Turkey, it seems, is forever at the crossroads. It is a geographical and symbolic link between Europe and Asia; a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. The modern Turkish republic constantly wrestles with the ideas of the East and West. One of its most famous attractions is the Hagia Sophia—once a basilica and a mosque, and now a museum. It’s a country with an Asian past but decidedly European aspiration.

Football, which has held together the tense threads of different ideologies, has emerged as the biggest symbol of that aspiration. Even though Turkey’s accession to the European Union has been derailed, its football matches pace confidently with Europe’s football elite. Ninety-seven per cent of the country is part of the Asian continent, but Turkey chooses to remain in the European confederation, possibly the toughest in the game.

In this year’s Uefa European Under-17 Championship, they effectively closed the door on Italy in the group stage and made it to the final four. The semi-final finish saw them booking their ticket to the Under-17 World Cup that begins in India on Friday. Turkey took one of the five spots granted to the European confederation while football powerhouses like Italy and the Netherlands missed out.

“That tournament has a special place for us," says Turkey coach Mehmet Hacıoğlu, during a media interaction in Navi Mumbai. “The team already had a lot of self-confidence, and the result was proof of that. This team has been together from since the boys were about 13 years old. The World Cup will be the end of the development process for them, and hopefully we will finish on a high."

While the Turkish clubs play in marquee European tournaments like the Champions League and the Europa League, and their Under-17 team has drawn players from their youth academies, the team has a perennial Asian weakness: physicality.

“Our players are talented, but maybe they are at a physical disadvantage," adds Hacıoğlu, who has played for and coached one of Turkey’s premier clubs, Fenerbahçe.

“They are not as big or strong as some players from Europe or Africa. But to counter that we have built certain skills and strategies. We also had a long camp in Doha, before coming here, to adapt to the climatic conditions and have them play together."

Turkey, placed in Group B, will play the opening match in Mumbai on Friday against New Zealand, one of the most physically imposing teams in the tournament. Also in their group are Paraguay and African champions Mali.

Given their performance at the European championships, the expectations back home have grown. Turkey have been the Under-17 continental champions in 1994 and 2005 but sustained success has been a problem. In a largely European and South American game, they tend to be viewed as underdogs, a tag that hardly reflects the fanatical following for the game.

“Football is a unifying factor not just in Turkey, but all over the world," Hacıoğlu says. “It can stop wars."

Away from the growing unrest in the country, the Turkish federation is working on building a battalion of footballers who may one day go on to play for the finest clubs in Europe. The current Under-17 Turkish squad has three players who are part of the youth academies of top-flight German clubs. They scout tirelessly for talent in the country’s 14 regions.

“Right now there are about 280,000 registered players in Turkey," says the coach. “We are a country of 80 million people, so that is only a small fraction of it. We want to increase the figure to one million."

Despite the coach’s obvious disappointment at the number, young Turks now have defined pathways to pursue football. Their national league has 125 clubs, all of which have been compelled to set up youth academies since 2008. Apart from that, they also have regional leagues with more than 3,000 teams. Two age-group teams—Under-17 and Under-19—have their own national leagues.

“There is scouting according to regions. The national federation and the clubs have their own scouts; wherever there is a Turk playing, here or abroad, we are watching them," says Hacıoğlu.

Clubs in Germany, home to about four million people of Turkish origin, are among the biggest targets for players. The government is also investing money in infrastructure, especially since Turkey is in the running to host the 2024 European Championship.

As the country hopes to flex its muscles on the global stage, the U-17 World Cup could prove to be the ideal stage. “We will do whatever we can to achieve this," says a hopeful Hacıoğlu.

Turkey is looking to carve its own identity in the world game.

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