A whole new bull game

David O'Byrne saw the Turkey outdo all World Cup expectations despite Hakan Sukur's baleful influence

Before the start of the World Cup, few Turks had ex­pec­ted their team to last as far as the semi-finals. After the first two group matches, that number had shrunk con­siderably. As a scenario of failure, relinquishing a one-goal lead not once but twice had a distinctly familiar ring. A decade of senselessly chucking away pro­m­ising positions was capped last November when Turkey gifted Sweden two goals in the last three min­utes of the final qualifying match, leaving them to face a play-off against Austria.

The Turkish press reacted predictably after the last-minute defeat to Brazil, rounding on South Korean ref­eree Kim Young-joo for the penalty decision and failing to spot Rivaldo’s play-acting. But there was criticism of the Turkish side too. The biggest selling foot­ball daily, Fan­atik, dubbed the game The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, doling out disapproval in equal measure to the ref and the red card re­cipients, Alpay Ozalan and Hakan Unsal. However, most criticism during the entire campaign was res­er­ved for the coach Senol Gunes, who was still being ac­cused of profiting with a team largely built by his predecessor but one, Fatih Terim, lately of Mil­an. As recently as March, the Turk­ish media was calling for Terim to be brought back.

Gunes saw his position compromised further by Hak­an Sukur’s complaints to the popular rightwing daily Hurriyet that his complete anonymity in both games was due to the midfield which was “only thinking of personal glory” and wouldn’t pass the ball to him. Which was hardly a useful comment, given that the midfield – notably Hasan Sas, Yildiray Basturk, Emre Belozoglu and Umit Davala – had been outstanding. Sukur later claimed his remarks had been made off the rec­ord, a claim that stretches credulity. Having been a star for the past 13 years, Sukur more than any­one knows how the Turkish media works and has been hap­py to use it to his advantage.

Unfortunately for him his moaning, rather than bringing criticism on his team-mates, simply drew further attention to the fact that the man once dubbed “The Bull of the Bosphorus” had been universally rated the worst player on the pitch against Costa Rica, and was now bleating like a distressed lamb.

Some sections of the media called for “Big Hakan” to be dropped, comparing him unfavourably with the much faster Ilhan Mansiz, the Turkish league’s top scorer last season, who had been restricted to late ap­pearances as a substitute in the group games. To the outsider, the case seemed pretty simple. But Ilhan’s background continues to be seen as a problem. Born and brought up in Germany, he found it impossible to adapt to Tur­key when first arriving as a player aged 19, and by his own admission he still doesn’t feel at home there. Such hon­esty has done little to endear him to Turkey’s conservative and often xenophobic football media which, al­ong with much of “middle Turkey”, has long found com­mon cause with Sukur’s openly voiced conservative values. (Sukur has declared his intention of making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and host­ed several controver­sial rightwing politicians at his wedding a few years back.)

With no injury or suspension worries, the semi-fi­nal clash left Gunes with one simple decision to make. Chants of “Il-han Man-Siz, Ha- kan Fikir-siz (clueless)” in Istanbul bars following Ilhan’s golden goal victory over Senegal, punctuated what was without doubt the biggest and wildest party the city has seen and in­dicated the strength of popular feeling on the subject.

But Sukur’s appearance in the starting line-up for the semi-final surprised no one, and for a while looked likely to pay off as he played well beyond his recent form, with Ilhan only coming on for the final 30 minutes. While the commentators on na­tional TRT television, which had broadcast all the matches, laid into Gunes for not starting with Ilhan, the rest of the media was far kinder.

Are We Crying? NEVER! scream­ed the front page of Fanatik, a sentiment echoed by the left­wing Radikal, whose headline read We Wouldn’t Change a Thing. Gunes has apparently achieved the im­possible: the media fin­ally loves him. No one had thought him cap­able of taking Turkey so far and no one was going to hold it ag­ainst him that Bra­zil had denied them in the semis.

Who will be leading the line when Turkey come to England for the Euro 2004 qualifier in October remains to be seen, but one corporate sponsor has al­ready made its choice. Ilhan features in a new series of Pep­si commercials which play on his sur­name and the word am­ansiz (mer­ciless). Dropped by Pepsi in fav­our of Ilhan, Hakan Sukur now appears only in a rather feeble promotion for Cipsi, a local brand of potato crisps. Trivial maybe, but it feels like a watershed for Turkish football.

From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month