In 2000, Galatasaray became the first Turkish team to win a European competition when they beat Arsenal in the UEFA Cup final. It was the herald of a golden generation. That summer, a Turkey squad that contained nine Galatasaray players reached the quarter finals of Euro 2000. It was just the start of a remarkable story.
A 6-0 aggregate win over Austria in November 2001 ensured that Turkey would return to the World Cup for the first time since 1954. Drawn into a group with debutants Costa Rica and China, they fancied their chances of progressing to the last 16. But their campaign would commence in Ulsan against an altogether more difficult opponent: four-time winners Brazil.
Hasan Şaş’ half volley stunned the Seleção and despite Ronaldo’s equaliser, the underdogs seemed destined for a point until Alpay Özalan hauled down Luizão. The offence actually took place outside the box, but a penalty was awarded and Özalan was dismissed. Rivaldo converted from the spot, and worse was to follow.
As Brazil won a corner deep in injury time, Hakan Ünsal kicked the ball to Rivaldo to hurry him up. The ball gently bounced off Rivaldo’s thigh and he went down holding his face. The linesman was stood mere feet away but after a consultation with the referee, Ünsal was given his marching orders. The dark side of Brazilian football had been exposed.
“We took control of the game but we could not control the referee,” said Turkey manager Şenol Güneş. Kim Young-Joo would never officiate a World Cup game again, but Rivaldo was only fined £5,000. There was no time to see the about injustice though. Turkey had to avoid defeat against Costa Rica to stay alive, and they would have to do it without two key defenders.
Emre Belözoğlu opened the scoring in Incheon but Winston Parks’ late equaliser left Turkey on the brink of elimination. Güneş’ team now needed to beat China and hope that Costa Rica lost to Brazil with a four-goal swing across the two games. Turkey’s last World Cup win had come against Asian opposition 48 years before, and China were to bear the brunt of the Turks’ frustrations.
Within just 13 minutes, Turkey’s job was done. Şaş and Bülent Korkmaz scored in Seoul and two quick goals for Ronaldo in Suwon completed the goal difference swing. Costa Rica reduced the deficit to 3-2 early in the second half to briefly climb above Turkey, but two more Brazil goals soon put paid to that.
Shao Jiayi’s red card killed off any chance of a China comeback and Ümit Davala scored to put the gloss on Turkey’s win and send them through. After the Rivaldo farce, most of the world was pleased to see Turkey advance, but that goodwill would not last long. Co-hosts Japan lay in wait on the other side of the Korean Strait, and it was time for the underdogs to become the heartbreakers.
It was Davala, picking up where he’d left off against China, who powered a header into the net after 12 minutes. Alex’s free kick rattled the woodwork for Japan, but the Blue Samurai were held at arm’s length by a stout defensive display. As Japanese tears mixed with the rain in Rifu, Turkey celebrated a place in the quarter finals.
Another winnable game now presented itself. Senegal had shocked France in the opening match of the tournament but hadn’t won in normal time since, drawing against Denmark and Uruguay before beating Sweden with a golden goal. Like Japan, they would have the majority of neutrals behind them. But it hadn’t done Japan much good.
With both teams feeling the eyes of history upon them, chances were few and far between. As the game went to sudden death, Senegal were in familiar territory, but it was Turkey who got the winner as Davala’s cross was swept in by İlhan Mansiz for a 94th minute golden goal. The wait for an African semi finalist went on, but so did Turkey’s amazing journey.
A familiar foe awaited in Saitama. While Turkey’s presence in the semi finals was a miracle, Brazil’s was routine. Hakan Ünsal was absent from the Turkey lineup so there would be no handshake between him and Rivaldo. Özalan, the other man sent off in the previous encounter, tested Marcos with an early header.
Apart from that it was one-way traffic. Rüştü Reçber denied Cafu, Rivaldo and Ronaldo as Brazil lay siege to the Turks’ goal. This was the game that made the Turkish goalkeeper a cult hero, earned his place in FIFA’s team of the tournament, and made his distinctive ‘war paint’ look briefly fashionable among Sunday league copycats.
Reçber got a hand to Ronaldo’s toe poked shot early in the second half but couldn’t keep it out. Brazil’s dominance continued unabated but Turkey always had a chance. İlhan’s cross deceived Marcos and nearly crept in, before a brilliant hooked volley from Hakan Şükür forced a sharp save from the Brazilian keeper.
As İlhan’s header flew harmlessly over in injury time, the dream was over. With Germany beating South Korea in Seoul the previous day, the underdog’s day was done. But there was still time for both teams to get the send off they deserved in the third place play off.
The only thing missing from Turkey’s incredible run was a goal for their talisman, but Hakan Şükür didn’t take long to put that right. Within 11 seconds he had seized on a mistake to score the fastest ever World Cup goal. İlhan scored twice as Turkey won 3-2 to cap their amazing tournament with the bronze medal.
In 2002, Şükür and his teammates returned to Turkey as heroes. In 2018, Şükür cannot return to Turkey for fear of being branded an enemy of the state. Ay-Yildizlilar’s all-time top scorer runs a bakery in California now, but soccer-mad patrons still recognise him and treat him as a hero.
A famous saying would have it that nobody remembers second place. But clearly, everyone remembers who finished third in 2002.