It is an obvious statement, but Iceland’s achievements at Euro 2016 were incredible. To have coasted through qualification and a tournament group containing both Portugal and Austria is impressive for any nation. To have done so at your first major tournament, of any sporting variety, is stunning. To do so with a population of just over 330,000 is a borderline miracle. To top off these achievements with a thoroughly deserved defeat of England is pushing a script that most producers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. The Icelandic run is a contender for the greatest underdog tale in a competition famed for the unlikely tournament victories of Greece and Denmark.
While these stories will be remembered in footballing legend, Turkey’s determined and desperate play eight years earlier has been largely forgotten to time. It is easy to understand why; Euro 2008, while arguably short on quality, was undoubtedly a tournament of surprises. In a group of death containing both the 2006 World Cup finalists, the unfancied Dutch scored 9 goals, condemning France and Italy to defeats by a margin of three goals each. Going into the knockout stage, the Netherlands was understandably considered the new favorites for the trophy. However, they were deservedly beaten by a Russian team galvanized by the irresistible play of Andrey Arshavin. Having missed the first two matches of the competition through suspension, the Zenit playmaker had now set up a tantalizing semifinal matchup with fellow dark horses Spain. Spain’s 3-0 victory signaled the talent that would come to dominate both Europe and the World for the next four years. With that much history and drama involved in their semifinal, its counterpart between a coasting Germany and a decimated Turkey has become an afterthought.
Having failed to qualify for a major tournament since their astounding third place finish at the 2002 World Cup, Turkey went into Euro 2008 qualifying optimistic but not expectant. In a group dominated by Greece, who became the second team across the continent to qualify, Turkey and Norway battled it out for the second qualifying position. Turkey started with four wins on the trot, including an impressive 4-1 win in Athens, before meeting Norway at “home.” In reality, Turkey had to play six home matches externally and behind closed doors because of the violence that had marred their 2006 World Cup qualifier playoff loss against Switzerland. Thus, they took on their Scandinavian rivals at the Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, and were 2-0 down by halftime. However, a late rally saw the Turks secure a point, as Hamit Altintop scored in the last minute of the ninety. This late comeback signaled the resolve that would come to define their national team.
In October 2007, Greece would exact revenge for that humiliating loss months earlier, as they defeated Turkey in Istanbul, thereby securing their progress to finals. Norway took full advantage of the situation, as they defeated Bosnia-Hercegovina to move into second place with two matches remaining. This set up a tantalizing final showdown with Turkey in Oslo a month later. Going into their home match as the only team to remain undefeated against Turkey, and off the back of a six match unbeaten run in qualifying, Norway were fancied to confirm their position in the group. A spirited Turk victory, coming from behind yet again, put paid to those pre-match predictions. A simple 1-0 victory over Bosnia-Hercegovina a few days later, and Turkey were on their way to Switzerland and Austria.
As one of the least storied teams to qualify for the tournament, Turkey weren’t even predicted to get out of the group stage. The question marks over their attack, as the legendary Hakan Sukur had been left out of the squad, seemed to be confirmed in a toothless opening loss to Portugal. Additionally, Emre Belozoglu, their captain and arguably most talented player at the time, and central defender Gokhan Zan had been injured. Turkey’s hopes for a respectable tournament performance seemed grim.
Up next was Switzerland, who had decisively defeated them in the 2006 World Cup playoff. If the players had revenge on their minds, it certainly didn’t show as Hakan Yakin capitalized on some lackadaisical defending on a waterlogged pitch to put Switzerland 1-0 up at halftime. Semih Senturk managed to pull a goal back midway through the second half, but the match droned on without a clear winner in sight. Then, as fulltime approached, Fatih Terim’s side would pull off the first in a series of astounding tricks Turkey managed that summer. Deep into stoppage time, a young Arda Turan, he of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona fame, cut in from the left and unleashed a shot just as he was being closed down by three defenders. Taking a deflection of Patrick Muller, the ball looped over Diego Benaglio in the Swiss goal, and Turkey had lift off in Euro 2008.
In their final group match, they faced the Czech Republic. In a fairly equal match-up talent wise, the Czech Republic could call upon their trump card of Petr Cech, one of the few genuinely world class players at the tournament. After picking up three points apiece, the match was to be a straight shootout for the second qualifying place in the group behind Portugal. The Czechs came flying out of the blocks, and were rewarded as their persistence was converted into a 2-0 lead going into the last third of the match. Despite a Turan goal in the 75th minute, Turkey never looked like replicating the heroics of their previous match against Czech Republic, where they had salvaged a draw with two late goals. However, they were let back into the game through the most unexpected of errors from the usually perfect Cech. In the 87th minute, the Chelsea stopper dropped an Altintop cross at the feet of Nihat Kahveci, who gleefully put the ball in the net to level the scores. While the entire viewing audience waited for the rare opportunity to witness a group stage match decided by penalties, as would’ve been the case with a draw, the Turks continued to push forward. Two minutes later, Kahveci was put through on the Czech goal, firing well above the despairing dive of Cech to send Turkey to the knockout stages in the unlikeliest of fashions.
Despite the adrenaline-pumping method of their victory, it had come at a huge cost. Fatih Terim’s side had lost Emre Gungor and Servet Cetin, both central defenders, to injury, although Zan had recovered in time for their quarterfinal against Croatia. Additionally, Mehmet Aurelio, their influential defensive midfielder, and Volkan Demirel, their over-performing keeper, had been suspended. The latter was to be replaced by the aging 2002 World Cup veteran Rustu Recber. In contrast, Croatia had breezed through their group with three wins, including one over pre-tournament favourites Germany.
After a dreadful 90 minutes, it seemed obvious that the match was trickling towards penalties, as neither side could be broken down in extra time. However, in the 119th minute, Recber made a horrendous mistake by rushing out to claim a ball by the edge of the box, only to be beaten to it by Luka Modric. The newly signed Tottenham playmaker then floated a ball in for Ivan Klasnic, who headed into an empty goal ensuring Croatian progression into the last four. Only, as we know, it didn’t. In the second minute of stoppage time, in the second half of extra time, Recber launched a deep free kick into the opposition box. The ball landed kindly at the feet of Semih Senturk, who hammered it into the roof of the net to ridiculously send the game to penalties, where a now-shattered Croatian team only managed to convert one of four spotkicks. Turkey, improbably and astonishingly, were in the semifinals.
As Turkey’s comebacks had become more outrageous, so had their availability of eligible players. Although Aurelio’s suspension had run its course, Demirel was still on the sidelines for a direct red. Furthermore, Tuncay Sanli, Turan and Emre Asik, yet another central defender, had been suspended due to a second yellow card. Finally, they also lost Nihat Kahveci to injury before their match against Germany. Overall, Turkey only had 14 outfield players realistically available for selection before the semifinal. Therefore, obviously, they were supremely confident in their ability to match Germany. To paraphrase Terim, Turkey had not been the beneficiaries of divine intervention in the tournament. They had created their own luck.
The last, and only, times Turkey had played Germany in a major tournament was at the 1954 World Cup, coincidentally also held in Switzerland. The West Germans had won by an aggregate of eleven goals to three over two matches, during a run that would bring them their first major international trophy. Although no one was predicting a similar scoreline in 2008, the general consensus was that Turkish resilience would not be able to stand up to German brilliance. Thus, when the Turks flew out of the blocks in the first half, picking up a short-lived lead in the 22nd minute, all predictions went out the window. The second half was far more even, and Miroslav Klose gave Germany the lead ten minutes from time, after Recber misjudged the flight of a cross. However, Turkey, as they had done in their last three matches, never gave up, and Semih bagged himself another late goal in the 86th minute. With the tide of momentum in Turkey’s favour, they went searching for another late, great winner. However, an incisive pass found Philip Lahm, the legendary German full back, in acres of space inside the Turkish box with only seconds to go in normal time. Showing a composure that has eluded many a top-level striker, he firmly struck the ball over the onrushing Recber to put Germany in the final. With that, the neutrals’ favourite team was cruelly and ironically dumped out of the European Championship.
Fatih Terim had gone into the tournament under intense pressure from the national media due to his decision to drop Sukur. Despite losing their first match, and continuously losing players to injury and suspension, he was able to forge a deep bond in the squad that transcended individual talent. Turkey resembled an army more than a team, as they refused to give up even in the grimmest of circumstances and trusted that their comrades-in-arms were capable of fighting on. The quite ridiculous statistic that Terim used 22 of his 23 players in the five matches is testament to the unbelievable reality that individuals truly did not matter. Turkey’s absurd feats were the result of a team cohesion rarely seen before or since.
In a sequence of comebacks that Alex Ferguson could only dream of, Turkey proved to the world that pure ability was not necessarily the best quality to possess. Football is a team sport, and no one has embodied that sentiment as well Fatih Terim’s soldiers in the summer of 2008.