Why Turkey Is Euro 2024’s Second Home Team

Erkan Aykan does not require a second invitation to share his claim to fame. He grew up in a Turkish family in Gelsenkirchen, an industrial city nestled in the heart of Germany’s Ruhr valley. Somewhat more famously, so did Ilkay Gundogan, the captain of the country’s soccer team. “I know his cousins,” he said, proudly.

Listening politely, perhaps a touch indulgently, his brother Talha waits for Erkan to finish, and then immediately one-ups him. “He was in my class at school,” Talha said of Gundogan. “I played soccer with him when we were kids.”

The speed with which both men set about establishing their Gundogan credentials illustrated their pride in having a connection with the Germany captain, and their satisfaction at seeing him now leading their country at the European Championship.

Yet that loyalty goes only so far. Both brothers want Gundogan to do well this month, they said. But like millions of other Germans of Turkish descent, they want someone else to win the tournament. “Only Turkey,” they said in unison when asked who they would be supporting in Euro 2024. “We live here. We were born here. But our hearts are in Turkey.”

That sense of shared pride — obvious in the Turkish flags and Turkey jerseys that are omnipresent this month in Germany’s streets and stadiums — reflects the sheer scale of Germany’s Turkish, or Turkish-descended, population. At more than seven million, Germany’s Turkish community makes up the biggest minority group in Europe’s largest country.

All across it, many Turkish Germans have considered the same questions of allegiance and identity as the Aykan brothers, and have come to the same decision.

“When we qualified, I told my German friends that now they had two host countries,” said Hamit Altintop, a decorated former player who is now the technical director of the Turkish soccer federation. “We are co-hosts now.”

Germany’s Turkish community is a legacy of the years when the nation opened its doors to guest workers — or gastarbeiterto help rebuild its shattered country after World War II.

Many of those workers stayed, starting families that now extend into their second, third or fourth generations. Every major city in Germany, and plenty of minor ones, has at least one neighborhood with a distinctly Turkish feel, where children grow up in homes not dissimilar to Altintop’s, in Gelsenkirchen.

“The topics are Turkish, the food is Turkish, the culture is more Turkish,” he said, casting his mind back to his childhood. In Berlin now, he said, there are plenty of people for whom the “barbershop is Turkish, your supermarket is Turkish, your dinner is in a Turkish restaurant.”

It is not surprising, then, that when Turkey finally took to the field in this summer’s European Championship, its first match had the feel of a home game: Aside from one stand saved for fans from its opponent, Georgia, Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion was a sea of Turkish red and white.

Like Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund has a considerable Turkish community, one sufficiently large enough that Bulent Borekcilik — the wildly popular Turkish pastry company — has a branch in the city. It has only two in Germany. Staff at the restaurant confirmed that people travel from all over the Ruhr valley for a taste of a place that feels like, but may never have been, home.

Before the game, thousands of fans dressed in the country’s national colors — including the Aykan brothers — arrived at a meeting point a little more than a mile from the stadium, singing and swaying to Turkish dance and folk standards, including an ode to the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Before setting off on a long, slow and extremely loud march to the stadium, the crowd paused to sing the Turkish national anthem.

And yet for all the patriotic fervor, members of the crowd frequently spoke to each other not in Turkish, but in German. As the throng snaked through the rain-lashed streets of the city, some drank Jägermeister, schnapps and cans of strong beer. In almost every way, the scene felt distinctly German.

“Having two hearts in one chest is not unusual for migrants anywhere in the world,” said Aladin El-Mafaalani, a professor of the sociology of migration and education at the Technical University of Dortmund.

“One thing that connects the different generations of Turkish immigrants is Turkish soccer: club soccer, but of course also the national team,” he said. “It is part of your identity, your social bond. Most people of Turkish origin tend to support Turkey, but that does not mean they are against Germany.”

In an admittedly unscientific survey of the huge crowd that had gathered to watch Turkey play, that sentiment held true. “Germany is our home, but our hearts are for Turkey,” said Salih Halil, who had traveled to the game with a group of 10 friends, all in their 20s, from Koblenz.

Halil is hedging his bets in the Euros: He will, he said, support both Turkey and Germany. But when pushed, he admitted — like the majority of Turkish-German fans — that he would go for Turkey. “The heart overrules the head,” he said.

That phenomenon can be a little baffling to those whose affiliations are rather more straightforward. Zeynep Bakan, 25, who works in the German soccer museum in Dortmund, was wearing German team apparel, but only as a professional necessity: She is from Istanbul.

“They go to German schools, they go out to German clubs, they watch German soccer, they’re so focused on German things,” she said of Germans with Turkish heritage. “And then at the end of the day, they are saying they are Turkish.”

She emphasized her point with one of the museum’s exhibits: a photograph of Mesut Özil, a key member of the Germany team that won the 2014 World Cup, posing with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2018.

The image caused considerable controversy at the time — the backlash was so severe that Özil quit the German national team over it, saying he was sick of being treated as a “German when we win, and an immigrant when we lose.”

Gundogan was jeered for months for posing in a similar photograph, but Ms. Bakan said that she believed the image itself encapsulated why so many second-, third- or fourth-generation Turks feel the pull of their ancestral homeland. “They are this photo,” she said.

Ms. Bakan, who breezily reeled off key details of Özil’s career, said she felt he had erred by posing for the photograph, effectively torching his Germany career. But for some, Özil’s description of his treatment as a Turkish German mirrored their own feelings, and explained why they root for Turkey over the country that is their home.

Others, though, feel a different pull. Five members of Turkey’s squad at this tournament were born in Germany. Like Gundogan, the Turkey captain Hakan Calhanoglu grew up in Gelsenkirchen. (Several more Turkey players were born in the Netherlands and Austria, as were many fans in Dortmund.)

All of them might have followed a different path, or represented another country, had things gone differently. For a player, that choice is a difficult, intensely personal decision, one that often has to be made while still in their teens.

Altintop, the Turkish federation official, found it an easy call. “I said, ‘Thank you, I’m Turkish,’ that’s it,” he said. But many others wrestle with it.

For fans, though, the fact that they are both Turkish and German, or Turkish and Dutch, or Turkish and Austrian, serves to make their soccer heroes more relatable.

“We can identify more with players who are like us,” said Okan Odabas, 27, of Freiburg, a city close to Germany’s border with Switzerland. “All these youngsters playing for Turkey now were also born and raised in Germany.” In Turkey’s squad, they can see a team that represents them, blended identities and all.

For a long time, Professor El-Mafaalani said, the idea of pledging loyalty to two places — to Germany and to Turkey, to Germany and to anywhere else — was “seen as a problem.” It was assumed, he said, that there would be “conflicts of interest.” Those who live it, though, those who have come to terms with being Turkish, German and Turkish-German, do not see it that way.

“It was assumed that it was either/or,” Professor El-Mafaalani said. “Instead of both.”

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