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The Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s early memories include “crowds of men smoking cigarettes after the national football matches, which during my childhood never failed to end in abject defeat.” His words are a reminder that, while Turkey as a nation has always been obsessed with football, for generations its passion had not been matched by its performances.

A solitary World Cup appearance in 1954, for which they qualified through a coin-toss, ended in a 7-2 play-off defeat to West Germany. When Turkey finally qualified for another international tournament, they proceeded to lose all three matches without scoring a single goal at Euro 1996.

At the turn of the century Turkish football finally came into its own. Galatasaray defeated Arsenal on penalties to win the 2000 UEFA Cup, and in the same year, the national team performed respectably at Euro 2000, losing 2-0 to Portugal in the quarter-finals. The stunning run to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup confirmed the emergence of Turkey as a serious challenger on the world stage.

Failure to qualify for the next Euros and World Cup rekindled painful memories of the barren years. Turkey withstood an inconsistent, often infuriating campaign to qualify for Euro 2008, but with an unbalanced squad and a questionable back line, few expected a formidable challenge. By the end of a wild, thrilling, and miraculous run to the semi-finals, Turkey not only converted its domestic doubters but won the admiration of football fans worldwide.

Qualification pains

Toward the end of the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Turkish FA appointed Fatih Terim as manager. Terim is a towering, divisive figure in his homeland. His self-proclaimed nickname is İpmarator – the Emperor – and he once quipped “there are 365 members of parliament but only one Fatih Terim.”

In a total of four spells in charge of Galatasaray, Terim has won seven league titles, two Turkish cups, and the 2000 UEFA Cup. He has also managed in Italy, with Fiorentina and Milan. But Terim had also been in charge during Turkey’s disastrous Euro 1996 and is often criticised for his squad selection. In particular, Terim has drawn the ire of critics who claim that he picks his players based on subordination rather than talent and leaves out more independent-minded players based abroad. These criticisms would resurface on the eve of Euro 2008.

The qualification campaign was wildly, frustratingly inconsistent. Turkey began with four straight victories, including a 4-1 dismantling of defending champions Greece in Athens. This was followed with draws against Norway and Malta and a home defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina. A 3-0 victory over Hungary seemed to get the campaign back on track, but Turkey again backslid and drew away to Moldova and lost to Greece in Istanbul. Turkey ended up qualifying in second place, one point ahead of Norway.

Terim’s constant experimentations with both tactics and squad selection contributed to the inconsistent performances. Terim controversially opted to leave out legendary striker Hakan Şükür, as well as Halil Altintop and Fatih Tekke, both attacking players. There were also plenty of question marks about the side’s defence. In the pre-tournament friendlies, he played two entirely different formations in each half against Slovakia, then proceeded to select an almost entirely different team and again tweaked his tactical set-up in a warm-up against Uruguay.

Nevertheless, there were reasons to be optimistic. Turkey boasted a wealth of talented attacking midfielders, including Tuncay Sanli and the up-and-coming Arda Turan. Striker Nihat Kahveci was coming off a 24-goal season for Villarreal. The Brazilian-born Mehmet Aurélio provided much-needed steel in midfield. And for all of Terim’s faults, he knew how to get the best out of his players. Or at least the loyal ones.

Group stage chaos

Turkey were drawn in Group A against Portugal, co-hosts Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Up first were Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, eager to atone for their heart-breaking final defeat at Euro 2004. Goals from Pepe and Raul Meireles sealed a comfortable 2-0 victory for Portugal. One match, zero points, and a poor start to the tournament for Turkey.
Co-hosts Switzerland, who also lost their opener, were up next. The tie was a rematch of the 2006 World Cup qualifying play-off, which ended in a massive brawl that left Swiss defender Stéphane Grichting with a perforated urinary tract. This match proved less heated but far wetter. A deluge of biblical proportions left the meticulously prepared field looking like a waterlogged Sunday league pitch. Players and ball alike struggled to move through the water.

The conditions played a role in Switzerland’s opener. A 30th-minute long ball found Eren Derdiyok, who took it around goalkeeper Volkan Demirel and passed it across the goalmouth to a completely unmarked Hakan Yakin. A massive puddle stopped the ball in its tracks before it reached Yakin, but he managed to tap it in before any defender was able to intervene. Incidentally, both the assist and the goal came from Swiss players of Turkish origin, and Yakin did not celebrate out of respect. The gesture did little to comfort the Turks, who were beginning to stare into the abyss, painful memories of 1996 resurfacing.

Yakin should have doubled Switzerland’s advantage five minutes later when he was free at the back post for another tap-in, but this time his control let him down and he sent it wide. Turkey were let off the hook, but Terim was furious, gesticulating wildly and grabbing his assistant by the arm on the bench.

The rain eventually slowed down. Twelve minutes into the second half Turkey finally scored their first goal of the tournament. Swiss keeper Tranquillo Barnetta got his hands on Semih Şentürk’s header but was only able to redirect it into the back of the net, and Turkey had their equaliser. Two minutes into stoppage time, the Turks took the lead in dramatic fashion. Arda Turan cut in from the left, and his shot deflected off Patrick Müller and past a stranded Barnetta.

“Euro 2008 began for us tonight,” said Terim after the match. “We have hope for the last game and, God willing, we will secure the win that sees us through.”

Turkey were left to face the Czechs in the final, decisive group match. Because Turkey and the Czech Republic were level on every potential tiebreaker – goal difference, goals scored, and goals conceded – and this was the last match played in the group, in the event of a draw the tie would be decided by penalty shootout, immediately after the 90 minutes were up.

The big, bald striker Jan Koller got the start for the Czechs over Milan Baroš and repaid manager Karel Brückner’s faith in the 34th minute. Despite being heavily marked, he outjumped his defender and sent a powerful header goalward. Demirel tipped onto the crossbar but the ball still went over the line, and the Czechs were in front.

Then, in the 62nd minute, disaster struck. Centre-back Emre Güngör had been carried off on a stretcher, and Turkey were unable to bring on a replacement in time. The Czechs immediately took advantage of the massive space, and Jaroslav Plašil was left completely unmarked on the back post to turn in a cross from Libor Sionko. Terim was furious on the sidelines and complained to the fourth official. For three minutes, Turkey were forced to play with ten men. But it was to no avail. 2-0 down, with less than a half hour to play, Turkey looked down and out.

But Arda Turan pulled one back in the 75th minute. Then, with just three minutes to go in normal time, out of nowhere came a calamity for the Czech Republic and a miracle for Turkey. Čech made a mess of a completely routine cross, and Nihat pounced for the easiest of finishes. The match looked headed to penalties. Two minutes later, the Villarreal striker suddenly found himself in acres of space behind the Czech backline, who had seemingly gone to sleep in expectation of penalties. He had time to turn, open up his body, and curl a shot that flew past Čech and off the underside of the bar.

The drama was far from over. Demirel needlessly shoved Koller and got himself sent off, and with no subs left Tuncay took the gloves for the final seconds. But the clock soon ran out. Ecstasy for Turkey, who went from elimination to the knockout phase in two minutes.

Guardian columnist Paul Doyle aptly called it a “brilliantly bonkers night.” Turkey were through to the knockout stage, and things would only get crazier.

Knockout phase heroics

Turkey’s next opponent in the quarter-finals was Croatia, who won all their matches and finished first in a group with Germany, Austria, and Poland. Croatia, led by future heroes Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, were strong favourites. Terim was facing an injury and suspension crisis. Both centre-backs and defensive midfield stalwart Mehmet Aurélio were among the players ruled out, as well as goalkeeper Demirel who picked up a red in the dying minutes of the victory over the Czech Republic. Enter Rüştü Reçber, the pony-tailed 35-year-old hero of the 2002 World Cup. Altogether, Terim only had 15 outfield players available.

For 118 minutes neither side were able to make a breakthrough. Croatia created more chances, but overall it was a muted affair. In the 119th minute, Rüştü made a howler that looked to end Turkey’s dreams of a semi-final. He inexplicably came out of the area to chase down a deflected cross, but Modrić beat him to it and crossed to Ivan Klasnić, who headed into an empty net. 1-0 to Croatia, with seconds left.

If Turkey seemed dead and buried, Terim was having none of it. The manager looked uncharacteristically calm on the sidelines. After the match he said:

“I saw some of the players lying on the pitch. I told them to pick themselves up. I wasn’t about to give up. I never have in my career. You should never give up until the referee blows the final whistle.”

They didn’t give up. Colin Kazim Kazim later remarked that “it took one look from the coach, and that look spurred us on.”

Seconds after the restart Rüştü hit a long free kick into Croatia’s box, and following a fortunate bounce, Semih volleyed it past the Croatian keeper. Croatia manager Slaven Bilić was livid with the officials, as the goal came after the one minute of stoppage time had expired.

After thinking they had grabbed a last-second victory, the Croatian players were disheartened and fell to the floor. Turkey had all the momentum going into penalties. Rüştü guessed right every time, but Modrić and Rakitić missed the target altogether and didn’t force him into a save. Only Darijo Srna scored for Croatia, while not a single Turk missed. In the last kick of the shootout, Rüştü redeemed his error and saved Mladen Petrić’s effort.

Another miracle. Turkey were in the semi-finals. “We seem to come back from the dead, which shows you how good my team are,” Terim said after the match.

Next up were the Germans, the overwhelming favourites. Turkey’s selection crisis got even worse. Three players were carded against Croatia and were suspended for the semi-final. Demirel’s appeal over his suspension was rejected, so Rüştü again got the nod. Only fourteen outfield players were available.

The crisis reached the point that Terim considered playing a reserve goalkeeper as a centre-forward. “We can’t allow ourselves the luxury of players choosing where they want to play,” he said. Hamit Altintop downplayed concerns over Turkey’s situation. “I’m not worried about the absentees, our strength is our collective spirit, the full-back remarked. “I’m sure we can progress to the final.” Turkey’s dreams of recreating the miracle of their neighbours Greece from four years before, albeit in much more entertaining fashion, were alive and well.

Turkey had led for a grand total of about six minutes of the 309 that they played in the tournament. But it was the only minutes that mattered.

23 minutes into the semi-final, Turkey found themselves in unfamiliar territory: the lead. Kazim Kazim’s looping shot hit the bar, the second time he hit the woodwork in the match, but this time the rebound was bundled over the line by Uğur Boral. Three minutes later Germany equalised through a Bastian Schweinsteiger flick at the near post. The score was level at half-time, but it was Turkey’s best half of the entire tournament, and they felt confident going into the second period.

Twelve minutes from time, Germany took the lead. Rüştü was again at fault, as he completely missed a cross and let Miroslav Klose head into an empty net. It was familiar territory for Turkey. Again, they came storming back, and in the 85th it was Semih once more with the heroics. He got in front of his defender and toe-poked the ball past Lehmann at the near post from a low cross. They had done it again.

This time, however, the euphoria was short-lived. The Germans, after all, are no strangers themselves to timely interventions. Just four minutes later full-back Philipp Lahm played a one-two with Thomas Hitzlsperger at the edge of the box and lifted the ball past Rüştü and into the roof of the net at the near post. There was no time for an equaliser, and Turkey valiantly bowed out of the tournament.

Terim departs

After the match Terim announced he was leaving the national team. But he and the entire team left the tournament with their heads held high. He said in the post-match interview:

“I simply told the players that I am proud of them and that they should not feel bad about the result. I wished them a lot of success in the future. Seventy million [Turkish] people and their hearts were beating with the players tonight; that is very important. We have been able to show to the world what a good team we are.”

“If we had gone to extra-time, the story could have been different,” he added. Given their track record, one is inclined to believe him.

Turkey’s performance at Euro 2008 matched the 2002 World Cup in result and exceeded it in excitement. From being within minutes of an early exit to a stunning quarter-final victory and giving Germany a legitimate scare – German manager Joachim Löw admitted that his side had been “trembling and tumbling” – Turkey made a breath-taking contribution to a thrilling tournament. The players and manager made their home country proud and gave neutrals something to remember.