Roma's Cengiz Under showing how Altinordu have changed Turkish football
IZMIR, Turkey -- Cengiz Under became the youngest Turkey international to appear in a Champions League semifinal when he started for Roma in the first leg of their tie against Liverpool, but just 18 months ago the 20-year-old was playing second tier football in his homeland.
For a football-crazy country boasting the largest young population in the UEFA zone, the talent produced in Turkey in recent years has been abysmal -- there was Arda Turan and that is about it.
But Under's first club, Altinordu, who sit sixth in the TFF 1. League, have launched a pioneering movement in a bid to bring about much needed change and ensure that Turkish football's youth development finds a home on the Aegean coast.
The project is ambitious to say the least. Altinordu president Seyit Mehmet Ozkan told ESPN FC: "The club is training thousands of youths across the Aegean region. Our goal is promotion to the Super Lig by 2020, and to participate in European competition by 2023 playing with a completely homegrown squad."
It is conceivable that Under would never have been discovered had it not been for Altinordu. There are not many clubs scouting rural Balikesir at under-10 level but fortunately for the youngster, the Izmir-based side were.
Under joined Altinordu aged 10, spending years rising through the youth sides before breaking into the first team aged 16. By 19 he had joined Super Lig outfit Basaksehir. On his 20th birthday he became the most expensive Turkish player to leave the league for another club in Europe, completing a £12 million transfer for Roma.
Now there is no limit for the forward, and Altinordu's hope is that many others follow in his footsteps.
Hope for the future
The region of Izmir may be best known for the popular tourist resort of Kusadasi on the glorious Aegean coast, but the 2018 U-12 Izmir Cup brought clubs from all across Europe and Asia.
With the grounds at Selcuk situated deep in the picturesque countryside, close to the ancient city of Ephesus, this is a region steeped in history and natural beauty. The club's eight UEFA approved pitches are a sight to behold too and 56 clubs from 21 countries participated in the tournament, with Manchester City particularly impressive.
Watching how some of the world's elite teams prepare their young players was invaluable for Altinordu, but the club already has a good idea of what it requires. "I don't look at physique with young players especially at around the age of 12," Ozkan said. "They will develop physically later on, what is important at a young age is in-game intelligence, the ability to read play and speed. We saw that in Cengiz."
Behind the scenes, when there aren't any showcase tournaments, the work continues daily.
At the club's Metin Oktay academy, a short distance away in Torbali, the U-14 and U-19 sides train. Charismatic director Savas Serdar has a chess board in his office but he is not the only one to enjoy the game: chess is taught to kids at the academy to encourage strategic thinking.
"Our aim goes beyond just creating great footballers, not every kid will leave here a professional player but they will be equipped with an education to help them succeed in life," Savas said.
The academy has modern classrooms, with interactive whiteboards and the latest technology. The kids are taught public speaking; how to handle the media, social media; English; and once a day they pick a book from the library for compulsory reading hour. And there is a strong emphasis on social responsibility, too.
"Our other slogan is -- Good Person, Good Citizen, Good Football," Ozkan added. "By Good Person we mean a responsible person, Good Citizen, a person aware of wider society, and Good footballer, a professional."
For Berke Ozer, a highly rated 18-year-old goalkeeper nicknamed the "Turkish Donnarumma," the success of Cengiz, and Caglar Soyuncu (who went directly from Altinordu to Freiburg and established himself as a first-team Bundesliga centre-back aged just 20), gives the players something to aim for.
"Cengiz and Caglar are a huge inspiration for us," he said. "We were all brought into the system but when you actually do what we all trained so hard for and it becomes a reality, it makes you more hungry because we know it can be done. It has been done. Everyone here knows if we work hard and make the most of our opportunity, we can become the next big names to join the top European leagues."
Nutrition is also something taken very seriously at the club. The academy has its own farm, and not just a gimmick to show the kids once in a while. The young players tend to the livestock and harvest the crops. In addition to character building it also has more practical uses: The cows produce 60 litres of milk per-week which is used by the academy kitchen; the vegetables and fruits grown are found in the dishes served.
The canteen has a huge board displaying the nutritional benefits of the various food products and the amount of calories required each day, with dieticians on campus working with the youngsters to monitor their intake. The message is simple: "You are what you eat" but it is notable that Turkish football hasn't yet had its Arsene Wenger moment. There has not been a manager coming in from abroad to modernise the way nutrition, training and football is approached.
So, for such a small club, the academy really is remarkable. There is a medical centre to analyse the players, plus sports psychologists and physios. The coaches employed all hold UEFA B badges or higher and the players' dormitories are plush but identical -- another well thought out concept to bolster togetherness and enforce the message they are all equal members of the team.
The reality is that many families in the region, especially from rural parts, simply cannot give their children the life the club offers. It can be a path out of the poverty cycle; the kids not only get the chance to become a professional footballer but also an education, enjoy a high standard of living and gain a new perspective on life.
Why is Altinordu a one-off?
It is worth noting that Cengiz was like many of the kids currently rising through the ranks. He came from rural Balikesir, a small town called Sindirgi, and the odds another club would have sent scouts to watch him, put in the work to nurture his talent and then give him first-team football was extremely low.
Outside of Altinordu, there has not been much of an interest in youth development. Sure there are impressive academies at other clubs, but the difference is Altinordu's priority is to spot, develop and play talent. There is nothing like it in Turkey.
Due to the membership structure of many Turkish clubs, presidential elections are held once every few years. In theory this exercise of footballing democracy seems a fair system but the reality is it has resulted in endemic short-termism.
Club presidents do not have the time for a long term youth development system. They need results and a quick fix is preferred over taking a punt on a hot young prospect. There is too much risk involved. And to make matters worse the club president is not accountable for losses incurred, so they have free reign to spend, spend, spend. After all it is not their money they are burning away.
Altinordu have a different club structure, a corporate setup bankrolled by Ozkan who also happens to be a powerful steel tycoon. This has given the club the freedom to take a radically different path to most clubs in Turkey. The Izmir based outfit are one of the few sides in the country able to enforce a genuine long-term plan. Developing players is not unique to Altinordu but having a policy to create a side completely made up of footballers who have risen through the academy is unprecedented.
The rise of Cengiz
Bucking the trend, Cengiz became a first team player at the age of 16.
"Three years ago we became aware of Cengiz's potential but were worried he was too small," Altinordu manager Mehmet Eroglu said. "After his first training session we realised it wouldn't be a problem. I remember his debut. I gave him a tough game to test him and boy did he shine. He always manages to raise his game and adapt to new situations. I'm not surprised with what he's doing at Roma, in fact I know he's still got a lot more to offer."
Had Cengiz not been a first-team player, Basaksehir would not have signed him in 2016. He would not have been ready. Instead, he hit the ground running and, in one season, helped guide them to an unprecedented runners-up finish in the league and the Turkish Cup final.
Yet Under joined the Istanbul minnows as a player with already solid foundations, having been taught the basic fundamentals most Turkish youngsters aren't like how to handle the media spotlight, fame and money. You rarely find ex-Altinordu players making PR blunders or involving themselves in controversy, and that is no coincidence. A lot of talent is wasted in Turkey as young kids from abject poverty turn into the next big thing overnight and do not know how to cope. But the system is working for Altinordu; Cengiz is evidence.
There is huge potential in Turkey. Untapped potential. The Altinordu system could end up sparking a complete revolution in the way clubs approach youth football in the country. Under will be the first Altinordu developed player to star in the Champions League semifinal but he may not be the last. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Eren Sarigul covers Turkish football for ESPN and Turkish-football.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_ErenSarigul