Euro 2008's most unlikely bitter rivals

Martin Rogers

BASEL, Switzerland – Some time during the 15th century Nicholas of Flue, Switzerland's most popular saint, uttered the phrase that became the backbone of his country's international policy.

"Don't get involved in other people's affairs."

For centuries, Switzerland has clung to neutrality and isolationism, refusing to directly involve itself in conflict or rivalry on the international battleground. So if national identity is anything to go by, the Swiss would be the last participant in Euro 2008 expected to be embroiled in the fiercest football feud in the tournament. However, the co-hosts' mutual animosity with Turkey, its opponent Wednesday, is just that – full of deep-seeded loathing and bitterness.

It all stems from the infamous Battle of Istanbul on Nov. 16, 2005.

On that fateful night in the Turkish capital, Switzerland dramatically clinched a place in the 2006 World Cup, losing 4-2 but going through to the finals in Germany on away goals following a 2-0 victory at home four days earlier. The real story was not about events during the game, but those that unfolded after the final whistle.

Tempers had already been raised during the first leg, when Turkey coach Fatih Terim complained he had received an abusive gesture from opposing striker Alexander Frei. In the buildup to the Istanbul clash, the Swiss felt they had been unnecessarily delayed at customs upon arriving at the airport. So bad blood was quick to resurface once time was up.

Switzerland midfielder Benjamin Huggel lashed out with a kick to the back of the legs of Turkey assistant coach Mehmet Ozdelik, who, according to Swiss claims, had attempted to trip a Switzerland player as he ran from the field. Then fiery Turkish defender Alpay entered the fray and grappled with Huggel.

The melee continued down the tunnel, with Alpay kicking Stephane Grichting so hard that the Switzerland midfielder spent the night in a hopsital with a perforated urinary canal. Several players exchanged kicks and punches.

The repercussions were severe.

Turkey was forced to play its first three home Euro 2008 qualifying games behind closed doors, with no fans allowed into the stadium. Alpay was banned for six games, with his teammates Emre (four games) and Serkan Balci (two) also suspended. Odzelik was kicked out of football for a year, while Huggel also received a four-match ban.

UEFA considered drafting in even more security for Wednesday's game at St. Jakob Park stadium. Event organizers and head coaches Kobi Kuehn and Terim have tried to play down fears of further trouble in Basel, insisting this is just another game. However, it is folly to suggest there won't be an extra edge when the teams collide – especially with the loser almost certainly eliminated from the tournament.

"Of course we have not forgotten what happened," Switzerland's Tranquillo Barnetta said. "We can't change it, but it wasn't nice. But regardless of what has happened, it is a crunch game like the one in Istanbul. And we will prevail again."

The Turks came under criticism back home for their underwhelming display in a 2-0 loss to Portugal, and they are determined to bounce back. The Swiss need no extra incentive other than the support of their loyal fans. With co-hosts Austria considered unlikely to pose any threat, it may be left to Kuehn's team to maintain home involvement.

Turkish winger Ugur Boral says the pressure of playing at home may affect the Swiss in a negative way.

"There is a lot of pressure when you are in front of your own fans against a difficult opponent," Boral said. "I have never been afraid of any player. My mentality is that they should be afraid of me."

So, a nice quiet evening in Basel on Wednesday then?

Probably not.