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Turkey Is Gaining a Foothold

Semifinals: Advancing to play Brazil has helped legitimize the former laughingstock of European soccer.

June 25, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAITAMA, Japan — It's not as if the Turks didn't warn us. For years, fans of Turkey's national soccer team have announced their arrival at stadiums across Europe by loudly stamping their feet and raising their voices:

"Europe! Europe!

"Hear our voice!

"This is the sound of Turkish feet!"

At this World Cup, the sound of Turkish feet has been deafening. Already, the Turks have given the boot to co-host Japan and everyone's second-favorite team here, Senegal, during their defiant journey to the semifinals.

And in Turkey's tournament opener, those feet ran Brazil ragged in a less-than-convincing 2-1 Brazilian victory aided by a controversial penalty and the ejection of two Turkish players.

The teams meet again Wednesday at Saitama Stadium with a berth in the World Cup final at stake. For Brazil, the World Cup final four is home, sweet home--Brazil has won the tournament an unequaled four times, most recently in 1994, and played in the final game four years ago at Paris.

But Turkey, which last appeared in the World Cup 48 years ago, has outstripped even the most optimistic ambitions of its players and coaches by landing in the semifinals. Before the tournament, Coach Senol Gunes, a former goalkeeper for Turkey's national team, set the quarterfinals as the target for his squad.

"No one, [including] our coach and our team, expected that we could come this far," midfielder Umit Davala said after Turkey's 1-0 overtime victory over Senegal at Osaka, Japan.

"But now, I would like to tell the world to see what we are going to achieve."

Once, Turkey was the laughingstock of European soccer. The Turks not only failed to qualify for the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups, they failed to win even one qualification match, going 0-15-1. Their lowest ebb was an 8-0 defeat by England in a 1987 European Championships qualifier.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that the mass migration of Turks to Germany in the 1960s and '70s began to show on the soccer field. Coaches trained in the German tradition returned to Turkey to pass along the knowledge to a new generation of Turkish players. Several current Turkish players, among them Davala and Yildiray Basturk, were born and trained in Germany.

In 1996, the Turkish club Fenerbahce defeated one of Europe's top teams, Manchester United, at Manchester, England.

Four years later, Fenerbahce's Istanbul rival, Galatasaray, upset Arsenal, another English club, in winning the UEFA Cup championship.

Those were signal flares to the rest of the sport, as bright as those that light up the stands inside Istanbul's Ali Sami Yen Stadium, where visiting teams are regularly greeted by rabid fans hoisting banners reading, "Welcome to Hell."

Yet, few in the sport acknowledged the warning signs until it was too late. By then, Japan and Senegal were out of the World Cup.

"We have shown the strength of our football," Gunes said after his team's elimination of Senegal in the quarterfinals. "We don't fear anyone, and at this World Cup, our players have proved they deserve recognition."

It hasn't been pretty to watch. Turkey has advanced this far without a single goal from its struggling star forward, Hakan Suker, forcing Gunes to find other ways to squeeze out results. Against Senegal, for instance, he overloaded his defense in front of goalkeeper Rustu Recber, who has been one of the best shot stoppers in this World Cup, and waited for a counterattack goal, which took 94 minutes, substitute Ilhan Mansiz finally breaking through .

Turkey's progression through the tournament has been so grim, the Turkish media has responded in kind, hammering Gunes and his players, especially during the early rounds.

After the victory over Senegal, Turkish players took to their individual Web sites--everyone on the roster seems to have one--to lash back.

"The camps, the training, the changing weather, the news of criticism from Turkey ... all these caused us problems, but we are a team for hard times," wrote defender Alpay Ozalan.

"My wish from you is that you do not pay attention to [the media]. The quality and strength of everyone on this team is there to see."

On his Web site, Mansiz told fans, "If we had stated our aims openly when coming here, they would have called us charlatans. Those who would have called us charlatans then will now slam us if we return home without the cup."

And on his site, Davala noted the irony of this semifinal matchup with Brazil, a team long admired from afar by Turkey's players.

"In previous World Cups, we used to pray that the teams we felt closest to, teams from America, Africa, even Asia, would take our revenge on the European sides that had knocked us out of qualification," Davala wrote. "Most of the time, we backed Brazil.

"Look at how fate works. The samba players we supported for years in the World Cup are now our biggest rival on the road to our goal."

Having barely weathered 90 minutes of Turkish fury in their opener, the samba players now brace warily for the rematch.

"I think the semifinal will be more difficult to get through than the final," Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos said. "The first game against Turkey was the toughest battle we have had here and we know we will have to be very, very careful if we are to get past them again. The room for error will be minimal, if not nonexistent."

Rivaldo acknowledged that "Turkey is capable of beating us." He said it is "obvious that this match will be difficult but we will be ready.... We will be doing everything we can to reach the final."

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