Turkey, Vincenzo Montella, visceral passion and the positivity of pressure

There were still three and a half hours to go before kick-off, but the noise ricocheted off the genteel peach and cream facades of Leipzig’s townhouses.

It drew people out of the squares. Locals twitched at the curtains and looked outside. Down the Martin Luther ring road, around Leipzig’s cubic, porphyry-bricked church, Turks draped in flags processed towards the RB Arena. Not even the thudding whir of rotor blades from a helicopter overhead quietened them. The sirens from Polizei vans were a distant backing track as well.

Thousands of Turks were out in force. They followed an open-top bus, rented specially for the occasion. It was painted red and white. Megaphone wielding fans stalked the top deck. Flares fired and hissed, the red plumes of smoke causing some to pull their flags over the mouths while they sang: “Na-na na-na-na-na-naaaaaah… Ooooooooh Tur-ki-ye. Na-na na-na-na-na-naaaaah.”

Leipzig isn’t home to as many Turkish-Germans as Dortmund (23,000) and Hamburg (58,000) where the national team played its other games at Euro 2024. But Tuesday’s round of 16 tie against Austria, the first knock-out game for which Turkey had qualified in 16 years, still felt like a home fixture. There were crescent and star flags upon which other German cities had been printed. Members of the Turkish communities in Frankfurt and Wilhemsdorf were represented.

When the strings of Tarkan’s Bir Oloruz Yolunda sounded over the public address system, the crowd went wild.

Then, as the game kicked off, six drummers in the front row behind the goal tried to set the tempo of the game, their snares resting on a banner showing Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish republic, and a quote, from history, about going forward. Fifty seven seconds later Turkey scored the fastest goal in a European Championship knock-out game right in front of them and, as in 1529 and 1683, it felt like the Turks were, once again, at the gates of Vienna.

Merih Demiral’s opener detonated an explosion of euphoria.

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Demiral and his team-mates celebrate their early opener (Tullio Puglia – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Vincenzo Montella said afterwards his team were not out for revenge after a 6-1 defeat to Austria in March. But he wanted to set things right.

The Italian called that defeat “a horrible stain on my career”. He had faced calls to resign and spent the past fortnight in Germany defending his otherwise record-breaking record in charge. “When I took over there was fear we would not qualify for the Euros,” Montella reminded his critics. “Not only did we qualify with a game to spare, we qualified top of our group.”

The Austria defeat seemed to cancel out everything. “We won in Germany after 72 years. We’d never won away in Croatia. It’s been a year of firsts,” he protested.

In the heat of the moment, it all went out the window. Emotions got the better of the media, the fans. “Passion.” That was what winger Kerem Akturkoglu described as the key before Turkey’s second group stage game against Portugal. Not tactics. Double-edged “passion.” A red wave that lifts the team up. A red wave that brings it crashing down. The spray has left Montella looking exhilarated and drained.

Managing expectation has arguably been harder than any opponent he has faced. When Turkey lost 3-0 to Portgual, he was criticised for not playing a striker. It was considered negative. He was criticised for not starting golden boy Arda Guler and Kenan Yildiz. He was criticised for playing Altay Bayindir, the goalkeeper, who started in the famous win over Germany last winter.

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Montella has been left looking both exhilarated and drained (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

During the Czech Republic game in Hamburg, the dirtiest encounter in Euros history, the mood swings in the stands oscillated in the shape of the country’s crescent.

When the Czechs were reduced to 10 men early on, the Turks in the Volksparkstadion were elated. They were ecstatic, too, when captain Hakan Calhanoglu gave them the lead. But when the Czechs equalised, the supporters grew exasperated, sneakily sucking on their vapes as they slumped over the railings.

They cursed their team until Montella brought on Cenk Tosun, the striker he was accused of ignoring, only to go delirious when he scored his 94th minute winner. “When I say we need to manage our emotions, our emotions got the better of us,” Montella observed. “We wanted it too much. Then we were a little afraid to win.”

He came to his next press conference armed with a ream of statistics to show Turkey were as attacking as the fans willed them to be. He cited chances created (150), dribbles attempted (53), shots per game (17). “We’ve scored five goals with five different players without corners, without penalties, without free-kicks, without own goals.” On Tuesday they were without Calhanoglu, their skipper and one of the best dead-ball specialists in world football. Even more than usual, it looked as though they would be without control and without a set-piece threat.

But up stepped the upstart Guler.

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Guler whips up the crowd (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

He already pulled rank on Calhanoglu on corners in Hamburg. It seemed precocious of the 19-year-old, but Guler draws lines like the finest Ottoman architects.

He has an edge to him, too. Timid off the pitch, he’s daring on it. Against Austria he tried to score from the half-way line. He repeatedly told his team-mates where to be. He challenged them and complained when something wasn’t to his liking.

After curling in another corner for Demiral and Turkey’s second goal, he turned to the Austria fans who’d hurled plastic beer tankards down from the stands and cupped his ear, inviting a torrent of abuse and more plastic rain. It was an iconic moment and caused the Turks in the other end to go wild.

As much as his class, it is his character that stands out.

“Arda put in a superb performance tonight,” Montella said. “He even had to do something different. He ran more than I’ve ever seen him run in his career. We know he still needs to beef up a bit, but I’d like to congratulate him on the performance.”

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Guler turns to the Austria fans in the aftermath of his side’s second goal (Alex Pantling – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

At 2-0 up with half an hour to go, a place in the quarter-finals looked like plain-sailing for Turkey. But the currents of the Bosphorus are strong and unpredictable, and watching the players navigate safe passage has caused many a fan to become an emotional wreck.

Man-of-the-match Demiral put block after block in. He cramped up and needed to take on fluids behind the goal. His partner Abdulkerim Bardakci needed left-back Ferdy Kadioglu to become a physio and stretch out his thigh. When Austria pulled one back, their coach Ralf Rangnick was convinced that, if the game had gone to extra-time, his team would progress.

“Turkey were exhausted and we had a physical advantage,” he said.

But their goalkeeper Mert Gunok came to the rescue, scooping a Christoph Baumgartner head up and over the bar in stoppage time when the ball looked behind him.  It was one of the saves of the tournament and clinched a win few predicted.

Austria’s players collapsed to the ground in despair as the Turks gathered along the perimeter of the centre-circle and led the Turkish end in a raucous series of call and response chants.

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Turkey prevail (James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)

“Tonight went beyond tactics and game plans,” Montella said. “The team really had soul today. I saw Turkish heart. That’s what I love about this country. There’s passion. There’s love. It’s visceral. I’m happy to have handed our Turks here in Germany a bit of pride, Turks all over the world and Turks back home.”

Three and a half hours after full-time, horns were being honked in thoroughfares and town squares up and down Germany. The other home team had won.

(Top photo: Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

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