Turks, Czechs, history, stereotypes and moustaches

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NOW it’s a tournament.

The true measure of quality of these biennial gatherings lies not in the major games or high-profile clashes, but in the surprisingly good offerings on the undercard.

Presumably Turkey versus the Czech Republic wasn’t a source of bitter wrangling between the BBC and ITV when the terrestrial broadcasters divvied up the rights to the group stages, but it turned into one of those games with everything to offer.

For a start, there was the clash of cultures between the two sides. Turkey’s desire to ping the ball about is perhaps longstanding stylistic temperament, perhaps a by-product of their best striker Nihat standing about four foot two in his longest studs, but the water torture against the Swiss had been no place to play their favourite game and on this occasion they were determined to do so, even in the drizzle.

Meanwhile the Czechs, shorn of their inspirational linkman Tomas Rosicky (as perceptively pointed out on the telly a week ago by m’colleague Louis ‘Weird’ Massarella), resorted to pogging it long to the big guy up front.

Unless he goes back on his plan to retire, Jan Koller is now a former international, and for all his goals and hard work you can’t help but think his team will play better football without the overwhelmingly easy option of resorting to the primary-school punt.

Koller adopts disastrous new tactic

Then there was the chance of history being made right before yer very eyes. Excitingly, a draw could result in a group game decided by a penalty shoot-out, what with the teams being dead level on points, goal difference, goals scored, Nectar points and shoe size.

Furthermore, moustache fans in the audience could enjoy the presence of the tournament’s finest lipwarmer, worn by Czech captain Tomas Ujfalusi in the style of Jason Lee (the My Name Is Earl actor, not the Forest pineapple turned County stalwart).

Ujfalusi adopts interesting face-fuzz

Plus, as ever, there was chance to complain about the punditry foisted upon us, the intelligent general public. On this occasion, it was the nature of the Czechs’ second goal that led to ill-advised mouth-farting.

At the time of that strike, which seemed to have sealed Turkey’s fate, Fatih Terim wanted to replace the injured Emre Gungor, or was it Emre Asik with Emre Asik, or was it Emre Gungor. Whatever, temporarily down to 10 men, the overstretched Turks conceded another, leading to predictable chest-jabbing from their bench to the poor old fourth official.

A good commentator might have pointed out that not 30 seconds before the goal, Turkey had had a goal kick after old man Koller somewhat surprisingly outpaced the defence. That was their chance to spring a sub; no ref can halt proceedings just to let a change take place.

But although Jon Champion raised the latter point (“I don’t think there’d been a suitable stoppage”), he and his sidekick Jim Beglin decided it was time for a little light stereotyping of the Turks. Jon noted that they love their conspiracy theories, which might be true but is a bit rich coming from England, a sizeable proportion of whose inhabitants believe Princess Diana was killed by forces unknown.

Jim chimed in that they usually find someone to blame, as if after the last Euro finals English tabloids hadn’t published Urs Meier’s personal details, leading to such vindictive vitriol that Meier was placed under police protection and couldn’t see his kids for four days.

Terry impedes; Meier disallows; England explodes

Back to the match. I’ve nothing in particular against (or, for that matter, for) either Czechs or Turks, but that very impartiality can make for thrilling viewing. When we watch a side we love we spend much time hating, hoping and praying for the final whistle. When we watch two sides we don’t care about, we simply want entertainment; goals, cards, flare-ups, streakers, parachutists, the lot. And when it happens, we experience childlike delight.

So it was that, with the Czechs cruising to victory at 2-0, I found myself urging Turkey to make up the deficit, and soon Arda ‘Lilian’ Turan’s goal gave me and the Turks hope. Even Beglin, an analyst for whom every miss is an attacker’s error and every goal a defender’s disaster, stopped sounding quite so morose.

"He's given him FAR too much room there, Jon"

Given Beglin’s disappointed tut-tut of a worldview – which must come from playing in the last great Liverpool side, who could probably have coped with picking Jimmy Saville at left-back – it was a surprise to see him try to (ahem) defend Petr Cech for the 87th-minute equaliser.

Before the tournament, Cech was one of several goalkeepers to get his excuses in early by lambasting the new match-ball and predicting lots of goals from 30 yards – sorry, metres – out. Those strikes have been notable by their absence but Cech must now be haunted by his words, because whether it was ball deviation, slippery gloves, a poor decision to catch rather than punch or simple cack-handedness, the Czechs’ other big fella simply got it wrong.

He may in a certain light look like Patrick Marber but even the Closer playwright couldn’t have scripted a more miserable event. Profiting from misery as efficiently and professionally as a funeral director, Nihat’s face was a picture of delight. So was mine. Penalties were now very much on the agenda, Brian.

Well, they were for about two minutes. If Nihat’s equaliser was ludicrous, his winner was sublime. Cech is 6ft 6in but he’d have to be twice that to have stood a chance of stopping the striker’s beautiful curving dip of a decider. Two down, three up. You had to admire Turkey’s pluck. All they had to do was keep their heads.

Which made it all the more interesting a minute later when their youngish goalkeeper, who revels in the name of Volkan Demirel, got a bit too upset at Koller’s desperate lunge. Barging the striker to the ground – no easy feat, although made easier by the old campaigner’s suddenly buckling knees – Demirel sound found himself seeing red as Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt, who clearly wasn’t enjoying this game as much as most observers, punished him rather too harshly. I thought you had to raise your hands above the neckline to get sent off, but then I’m not a referee.

Better yet, Turkey had already made their allotted three substitutions, so they had to chuck an outfielder between the posts. Tuncay was the man allotted to don a comically oversized top, and fearful Turks can’t have been soothed to see him pray so violently that his gloves nearly flew into the night air.

"Hmmm, not sure black's my colour"

All the Czechs needed to do now was bombard the goal, an injury-time equaliser surely meaning a penalty shootout featuring one of the world’s most highly-regarded goalkeepers and a bloke who’s been sort of alright up front for Middlesbrough.

Fancying the odds, Ujfalusi rattled into a tackle so hard that his own moustache nearly fell off. At least one viewer was relieved to see him emerge from the tangled wreckage with his handlebars still in place.

But it was all for nought, as the 97th minute brought a rather overly dramatic arms-raised final pheep from Mr Frojdfeldt, probably already plotting his own route back home. Also heading for the departure lounge are Koller, his manager Karel Bruckner and perhaps Ujfalusi, who’s the wrong side of 30 and may by the next Euros have grown a moustache so luxuriant that he won’t be able to get out of his front door.

Turkey were understandably delighted, having staged a comeback much less likely than the one which overturned their deficit against co-hosts Switzerland last time out. They go forward to a potentially excellent quarter-final against Croatia, another side who believe the ball is a friend to be caressed and cajoled rather than pummelled and punished.

Again, Turkey vs Croatia may not sound like front-page fodder, but it’s a foolish parochial clod who thinks such games can’t enlighten, educate and entertain – and on occasions like tonight, all three.