In 2004, an ancient culture with Athens at its cultural center shocked the soccer world. Four years later, Turkey – home to the former Ottoman Empire with Istanbul serving as its spiritual center – is threatening to create yet another sublime moment for a nation.
For you connoisseurs of history, the irony is that Turkey and Greece are not the closest of friends. History has quite the sense of humor.
Coming into the tournament Turkey was an outsider looking in – so it seemed. The script started predictably enough as Turkey fell to Portugal 2-0 in its opening game. The Turks rebounded and earned a 2-1 victory over co-host Switzerland setting up a showdown with the Czech Republic who had been sloppy up to that point. The Czechs were favored and certainly played to that mysterious script we just spoke about late in the game when they took a 2-0 lead.
With the rain falling hard and wreaking havoc on the pitch, fifteen minutes was all it took for Turkey to make some adjustments to the script. Three unanswered goals and Turkey prevailed 3-2.
The quarter finals were upon Euro 2008 and Turkey was in.
Group A winners Portugal went on to test its will against Germany (second place in Group B) and subsequently lost 3-2. Just like that, a nation no one gave a chance to progress was the unlikely sole representative of Group A.
Their quarter-finals opponent was Croatia. Croatia wasn’t without its own storylines. Considered to be the “best of the rest” (and my own dark horse selection) among the middle-powers of world football the tag was seemingly confirmed following a 3-2 victory over Germany and first place in Group B.
What possible twists could possibly happen? Life isn’t predictable so why should soccer? A sport often described as mirroring life’s sense of justice, lack of mercy, love, hate, irony, hardship, glory and joy.
Turkey entered the game without seven or eight starting players– or if you like, over 60% of its lineup – due to injuries or suspensions. Logically and on paper, the Turks were to be served their exit papers. But what’s written on paper has little currency.
Technically gifted, Croatia took most of the initiative in this match while Turkey contented itself to employ a deliberately cautious approach. Overcoming the occasional comical momentary lapse on defense, Turkey was able to thwart any Croatian creativity.
By the time the 75th minute arrived, the game had settled into a battle of will and attrition. Once again as they often do, the Turks shifted tactics as needed. At this pace, they may even go retro and play a 1-1-8. Indeed, they came in a highly versatile side and versatile they remained. With each passing missed opportunity Turkey’s resolve grew.
Extra time beckoned. At the 118-minute mark, it all seemed anti-climatic as shoot out loomed. Then, with about one minute to play, Croatia struck. They were ahead 1-0. And any thoughts of Turkey being this tournament’s Cinderella were dashed in an instance.
With seconds to go (figuratively) to midnight, Turkey pushed with all its might and simply kicked the ball forward. They were magically level 1-1.
Heading into the shoot out the mental state of each side could not have been any different. Clearly rattled, the Croatians failed to convert on three spot kicks. The Turks, smelling blood, expertly smashed their balls into the net.
It was over. The scoreline said 2-1 but something much more was achieved as Turkey reached the semi-finals for the first time. Just six years ago they accomplished a similar feat at the World Cup in 2002.
They've each earned their cup of exquisite Turkish coffee.
Turkey took the script and this time they ripped it up.
They now go on to meet Germany in the semi-finals. While Turkey limps and still has to contend with suspensions, the Germans lie in wait like lions following their masterful dissecting of Portugal.
Once again, the script says the Turks are without hope. Wait. They just tore it up.