Another day, another team who think disorganisation and panic are vital ingredients in defending a lead. Not that I’m complaining, as the culprits in question this time contributed to one the most astonishing games seen at this or any other championship.
More viewers will inevitably tune in to the final, or semi-finals, but what they don’t understand is that it is the final round of group matches which provide the truly unmissable fayre at a tournament. Mind you, this group had the potential to peter out timidly; one game was a dead rubber with Portugal already through and the Swiss already out, which meant it was left to Czech Republic and Turkey as the only ones in a position to provide drama. They didn’t disappoint.
With Euro 2008 already being touted as one of the greatest football tournaments ever, two more unfashionable sides raised the bar by several more notches. UEFA had already offered the match the possibility of breaking new ground, by declaring that a penalty-shoot out would settle a draw at ninety minutes, with the two sides having identical records after the first two games. In the end it wasn’t necessary, and the tension created in the final 15 minutes surpassed anything that the penalties could have thrown up.
The Czechs dominated the first half to such an extent that it must have been worrying to end it only one goal up. They got their direct game based around the giant Jan Koller working to far greater effect than they had against the Swiss in their opening match, and Turkey couldn’t cope. A traditional British style of play was employed (is it always us who must learn from the Europeans?), and was thoroughly enjoyable to watch, with the ball being played forwards with urgency to two wingers attacking at pace, who regularly got behind the full-backs before delivering crosses for a big target. And those crosses, they kept coming in, causing difficulty almost every time, and Koller inevitably got his head to one to register his 55th international goal.
Turkey, who had virtually surrendered all possession in the first period, had to make a change and they did. Tuncay was moved in from the wing to play in the centre of midfield and ran himself into the ground in order to get the Turks back into the game. It initially worked, as Turkey began to apply pressure, but then they were caught by a Czech break which resulted in a second for Jaroslav Plasil. The Turks on the touchline raged that they had not been allowed to make a substitution with one of their defenders clearly injured, but the ball hadn’t gone out of play in order to allow this to take place.
ITV’s Jon Champion, like the rest of us, thought that this would be the signal for Turkish meltdown. On previous evidence it’s difficult to argue that this did seem the most likely outcome, especially with the disappointment at going two down exacerbated by the injustice they felt about the second Czech goal. The final half an hour might easily have seen Turkey end the game without their full compliment. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, but by the time it did Champion, and all of us, owed the Turks an apology.
The Czechs came within inches of burying the match when Jan Polak smacked one against the post, but Turkey survived that, then launched a quite staggering comeback. The inspiration for this was the much-maligned (especially by me) Tuncay, who ran and ran and ran some more, and set a magnificent example to any fragile temperaments there may have been amongst his colleagues. His endeavour embodied a never-say-die attitude that began to rub off amongst his team mates, and was encapsulated when he ran twice across the pitch to receive a replacement linesman’s flag, and deliver it to the official who had managed to break the original.
Still two down with a quarter of an hour left, the Turks were piling everyone forward. It was by this time that the Czechs had made the fatal error of retreating to the edge of their own box, guaranteeing that they would only the final period one way – under intense pressure. Turkey finally broke through thanks to a smart finish by Turan, and the Czechs knew they were hanging on for dear life. They made it to within three minutes of the ninety ending before Petr Cech made surely the biggest howler of his career, though by no means his first of the season, and handed an equaliser to Turkish captain Nihat on a big shiny solid silver plate. Bedlam ensued at the Turkish end of the ground, and on the bench, as they celebrated a well earned shot at a place in the quarters via a penalty shoot-out.
The drama, however, had barely started. The predicted Turkish indiscipline had not materialised, but there was now plenty of it from the Czechs, who lost their way completely. The next Turkish attack resulted in a shambolic Czech defensive line being comfortably breached by that man Nihat, who stunned everyone with a majestic curling finish off the underside of the bar. The bewildered Czechs, who had taken off their wingers and now had no attacking shape whatsoever, attempted to launch a response, and Milan Baros inevitably began to strip off but amongst the mayhem never actually made it onto the pitch.
Four minutes of injury time were signalled almost immediately after the third Turkish goal, but these were barely underway when suddenly curtailed by yet more craziness. A disbelieving crowd saw Turk goalkeeper Volkan Demirel make a valiant attempt to secure himself a chance of saving some penalties after all, by first flying out of his goal to flap at a ball, leaving an empty net which the Czechs failed to find, then following it up by shoving Koller to the ground in full view of the referee who dismissed him immediately. What Demirel had almost certainly forgotten was that the Turks had used all their subs. So, the question was, who would go in goal for the remaining time? There was only one answer of course, the heroic, if completely insane, Tuncay pulled on the gloves, and safely kept a three minute clean sheet.
The broken Czechs slumped, and amid the chaos there was no real chance for them to bid goodbye properly to two heroes, manager Karel Bruckner, and the magnificent Koller, both of whose careers came to an end with the final whistle. They should have had more to show for a fantastic Czech dynasty, and they will always look back knowing that Euro 2004 should have been their moment.
What this incredible match offered was yet another example, and once again I beg TV executives to take note, of what makes football the phenomenon it is. In fact if all games were like this there would surely be no non-believers left. At face value, this match was as far from being box-office as it gets, and therein lies the problem. Czech Republic v Turkey, ask our TV friends? Who’s interested in that? Where are the superstars? I can’t see anyone from a cola commercial on this pitch, which one out there earns 80 grand-a-week and dates a model? How the hell do we sell this? Surely the people would rather watch Portugal?
The truth is you don’t need any of the above. When left alone, football looks after itself. Without any help at all this match descended into glorious anarchy. Don’t these people realise the lifeblood of football is it’s unpredictability, and that’s the very thing being eroded by the Premier League and Champions league as every season goes by. Perfection isn’t exciting, we want disorder, pandemonium and instability. This match had them all in spades, which is why it will live long in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have seen it.
The Swiss bowed out of their home tournament against Portugal reserves, and happily went out with a victory for their departing coach Kobi Kuhn. He will surely look back on Hakan Yakin’s scoring record of 3 in 2, and wonder why on earth the last part of that stat is only 2. The man who provided the Swiss’ only threat of the tournament was not given the opportunity to do so in the opening game, and they’ll always wonder if it could have been different. Only saw highlights of this one thanks to the simultaneous kick-offs, but from what I could tell Portugal appeared to be offended that they’d actually been asked to play the match.
Their early demise was a great shame for the home fans, who are a massive part of any tournament. For national bonkersness we must now look to Austria, and if they beat the Germans believe me, it will be on a grand scale. If it comes about in as dramatic a fashion as last night’s game, I think I shall need a lie down. As this incredible tournament has gone on, each match has had more and more to live up to, but has somehow risen to the challenge. We just have to hope now that Czech Republic v Turkey doesn’t end up as the match of the tournament.