Germany advanced to Sunday's final in Vienna while Turkey flew home to Istanbul on Thursday with full of pride, sweet memories and self-confidence. Only the trophy was missing in its luggage. Turkey impressed many with the fighting spirit, technical skills and strength in adversity that carried the team to the European Championship semifinals, until the team learned that not all fairy tales have happy endings. A run of late goals that stunned opponents continued into a scarcely believable fourth match Wednesday in Basel, Switzerland, but unluckily for the Turks, Germany seemingly learned to work from a similar script. The three-time European champions struck even later for a 90th-minute winner in a 3-2 victory. "Champions of hearts," ran the headlines in Turkish newspapers Sabah and Vatan on Thursday. You don't get a trophy for that, but hundreds of fans clutching Turkish flags and banners of support were waiting at the Istanbul Airport for the team to arrive.
Despite having four players suspended and at least as many injured going into the semifinal, Turkey had reached the last four after leading its matches for a total of just nine minutes - all but one minute in extra or injury time. No wonder many players and fans thought fate was on their team's side. "Don't be sad. We won," Turkey's mainstream Hurriyet newspaper wrote. "We departed the European Championship after leaving our mark." Turkey made a name for itself as the team that never gave up, compiling an unprecedented string of comebacks to see off opponents that thought they'd won.
But first, Turkey lost its disappointing Group A opener 2-0 against Portugal, one of the tournament favourites and a quick journey back to Istanbul looked inevitable when Turkey trailed co-host Switzerland 1-0 in its next match. But a second-half equalizer by Semih Senturk was followed by Arda Turan's goal after more than two minutes into injury time for an unlikely 2-1 win. In the final group match, Turkey looked down and out again when the Czech Republic led 2-0, but Turan scored in the 75th and Nihat Kahveci in the 87th and 89th to once more turn the tables.
Coach Fatih Terim had seemingly modeled the team on the Galatasaray side he guided to the 2000 UEFA Cup title, putting opponents under pressure all over the field, harrying more illustrious players into mistakes and attacking at speed. Turkey's spontaneity made it arguably the hardest team to adapt to as opponents just did not know what to expect and let Terim rebuff pre-tournament criticism for dropping stars Yildiray Basturk, Halil Altintop and all-time leading scorer Hakan Sukur from his final Euro 2008 squad.
Afterward, Terim - who hinted at quitting his job after Wednesday's match - deserved all the credits for guiding the team to a huge success that only few had expected. The 3-2 win over the Czechs took Turkey past the group stage but a lengthening list of injuries and suspensions meant it was still considered a 25-1 outsider for the title by bookmaker William Hill.
Quarter-final opponent Croatia looked assured of its semifinal berth when it took the lead in the penultimate minute of extra time - only to forget that the Turks were specialized in late goals. Senturk scored after almost two minutes in injury time to earn Turkey a penalty shootout, which the team won after veteran goalkeeper Rustu Recber stopped a third Croatian penalty.
Turkey then took the lead against Germany in the 22nd through Ugur Boral but surrendered it just four minutes later. It fell behind in the 79th but staged another comeback when Senturk equalized in the 83rd. That was to be the last recovery it could muster as Germany's Philipp Lahm finally landed a knockout blow in the closing seconds.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who watched the semifinal alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was proud of the team's performance during the tournament. "This is how the game ended but we played really well. We are coming back (home) proud. No need to be upset, we are coming back our heads high up," he was quoted as saying by Turkey's state-run media.
For Turkey, dealing with its complicated ties to Europe, the meaning of its Euro 2008 success in the past 2 1/2 weeks went beyond the sporting level. Hikmet Kayahan, who heads the European anti-racism network Enara, said Turkey's strong showing in the tournament gave young Turks a badly needed morale boost.
"Now the young people can say, 'Hey, I come from Turkey - and that's cool,"' Kayahan said. Turkey had every reason to keep its head up high. Reaching the semifinal was its best ever result at the competition, matching its achievement at the 2002 World Cup. Turkey won respect, if not the trophy.
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