Turks add to Euros' magical moments
GENEVA, Switzerland – After a spectacular week which produced some sensational football, outstanding individual and team performances, upsets and late winners, all that was missing from Euro 2008 was a dramatic and thrilling comeback.
Thanks to a combination of error, farce and brilliance, Turkey's incredible revival in Sunday's 3-2 win over the Czech Republic was the latest memorable moment at a tournament that burst into life with Holland's superb display against Italy on Day 3 and has not stopped dishing out entertainment ever since.
UEFA's rules set up the tantalizing possibility of a dramatic end to Sunday's Group A qualification decider, with the Turks and the Czechs due to have squared off in a penalty shootout for a spot in the quarterfinals if they had battled to a draw after 90 minutes.
Yet reality was even more remarkable than the hypothetical, as the Czechs, all set for a last eight clash with Croatia while holding a 2-0 lead after 75 minutes, fell apart to lose in the most heartbreaking fashion.
The images at the final whistle were unforgettable. To a man, the devastated Czechs slumped to the sodden turf, scarcely able to comprehend the cruel hand fate had dealt them.
Around them, the Turks were similarly disbelieving.
"I was expecting someone to wake me up and say it had been a dream," midfielder Mehmet Aurelio said. "We never gave up hope, but we were running out of time. Suddenly in the space of a few minutes it all changed."
Petr Cech's nightmarish fumble to allow Nihat Kahveci to score with four minutes left made a shootout likely. Turkey's miracle was completed by Nihat two minutes later to leave Cech and his colleagues stunned.
"To lose such a game is incredible," Czech coach Karel Brueckner said. "Even with four minutes to go we were winning 2-1. To concede two goals in the last three minutes is unbelievable."
It seems a lifetime ago when talk in the cafes and bars of Austria and Switzerland was about how fans were concerned it would become a boring tournament. The opening five matches were relatively uninspiring, producing only six goals and some tense and cagey play.
Yet ever since the Dutch blew Italy away 3-0 in Bern last Monday, each day has offered up a fresh batch of thrills to give us one of the most entertaining tournaments in recent memory.
"We are privileged to be experiencing a tournament of exceptional quality combined with an extraordinary atmosphere," UEFA president Michel Platini said.
"The quality of play is extolled by everyone, defensive tactics are nowhere to be seen, team play is not stifling the talent of individuals, who are frequently giving some particularly dazzling performances."
It is no surprise that Platini would extol the virtues of his organization's biggest event – but he is right.
Some like to suggest the European Championships is in some ways better than the World Cup, and tougher to win, because of the absence of weaker teams from lower-standard confederations.
That is not the case, the small matter of Brazil's and Argentina's involvement making the World Cup the ultimate test. But Euro 2008 has still produced an exceptional standard.
Crucially, the smaller field does mean that the sides are better matched. You won't find any 8-0 drubbings here (see 2002 World Cup, Germany vs. Saudi Arabia).
Even the lowest-rated team in the tournament, co-host Austria, was far from being disgraced in its opening two matches and retained the chance of a shock quarterfinal place going into its last group game.
Maybe things will quiet down in the quarterfinals as the possibility of a championship triumph looms closer into view and injects some nervous tension into the veins of the combatants.
Or maybe the extra pressure will produce even greater feats of skill and composure from this continent's finest. Imagine that.