"The country believes in us. I believe the matches against Austria are our most important in 50 years." Thus national coach Senol Günes before Turkey's play-off with Austria for a place in the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals.
That faith was rewarded when Gunes's team won 6-0 on aggregate to rejoin the game's elite for first time since 1954. Turkey's only previous appearance at this level comprised a first-round exit at the finals in Switzerland. And that they are back shows just how far they have come in the last ten years. Thrashed 8-0 by England twice in the mid-1980s, they have built on trainer Fatih Terim's success in taking Turkey to the finals of EURO 96™.
While Mustafa Denizli, Terim's replacement, failed to reach France 98, he stayed on to help the side to the next UEFA European Championship in the Low Countries two years later .The qualification process began with a 1-0 home defeat of Germany. This set the tone for some fine performances: three-goal wins in both games against Northern Ireland; a tremendous comeback from two goals down to beat Finland 4-2 in Helsinki; and a 0-0 draw in Germany.
Won on away goals
But in the end the Turks had to settle for second best in Group Three behind Germany. A shock 3-1 home reverse against the Finns, followed by a 1-1 draw in Moldova, meant a play-off against the Republic of Ireland. This they edged on away goals after holding the Irish 1-1 in Dublin, then 0-0 in Bursa.
Expectations were subsequently raised in the run-up to EURO 2000™ as Galatasaray SK became the first Turkish winners of a European club competition - pipping Arsenal FC to the UEFA Cup on penalties in Copenhagen.
Predominance of Galatasaray stars
Now there was no doubting the quality of this generation of players. And given the predominance of Galatasaray stars in the national set-up, the feel-good factor quickly extended to the squad in Holland and Belgium. Here Turkey were unlucky to lose their opening Group B match to Italy, where a Filippo Inzaghi penalty condemned them to a 2-1 setback. A 0-0 stalemate with Sweden then left Denizli's men needing victory over co-hosts Belgium to progress.
Against the odds, however, they achieved this with a fine counterattacking display capped by goals either side of half-time from Hakan Sükür. The Galatasaray striker, like many of his team-mates, was on the verge of a big-money move (in his case, to Internazionale FC) - yet they were unable to offer proof of their rising stock in the quarter-final with Portugal. Stymied by the 29th-minute dismissal of centre-back Alpay Özalan, Turkey were on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline in Amsterdam.
Soon after, Denizli stepped down to take charge of Fenerbahçe SK, though not before praising his team: "Making it to the quarter-finals makes this a good event for us - we will have gained a lot from being here." Certainly, the experience stood Turkey in good stead as they embarked on their campaign for Korea/Japan under new coach Günes. With a strong spine in Fenerbahçe goalkeeper Rüstu Reçber, Aston Villa FC defender Alpay and the totemic Hakan, they were especially strong away from home. Four of six victories were achieved on their travels.
But this pattern worked against them in the penultimate Group Four qualifier, when two late strikes from Henrik Larsson gave Sweden a 2-1 triumph in the Turkish capital - and first place in the section. As in the EURO 2000™ qualifying tournament Turkey had to be content with the runners-up spot. No matter, as Otto Baric, coach of play-off opponents Austria, put it: "The Turks are a bit stronger than us, they have made enormous progress in the last 10 years." Any doubts about the validity of those words were dispelled as Turkey won 1-0 in Vienna, then 5-0 in Istanbul.
'Building a revolution'
The sky - or at least another last-eight finish in the Far East - is now the limit according to Günes. "The priority is to qualify from the group and reach the quarter-finals," he said. "After that we'll see. We are building a revolution." On the evidence of the last ten years, who is to argue?
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