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When Turkey shocked Spain to reach first World Cup

  • Turkey first qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ in strange circumstances
  • The crucial play-off ended in a draw
  • A 14-year-old tipped the scales in Turkey’s favour

Turkey caused a major sensation at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, advancing all the way to the semi-finals before being narrowly defeated by eventual world champions Brazil and ultimately securing a remarkable third-place finish.

The first and previously only time the Turks qualified for the World Cup, almost 50 years before, was similarly spectacular.

Qualification for the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™ was not as extensive as it is today. For example, although there were ten qualifying groups in Europe (out of only 13 worldwide), each group only contained between two and four teams.

Turkey found themselves in Group 6, where their only rivals were favourites Spain. Just like today, teams played each other both home and away. Spain navigated the first leg without too many problems with a 4-1 win in Madrid on 6 January 1954.

The return leg was held in Istanbul on 14 March. By this time the Turkish team had worked on their defensive strength, stopping the Spanish from scoring while finding the target themselves to secure a 1-0 victory.

As there was no away goals rule at this point, FIFA rules stipulated that a play-off had to be played. This was held just three days later at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. A reported 60,000 spectators gathered to watch a dramatic match that was decided in remarkable fashion.

Turkey cancelled out Jose Luis Arteche’s early goal for Spain (18’) with a 32nd-minute strike from Burhan Sargin, who previously scored that crucial winner in Istanbul. The Turks then took the lead through Suat Marma around the hour mark, only for their Iberian opponents to hit back with a goal from Adrian Escudero (79’). There were no more additions to the scoresheet either in normal time or extra time.

Penalty shootouts were not yet part of the Laws of the Game, and were only introduced by IFAB in 1970. Instead lots were drawn to decide who would travel to the World Cup in Switzerland. Luigi Franco Gemma, a 14-year-old boy whose father worked at the stadium, was chosen to carry out this important task.

“We shut ourselves away in the dressing room feeling utterly dispirited, thinking that there was nothing more we could do, that everything had gone so badly that the kid wouldn’t pick our name,” said Escudero, who had kept Spain in the tie with his equalising goal. “And of course he picked Turkey. The disappointment was tremendous. We felt helpless. It was dramatic.”

This was how Turkey qualified for their first-ever FIFA World Cup.

Turkey’s performance at the 1954 World Cup

Group 2

  • West Germany 4-1 Turkey
  • Turkey 7-0 Korea Republic
  • West Germany 7-2 Turkey

In accordance with the rules at that time, Turkey faced West Germany twice but did not play group winners Hungary at all. The Turks were eliminated from a group that also contained the two teams that would eventually contest the Final.

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