Amateur game flourishing in Turkey

Turkey - organisers of the latest UEFA Regions' Cup finals for amateur players - is working tirelessly to boost its amateur and grassroots sectors.

The Istanbul players celebrate a UEFA Regions' Cup goal.
The Istanbul players celebrate a UEFA Regions' Cup goal. ©Sportsfile

Hosts Istanbul have been flying the flag for Turkey in the UEFA Regions’ Cup, which pits the best amateur teams from around Europe against one another. Behind the scenes, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) has been doing a fine job in helping to develop a thriving grassroots football sector.

Although having a population of 80 million has its undoubted benefits for Turkey, trying to implement a grassroots scheme across such a large and diverse country has been a challenge. This is why the TFF has looked to introduce a flexible and dynamic structure in grassroots football.

Since 2013, the TFF has been committed to funding regional amateur leagues, with the money given to help cover travel costs and accommodation proving to be particularly useful. The amateur clubs have plenty of incentives to do well, with the best teams being allowed to compete in the Turkish Cup.

The added exposure and potentially lucrative gate receipts can prove a lifeline to both clubs and players. Meanwhile, having the opportunity to play at a higher level increases the feeling of inclusion for the amateur players.

Turkey is a football-mad country, and there is a huge passion for both watching and playing the game. There are currently just under 300,000 registered amateur players in the country, which demonstrates just how popular football has become. Consequently, it was important for the TFF to set up competitions which give players of all abilities the opportunity to play.

In 2010, the TFF established the Regional Amateur League, which has significantly increased the opportunities for amateur players in Turkey. The league was created in order to allow amateur clubs to operate at a more professional level, while its creation has allowed fans who do not live in cities or towns with professional teams the chance to go and watch matches.

“The Regional Amateur League turned into a key tool for our mission to expand football,” says TFF Executive Committee member Ali Düşmez. “Thanks to this competition, football developed in those cities which don’t have any clubs in professional leagues. We continue our determined work to bring them into a shape whereby they could be a source of players for higher divisions.”

The Regions’ Cup offers players a good chance to put themselves in the shop window to potential suitors. Players who may not have made the grade initially have the opportunity to impress the scouts present, while the tournament also generates media coverage locally.

“The main aim for players of the Istanbul team in the Regions’ Cup is to try and make an impact in order to play in the higher leagues,” said Istanbul coach Kamil Doygun. “Their chief objective is not necessarily to be a professional, but to potentially sign for a regional amateur club.”

Some of Turkey’s most well-known footballers actually started out their careers as amateur players. Aykut Kocaman, who is the current head coach of Fenerbahçe SK, is one example. The 52-year-old, who played more than 200 times for the side from Istanbul, began his career with amateur outfit Kabataş Altınmızrak.

Nihat Kahveci, who won 69 caps for Turkey and starred for his country at UEFA EURO 2008, started his career at the bottom of the ladder. He was spotted by scouts playing for the amateur Istanbul club Esenler, and a move to Istanbul giants Beşiktaş JK followed.

While the amateur game in Turkey continues to flourish, the TFF are looking to ensure that there is not a possibility that players like Kahveci and Kocaman could slip under the radar. Turkish football’s governing body has introduced a comprehensive grassroots programme at youth level not only to identify the country’s top talent, but also to ensure that as many youngsters as possible are playing the game.

However, the TFF is already looking to the future as well, and has identified a number of areas in which they could focus on trying to develop the game and increase inclusion in Turkey. The coaching of children and youngsters and nurturing their talents is being constantly addressed. “We have published 14 books on how to train players aged between 6 and 14,” says Turkey’s head coach and director of football Fatih Terim. “Those books have been distributed free of charge nationwide to clubs, youth and senior team coaches.”

The association is aiming to establish and develop a better database for its ‘Football 4 All’ programme, and is determined to focus on women’s football. The TFF is also looking at ways to increase the integration of refugees by organising events and allowing them to play football.

“Last April, we opened two football pitches for the children of Syrian refugees to use in Hatay,” says TFF president Yıldırım Demirören. “We distributed 115,000 sports equipment items for our Syrian guests staying in camps.”

Turkey has understood the vital importance of grassroots development for the benefit of the country’s football well-being. The tireless work being undertaken looks set to achieve excellent results in the years to come.