Turkey’s 2002 World Cup: a unique, uplifting underdog story

When you think of the latter stages of the World Cup, you think of some of the best nations in world football. Brazil. Germany. Spain. Argentina. England, even.

One of the nations you don’t expect to advance into the latter stages of this footballing festival, though, is Turkey. Yet in the summer of 2002, as Senol Günes and his men boarded the plane for their first World Cup since 1954, this team made history. A semi-final appearance shocked the planet; it attracted the attention of the entire world. A World Cup like no other produced an underdog like no other.

To understand the true significance of this tale, though, you need to go all the way back to the 1950s. The Turks had actually qualified for the World Cup in 1950. But look at the record books and it will tell you that they didn’t attend. This was because they simply could not afford it.

They qualified four years later, and this time they did compete. It was certainly memorable – yet it ended in heartbreak. With the group even, it all went down to a one-off playoff against West Germany in Zurich. Max Morlock’s hat-trick sunk Turkish hearts; their World Cup dream was over.

But, by the end of the 1990s, things were beginning to look up again. Turkey appeared in their first major tournament since 1954 whilst competing at Euro ‘96. But their visits to the City Ground and Hillsborough are trips they would rather forget. They finished bottom of Group D. Played three. Lost three. Scored none.

Whilst they didn’t qualify for the World Cup in 1998, they did make history two years later. Their 2-0 win over the hosts Belgium at Euro 2000 in the final group game secured a place in the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time.

So, things were starting to look positive for the Turkish national side at the turn of the new millennium. Well, that was until their manager departed to take over the reins at Fenerbahçe. Mustafa Denizli’s departure paved the way for Senol Günes. He had tried and failed to qualify for a World Cup with Turkey during his time as their goalkeeper throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Could he do any better as a manager?

With this side, he certainly could. A 6-0 aggregate victory over the Austrians in a qualification playoff secured a ticket to South Korea and Japan in style. Their first World Cup in a generation. What an opportunity to write your name into Turkish folklore. A time of nerves, a time of excitement.

And the excitement was heightened in the winter of 2001 when the draw was made. They were drawn to play Costa Rica. They were drawn to play China. And they were drawn to play Brazil. The finalists in 1998. A side that included the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. What a chance for this Turkish side. What a chance to play the very best the world has ever seen.

It was Brazil who Günes’ men played first. And, as half-time approached, they were in dream land as Hasan Sas opened the scoring. They were soon brought back down to earth as Ronaldo equalised just moments after the break. With five minutes to go, it appeared as if they were going to earn a historic point. That was until Alpay Özalan conceded a penalty with just four minutes left on the clock. He was sent off. Rivaldo beat the keeper from 12 yards. Delight for Brazil. Anguish for Turkey.

Six days later and Incheon was the destination for Turkey’s next game. This time Costa Rica stood in their way. And there was torment towards the end on this occasion as well. It appeared as future Newcastle star Emre had scored a decisive goal as the game reached its climax. But just four minutes before the 90 minutes were up, Winston Parks converted for the Costa Ricans. Euphoria for them. A similar feeling of despair for the Crescent-Stars and the millions of the Turkish supporters watching across the world.

So, it all came down to the final game of the group. China were their opponents; Seoul the destination. In the end, it proved to be comfortable – a 3-0 victory over Bora Milutinovic’s men secured a place in the latter stages of the competition.

Their reward was a game against co-hosts Japan in the round of 16. It was a day that was overshadowed by their fellow hosts South Korea earning a place in the last eight with a victory over Italy. It was a day that will always be remembered on Turkish shores for Ümit Davala’s early goal which secured a place in the last eight of the World Cup.

Turkey were now officially in dreamland. And so too was Davala; it had been a challenging year for the future musician – he had lost his place in the AC Milan side in the previous November following the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti at the San Siro. This was a chance to really prove the doubters wrong – it was a chance he took to adhere himself to Turkish football fans forever and ever.

But the real hero of the 2002 World Cup for Turkey was Ilhan Mansiz. It was in the quarter-final against Senegal that he made history. Remember, it was 2002 – a time where golden goal existed. So with the score 0-0 at full-time, there was no margin for error; one mistake could cost the game, one mistake could cost their place in the World Cup. This was a time for heroes to emerge, not villains.

Davala did play a key role in that decisive goal, though. It was his cross off the right flank that fell into the path of Ilhan Mansiz. His finish at the near post from six yards was a natural reflex; it was a moment in time that nobody of Turkish descent will ever forget. Turkey, yes Turkey, were in the last four of the World Cup.

Due to the tournament’s format, they already knew that they would face a familiar foe in the semi-finals. The day previous, Brazil had knocked out Sven Goran Eriksson’s England in his first major tournament as manager of the Three Lions. There were tears when they faced each other in the group-stage and it proved to be a tearful occasion 23 days later. But would these be tears of jubilation or tears of heartbreak?

It was a long trip from Osaka to Saitama, the destination for the semi-final. In fact, it was a journey of nearly 330 miles. But it was a journey that every Turkish fan who could make, did.

Unfortunately, it was a journey that marked the end of the road for Senol Günes and his men at this World Cup. Ronaldo’s second half goal secured a place for Brazil in the World Cup final – their third in a row. They may have not produced the prettiest of displays, but – as the cliché goes – it’s all about taking your opportunity when the moment is presented to you. The Brazilians did that, the Turks wasted theirs.

And so marked the end of a roller-coaster of an adventure. Their victory just days later against the South Koreans secured third place, that is something which can never be taken away from them; a side who had a troubled record throughout the 20th century at major tournaments, had announced themselves to the world at the turn of the 21st. The class of 2002, will be a Turkish team never forgotten.

Article by Conor O’Grady via Football’s Finest

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