Turkey-Georgia Was Perfect

Under a weeping Dortmund sky, in front of a frothing crowd, on a stupid TV channel that nobody in the United States has on purpose, two of the lowest-ranked teams in the whole Euros played the match of the tournament. Turkey beat Georgia, 3-1, after 96 minutes of nonstop action. The final scoreline totally belies the quality of the match, and only scarcely hints at its frenzy. As Luis wrote yesterday, matches between any group’s two worst teams can, paradoxically, be the matches most worth watching. They each expect to struggle against the better teams in their group, so a single point apiece doesn’t really change anyone’s life. Might as well be bold. Given that competitive dynamic, and given the presence of two of the coolest guys in the tournament, I had what felt like weirdly high expectations for Turkey-Georgia; they were totally surpassed.

From the first minute, both teams attacked with determination, flinging their fullbacks up the field. Turkey quickly took control of the game, pushing deeper with each successive move and dictating terms in midfield. While Georgia has two world-class players in keeper Giorgi Mamardashvili and attacker Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, Turkey is the more talented team, especially in the middle of the field, so it was not terribly surprising to see them first assert control. Benfica’s Orkun Kokcu is so steady on the ball, and Inter’s Hakan Calhanoglu showed off his immense gifts as a distributor.

But the single player I was most excited to see was Real Madrid teenager Arda Guler, a slender genius who scored six goals in only 10 league games with Madrid. “The ball is in love with him,” Carlo Ancelotti raved after a particularly great game last month. Güler is a true hooper, as is his fellow forward Kenan Yildiz. Both of those guys are 19 years old, and though they are far from the only young players who took part in this game, they were the most electric. Turkey threatened steadily until the ninth minute, when Yildiz played it off to Kaan Ayhan, who rattled the post with a tremendous effort. Clearly the soccer gods demanded something better, and 13 minutes later, right back Mert Müldür volleyed one into the top corner after Georgia bounced it around their box.

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Turkey redoubled their efforts, and less than 90 seconds later, Guler, Kokcu, and Yildiz combined for what should have been another great goal, only for officials to call it off over an offside. Still, look how much ground Turkey confidently covers in just a few passes, and look how decisive the trio of young guns are with the ball in a tight area.

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The Georgians could have been reeling down 2-0 in 27 minutes, but they used their second lease on life to meet the moment. While Turkey exerted a bit more control, Georgia started to look truly dangerous on the counterattack. In their first-ever game in a major tournament, the ჯვაროსნები (“Crusaders,” but I couldn’t resist writing it in Georgian’s beautiful script) really went for it, and while they certainly have less talent than their counterparts, they had just as much bravery. The Georgian equalizer also showed that their team is stocked with talented dribblers, as Giorgi Kochorashvili mesmerized the Turkish defense with a splendid move and passed it off to Otar Kiteishvili for a first-time finish.

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The match maintained its high intensity even after the halftime break, with the Turkish fans creating the best in-stadium atmosphere I’ve witnessed all tournament, rising and falling with each pass, tens of thousands hanging onto every tiny development with clear fervor and making every emotion known en masse. Germany has a huge Turkish population, and Bizim Cocuklar‘s fanbase showed up on Tuesday. They all wanted to see their team win, though they instead had to watch Mamardashvili show why he is considered one of the best young keepers in the world. The big Georgian had five saves, which helped kept his team competitive until the end. Guler, however, gave the fans a moment they can cherish forever in the 64th minute, when he got the ball near the top of the box after an Ayhan interception, took two touches, then cracked a shot into the far upper corner, where not even Mamardashvili could stop it.

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Georgia was down but not out, and though everyone started to get tired, both teams kept screaming down the lines looking for the fourth goal of the game. The action basically never stopped, and Georgia had two golden chances to equalize in stoppage time. In the 93rd minute, Kvara got some space on the left and fired in a dangerous cross, which was chopped into the air and should have been converted; you can tell how bad of a miss it was by how many Georgian players hit the deck, despondent, after it bounced just wide. Somehow, that wouldn’t even be their best chance of stoppage time. In the final minute, Kvara stood over a free kick and hit it as well as anyone possibly could, bouncing it through a thicket of players (including Mamardashvili) and off the post. The ball then bounced to Zuriko Davitashvili, who smacked a rocket that would have gone in to steal his team a point had defender Samet Akaydin not put his face on the line and saved it. On the subsequent corner, with Mamardashvili on the attack, the ball bounced to Kerem Akturkoglu and the Galatasaray attacker dribbled the length of the pitch toward the empty goal to give the game the exclamation point it deserved.

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That was as good as group stage play gets, and if we don’t get a better game than that, I will leave the Euros happy. What rules is that Turkey and Georgia each play at least two more games, to say nothing of the inevitable games that matter between heavyweights slated for a few weeks from now. In other words, this is just the appetizer.

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