed of Istanbul’s teams. But on the list of 14 football stars, only 5 started playing in Istanbul. That means that stars are not likely to have started playing in Istanbul. Why? Just recall where and under what conditions children at the age of 5 to 7 play football in urban areas. After all, to make it to the youth team of a football club kids have to prove that they have the talent. Where can they play football? Does Turkey have large, standard pitches open to public? No.

Why? Also a simple one to answer: the size of a football pitch is about 10 dönüm (about 13,400 square maters). That’s space for 10 five-floor buildings. If each floor has 2 apartments and if you sell apartments for $200,000 each, you can generate $20 million. So, what would you do? Leave space for children so that they can play football or construct apartments and distribute 20 million bucks? Come on, who cares about children?  This is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons we watch mediocre football in Turkey.

(At this point, let me refer to Brazil’s potential of raising football stars. Though Brazil is similar to Turkey concerning unplanned urban development, children in the slums of Rio and Sao Paulo play “Futebol de Salao” with a small and heavy ball that does not bounce. With this heavy ball, they develop the skills of ball possession at early ages.)[1]

If Turkish children in slums wanted to play this type of football, they wouldn’t be allowed as the heavy ball could hit a car or a shop window. This is why in many neighborhoods children play with plastic balls instead of standard footballs. I guess if you play with a plastic ball in street alleys as a child, you can only make it to the artificial turfs when you grow up paunchy.

So, hear my word: Turkey can’t put its football into shape without first properly planning its urban areas.

Table 1: Turkish football stars of the last decade


Table 2: International football stars of the last decade


Source: Wikipedia and official websites of players

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/teacher-finds-brazils-soccer-secret-in-the-slums-1142229.html

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