Turkey gains Euro acceptance on the pitch

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Back in 1987, Turkey's politicians were laying the foundations for acceptance into the European Union while the national football team was busy stinking its way through a miserable European Championships qualifying campaign.

Twenty-one years later, while the soccer side has reversed its fortunes to such an extent that it sits just two games away from being crowned kings of the continent, the men in suits are still waiting for the final thumbs up from the EU decision makers.

Turkey's daredevil run to reach the semifinals of Euro 2008 has captured its nation's imagination even more so than when the team reached the same stage of the World Cup in 2002. Not just because of the spectacular nature of the Turks' exhilarating victories over the Czech Republic and Croatia, but because this is a country that, despite being geographically split between Europe and Asia, has turned its gaze firmly towards the west.

If head coach Fatih Terim's players can complete their miraculous run by beating Germany on Wednesday and Spain or Russia in the Austrian capital of Vienna four days later, the Turkish people will celebrate with a party for the ages.

And amid the joyous scenes there would be many who take extra enjoyment from the scene of the triumph. In recent surveys on whether Turkey would be a welcome member of the EU, Austrians shouted "no" the loudest, with 81 percent saying they would be against its inclusion.

Turkey's ongoing dispute with Greece over ownership of Cyprus is at the core of the delay in EU acceptance, but many Turks are frustrated and believe their nation's location – bordering Iran and Iraq – and the fact it is 99 percent Muslim have more to do with it.

Either way, on the soccer field, Turkey has forced itself into Europe's top table and is in no mood to give up its seat.

"Turkey is a football nation in every way," Terim said. "The approach and love for the sport are empowered by the young people of our country. Football goes beyond entertainment and has become a passion."

Terim's team was just minutes away from elimination when it went 2-0 down to the Czech Republic in the clash to decide second place in Group A. But the Turks kept plowing on, caught a break when Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech made an uncharacteristic fumble and fired in three goals in a remarkable 15 minutes.

"Our great strength is that we always believe that we can win and nothing changes that," striker Nihat Kahveci said. "That is why we always keep going, but the way we have come back in this tournament is like a dream."

That dream was about to be snuffed out once more in the quarterfinals when Croatia's Ivan Klasnic scored what looked to be the winning goal with a minute left in extra time. However, Semih Senturk scored one of the most memorable goals in European Championships history with only seconds remaining to make Turkey's latest great escape possible in a dramatic penalty shootout.

Turkey is a good international team with some solid players and a sprinkling of star power in Villarreal's Nihat. But the progress of this side owes so much more to passion, spirit and an absolute refusal to accept it is beaten.

Who knows whether that will be enough against Germany. The odds are stacked against the Turks like never before, with injury and suspension meaning there may be as few as 13 fit and eligible players to call upon.

Against a German team coming into form and fully stocked, it looks like an impossible task. The bookies think so. The experts do, too.

"Of course, we have been written off," midfielder Kazim Kazim said. "We wouldn't have it any other way."