By Jay Mwamba
It wasn’t long ago when Turkey were counted among the Cinderella teams of European soccer. In the latter part of the ’90s, however, the Turkish game picked up considerably, elevating the Balkan nation to the ranks of contenders at both club and national team level.
Ireland, defeated on the away-goals rule in a violent Euro 2000 playoff three years ago, are one of the more notable victims Turkey have claimed en route to establishing a reputation as a new force with often overzealous fans. It’s no surprise then that the Turks are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1954. Quarterfinalists in Euro 2000 after seeing off the Republic, fate seems to have dealt them a favorable hand in Group C, where the out of sorts Brazilians, China and Costa Rica make up the field.
Coached by Senol Gunes and inspired by Hakan Sukur, a forward with predatory instincts whose popularity back home approaches cult proportions, Turkey open against Brazil on June 3. After posting several upsets in recent years, including wins over Belgium and Germany, chances are that Turkish confidence won’t be found wanting against the South Americans, particularly with the knowledge that a draw could put them on track to the second round. That would leave them needing perhaps another draw and a win in their games against Costa Rica and Bora Milutinovic’s China to advance.
Turkish passion and technique — the latter gleaned mostly from Germany — aside, a lot of their hopes will be riding on the finishing of Sukur, who has averaged a goal every other game in close to 60 internationals.
The 30-year-old striker, nicknamed the “Bull of the Bosphorus,” was on the Galatasaray side that beat Arsenal 4-1 on penalties to win the UEFA Cup in May 2000.
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Sukur was Turkey’s leading scorer in the World Cup qualifiers, poaching four goals. He came up big again in the playoff for Japan/Korea, netting a marvelous goal against Austria and setting up two others in the Turks’ 5-0 triumph.
The rest of Gunes’s squad comprises an experienced mix of home-based stars — most of them from Istanbul’s big three, Galatasaray, Fenerbahte, and Besiktas — and a corps of foreign legionnaires. Among the latter are the rock-solid Aston Villa defender Alpay Ozalan, the unlikely hero in a qualifier against Macedonia when he bagged a hat trick; winger Kerimoglu Tugay, also of Villa, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Yildiray Basturk. For the finals, Gunes may also have the services of Leicester’s transfer-listed winger Muzzy Izzet.
Of the local standouts, Fenerbahce goalie Rustu Recber conceded a mere eight goals in the 10 qualifiers played, underscoring both his competence and the Turks’ defensive attributes.
Galatasaray attacking midfielder Arif Erdem, his clubmates Hasan Sas and Emre Belozoglu; Tayfur Havutcu of Besiktas, and Trabzonspor’s Oktay Derelioglu are the other domestic notables that qualified Turkey for the finals.
Since making their European Championship debut in England in 1996, Turkish soccer has been on an upward trajectory. The national side reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2000 and Galatasaray lifted the UEFA Cup. A second-round berth in Korea, in their second trip to the finals, could be within their grasp.
on the rise
Back in 1990, Costa Rica emerged from the depths of Central America to make a stunning debut in the World Cup finals, reaching the last 16 in Italy after finishing second in a group comprising Brazil, Sweden and Scotland.
The “Ticos” slid back into anonymity after that, only to emerge 12 years later as the top qualifiers from FIFA’s North and Central American region (CONCACAF).
For veteran winger Hernan Medford, the hero of the Italia ’90 squad, Costa Rica’s group this time around will have a familiar look about it. The ever-present Brazilians are there again, as is the Ticos’ old coach, Bora Milutinovic, albeit on the Chinese bench.
In fact, Milutinovic could be a factor in how far the Central Americans go in the finals. Costa Rica tackle the Chinese — Group C’s weakest team, on paper — in their first match in Gwangju, South Korea, on June 4, needing a positive result ahead of their tougher encounters against Turkey and Brazil.
But how much the tactically savvy Bora remembers of Costa Rican football and, more important, what he can do to neutralize the game plan of his Brazilian-born linear successor, Alexander Guimares, might determine the outcome.
Still, trying to stop his old charges, whose frontline comes close to matching Brazil’s without Ronaldo in terms of talent, could be an intriguing challenging for Bora.
In the Paulo Wanchope, the towering Manchester City forward with sublime skills who lit up the 2001 Copa America, Costa Rica have one of the potential stars of Japan/Korea ’02. Standing 6-foot-3 and as graceful as a gazelle, the long-striding “Choppy,” as his former fans at West Ham affectionately called him, has the touch and finesse of a ballerina but finishes like the most ruthless of strikers.
In a dry run of sorts for Japan/Korea ’02, Wanchope put on a show in the Copa America in Colombia last year, reeling in five goals in Costa Rica’s surge to the quarterfinals, where they succumbed to Uruguay.
In dribbling ace Rolando Fonseca, the midfielder who tormented the United States in the qualifiers, the Ticos have a throwback to the old Brazilian ball jugglers who mesmerized fans in World Cup tournaments of years past. Fonseca is the anchorman in what is usually a five-man midfield formation favored by coach Guimares. He’s adept at taking on and beating players, has an explosive shot, and with 34 goals in nearly 70 matches, is his country’s all-time leading scorer.
Then there’s the influential Medford, whose goals against Scotland (1-0) and Sweden (2-1) eventually took Costa Rica to the second round at Italia ’90. He remains a still useful winger at age 33 with his turn of speed and pinpoint crossing ability.
The vastly experienced Medford, who has scored 17 goals in more than 80 international appearances, also doubles as the team leader, imparting knowledge to the younger players in Guimares’s squad.
Costa Rica’s other notable players are goalie Erick Lonnis, skipper Reynaldo Parks, a calm and steadying influence in defense with his timely tackles and good read of the game, and center-half Jervis Drummond, who, along with Parks, is one of the team’s most capped defenders.
Given the balance in Group C, where only Brazil stand head and shoulders above the field, Costa Rica have has good a chance as the other two group members of progressing to the Round of 16.
(Each week Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist or finalists. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and China.)