Game changer: how Altinordu aim to dominate Turkish football with homegrown players

The Izmir-based club feel they have an obligation to develop players on and off the field and the president aims to have a completely homegrown side in the Super Lig by 2019-20

Altinordu is not your average Turkish football club. While many top-flight clubs continue their short-term thinking and chase big-name foreign signings Altinordu, currently fourth in the second division, have a completely different approach – and one that could completely transform Turkish football.

Seyit Mehmet Ozkan, president of the Izmir-based club, envisages a team comprised of academy raised players only and if that dream become reality it would be unprecedented in Turkey. “Our goal is to have a completely homegrown side competing in the Super Lig by the 2019-20 season,” he tells the Guardian. “We aim to have a completely homegrown side competing in European competition by 2023-24, export our players abroad and [for them] to benefit the national team.”

Altinordu’s project is particularly interesting these days as the country surveys the wreckage of a failed World Cup qualifying campaign in which the biggest name of them all, Arda Turan, was dropped and then restored to no avail. Last Friday Turkey lost 3-0 to Iceland to end any hope of reaching Russia.

Having been in the international wilderness only 25 years ago, Turkish football has come a long way in a short time. The sport is progressing but, for a country of 80 million people with the youngest population in Europe, Turkey has struggled to develop its own homegrown stars.

Altinordu are a few years into a pioneering plan to transform the country’s footballing landscape, as Ozkan, explains: “Our motto is ‘Good person, good citizen and good footballer’ and that is what we stick to. We are a second home to many of our youngsters.” Progress has already been made. Just seven players in the first team have not played in the academy – or vocational school, as Ozkan call it. “We don’t call it an academy, we call it a ‘vocational school’ because whatever comes to mind when you think vocational and school we try to provide,” Ozkan adds.

The farm at the Metin Oktay grounds at the Torbali Centre in Izmir
Altinordu teach life skills as well as football. There is a farm at the Metin Oktay grounds at the Torbali Centre in Izmir, as well as a hencoop, sheep, goat and two cows that the academy players help raise. Photograph: Altinordu FC

Turkey has produced good players, of course it has – Tugay Kerimoglu, Nihat Kahveci and Turan are a few examples – but there has never been an orchestrated long-term youth development program. If you are wondering about Hakan Calhanoglu, Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop, they happen to be ethnic Turks raised in the German footballing system.

Out of the traditional big four clubs – the Istanbul trio of Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, plus Trabzonspor – only the Black Sea-based club currently have first-team regulars that were developed in-house.

What Altinordu are working towards has never been achieved in Turkey before. The club have laid foundations, investing heavily in infrastructure, coaching and vast grounds. They have four centres based around the Izmir region, located in Yesilyurt, Torbali, Selcuk and Kusadasi. The club provide accommodation, have a sports science and dietary team, provide match analysis, Uefa Pro and A licence level coaches throughout the youth sides.

The Altinordu complex at Yesilyurt, where the under-seven to under-13 sides are based
The Altinordu complex at Yesilyurt, where the under-seven to under-13 sides are based. Photograph: Altinordu FC

The club feel they have an obligation to develop players on and off the field. The aim is to create a generation of player equipped for modern football. Players are given social media courses and personal development, football history, English and even chess is taught. These factors may be commonplace in the academies of major European leagues but are pretty much unheard of outside a few select sides in Turkey.

Ozkan makes no secret of the fact the cantera system employed by Spanish sides – Athletic Bilbao in particular – as being the inspiration behind his grand master plan. “Athletic Bilbao were my inspiration,” he says. “In fact we built close ties with the club four years ago and are completely behind this system.”

Seyit Mehmet Ozkan, the president of Altinordu
Seyit Mehmet Ozkan, the president of Altinordu. Photograph: Ali Korkmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The investment is already starting to pay dividends. The centre-back Caglar Soyuncu, 21, has established himself as a first-team regular for Freiburg in the Bundesliga. Cengiz Under, meanwhile, broke the transfer record for a Turkish international player when Roma signed him up from Basaksehir for €15m over the summer.

Both players rose through the ranks at Altinordu and currently find themselves in the national team setup. The side competing in India at the current Under-17 World Cup has five representatives from the club. The Turkish national youth sides are starting to swell with players from the Red Devils.

Altinordu may not be a household name yet but they are starting to turn heads among scouts and sporting directors across Europe, including the Premier League. “We have established close ties at sporting director, academy director and chief scout level with Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Roma, Udinese, Villarreal, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid among others as a result of our work,” Ozkan says.

City already have their eye on a 17-year-old goalkeeper being touted as the “Turkish Donnarumma”. Berke Ozer is already a first-team player for Altinordu and is playing for Turkey Under-17s in India. “We want him to play in Europe, if Berke has a great season the odds of him moving to the Premier League are high,” Ozkan added. “Manchester City already made him an offer. We will see what the future holds.”

Altinordu’s 17-year-old goalkeeper Berke Ozer in action during a league match against Çaykur Rizespor at Bornova Stadium in Izmir, in September 2017
Altinordu’s 17-year-old goalkeeper Berke Ozer in action during a league match against Çaykur Rizespor at Bornova Stadium in Izmir, in September 2017. Photograph: Emin Mengüarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The footballing culture in Turkey has traditionally opted for experience over youth. A lack of vision, planning and stability has played a part in clubs paying over the odds for over the hill players. Due to the membership structure of many top-tier sides, presidential elections are held once every few years. On paper this exercise of footballing democracy may seem a fair process but it has resulted in endemic short-termism. Club presidents feel they do not have the time for a long term youth programme. Quick results are a necessity and many hope to find a quick fix through paying for proven players rather than take a risk on a good talent who may never reach his potential.

Altinordu have the luxury of a long-term club president who has set in place long term goals. The Ptt 1. Lig side make no secret they are building foundations for the future and have no qualms giving youngsters a chance. The team have the youngest average age in the league (21.5 years). “If a player is good enough we will give him a shot, we have the courage to play a 17-year-old keeper,” Ozkan said. “If he does not leave aged 18 he will go for €10m or more at the age of 20. We have a ‘MiniOrdu’ coming through behind the ‘YouthOrdu’, we even have a 2011 generation under-six team coming through the ranks. Our aim is not just Europe, our sons will play across the world.”

Players such as Under and Soyuncu leaving for Europe was no coincidence. Altinordu are not content with proving themselves in Turkey, they want to showcase their players on the world stage.

“Our mission, our vision and values are clear, we want our kids to reach the highest level in world football,” Ozkan says. “The reason we exist is to develop homegrown players capable of playing at the best clubs in the world. Turkey is currently an importer in the player markets, we want to transform the country into an exporter of talent. In order to change the perception of Turkish football we have to produce players of the highest calibre.”

Fatih Terim – the then manager of the Turkey national team – visits the youth training facility of Altinordu in January 2014
Fatih Terim (in sunglasses) – the then manager of the Turkey national team – visits the youth training facility of Altinordu in January 2014. Photograph: Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey has benefited at international and club level from diaspora stars but this also inadvertently created a problem. It glossed over the fact that Turkish clubs were not nurturing talent. Why bother developing players when Germany will do it for you?

Altinordu were founded in 1923, the same year as the Turkish republic. In fact they were the first club to be founded in modern Turkey. Izmir has long been in the shadow of Istanbul as far as football is concerned but change could be on the horizon. Altinordu are busy trying to harness the most powerful untapped resource available in Turkey – humans. Twenty-four percent of the country is aged 0-14 – the highest figure in Europe – but other than a few exceptions clubs have ignored the domestic pool.

The club are under no illusions that the realisation of their towering ambitions could take years. The Altinordu project transcends the club. They have ventured into uncharted territory. If they get this right they will revolutionise Turkish football.