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They get their kicks from Euro 2008

European soccer fans gather to watch the tournament at cultural centers, bars and restaurants around the Southland.

June 25, 2008|Utku Cakirozer | Times Staff Writer

Baris Turgut grew up in a town in Turkey where all they talk about is soccer, soccer, soccer, and where as a kid he played the game night and day, in the streets, even when cars zoomed back and forth. Raised in Izmir, a seaside town on the west coast of Turkey, he is a die-hard fan of that city's Goztepe club, which was the first Turkish football club to reach a semifinal, in a European Cup Competition in 1968.

So there's no way that Turgut, who now lives in Los Angeles, wouldn't watch his beloved Turkish national team play in the European soccer championships now underway in Austria and Switzerland.

"It is unthinkable for me to miss Euro 2008 matches no matter where I am and what I am doing," the 26-year-old Turgut said last week at a Mediterranean restaurant in Hollywood as he watched Turkey defeat Croatia and advance to the semifinals today against Germany.

Turgut admitted that he "should have been at work now," helping Turkish customers at his job at MySpace in El Segundo. "But I talked to my supervisor and changed my schedule for the day." He and 15 others, eyes fixed on the flat-screen television, just had to gather in the small bar at Cravings, the warm, friendly restaurant owned by fellow Turk Ibrahim Oztok.

Forget the Lakers and Celtics. Don't fret about the Dodgers or the Angels. Who cares for now about the Ducks or the Kings? For Turgut, Oztok and millions of others around the globe, what matters now is Euro 2008. As Ahmet Atahan, president of the Assn. of Turkish Americans of Southern California, said of the mood of the 20,000 or so Turks he estimated to live here, "You can always take the men out of their country, but you cannot take passion for soccer out of their heart."

So Friday, as Turkey and Croatia took the field for a contest televised by ESPN, fans from both nations in the Southland were gripped by alternating frenzies of joy and sorrow.

You could find them pooled in favored places -- the Croats, for example, at the Croatian American Club in San Pedro.

Or there were other Turks in Irvine at the Pacifica Institute's Turkish Cultural Center, where more than 100 gathered before two huge screens to cheer, boo and sup on tea and lahmacun, a pizza-like dish with a spicy meat filling.

At Cravings, the Turks got support from more than just natives. "I support Turkey as I did in the 2002 World Cup," when that nation finished third, said Marshall Bell, 65, an actor from West Hollywood. "Nobody in this bar expected that success, but I did." Bell finds it odd that soccer is not bigger in America. "I do not understand Americans," he said. "If you are a sports fan, it is impossible not to love soccer because it is so fast."

Still, televised soccer isn't a stellar draw just yet. The Euro 2008 quarterfinal match between Germany and Portugal, ESPN said, drew a 0.9 rating, meaning it was on TV in an average of 880,500 homes and was watched by 1.11 million viewers, a fraction of the audience that watched the NBA Finals.

But ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said comparing audiences for soccer to U.S. favorites such as the NBA or NFL "is akin to comparing apples to oranges."

Instead, he argued, "Euro 2008 is exceeding expectations." The European games, on average, have hauled in a 0.5 rating (about 655,000 viewers) on ESPN2 -- a 67% increase above the average rating for the time period for that network. He said broadcasters have taken note of a significant ratings surge for ESPN Deportes, the all-sports Spanish-language TV network, which has been feasting off Euro 2008 audiences. Soccer, he said, also has been a boon for ESPN360.com, with its live, online simulcasts of Euro 2008 games.

In Hollywood, the game's growing audiences had caught the attention of two newer fans. Munching on Mediterranean salads and fettuccine, Inci Atrek, 19, chatted with her college friend Orly Sibon about soccer and the future. Atrek is the daughter of a Turkish American family from Orange County; Sibon is Jewish, of Moroccan descent and from Sherman Oaks.

"Both of us will go to France to study French," Sibon said. "It is better for us to get acquainted with this game [because] in Europe they love it."

Inci nodded and added a small complaint: "Whenever I go to Turkey, if there is a soccer game, none of my friends go out to dinner with me on that night and I always had to stay at home."

At Cravings, Turkish fans came dressed for the game.

Barbaros Tapan, the 38-year-old bartender who wears a tattoo on his right arm with the emblem of an Istanbul team, Besiktas, was decked out in a jersey with Turkish colors: red and white.

Burcu Tansu, a legal consultant in her early 30s who came with her advertising analyst friend Banu Katirci, wore a white T-shirt and a red scarf. Tansu fastened a tiny Turkish flag behind an ear.

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