Greece meets Turkey in crucial encounter

With the World Cup just a year away, qualifying is becoming more critical, especially in a match between Turkey, the third-place finisher from 2002, and Greece, the reigning European champion. Besides a match between a pair of teams separated by two points, the game pitting Greece against Turkey also features two nations that have shared a mutual animus since the Greeks won independence from the Ottoman Empire almost two centuries ago. The Turks and Greeks, who meet tomorrow, are chasing Ukraine, who are doing surprisingly well, in European Group 2. One is likely to lose out on a place among the 32 qualifiers. Ukraine leads with 17 points, three more than Greece and five ahead of Turkey, with five games remaining for all three. With a three-point lead, the former Soviet republic can close on their berth with a victory over winless Kazakhstan at home tomorrow. The Turkey-Greece encounter in Istanbul is vital to both teams. The Turks, who beat co-host South Korea to take third place three years ago, have decided not to stage the game at the modern 75,000-seat Ataturk Stadium outside Istanbul. Instead, they’ve opted for the more intimidating atmosphere of the 21,000-capacity Inonu Stadium, home of 10-time league champion Besiktas. Because of the history between the two nations, it’s unlikely many Greek fans will make the short journey. Greece, which won the Euro 2004 title after never winning a game at a major championship, will likely face the «Welcome to Hell» greetings given to visiting teams by Turkish fans. «We expect to play in a fanatical atmosphere,» Greek striker Zissis Vryzas said. «We hope the Turkish fans will support their team – but nothing more.» Team members from both countries appeared in a television ad, shown in Greece and Turkey, urging fans to keep the peace. «Sport unites countries,» Greek midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos says in the ad. Organizers are taking no chances. When Turkey went to Athens in September for a World Cup qualifier, a 0-0 draw, more than 1,000 police were on duty even though no organized groups of Turkish fans traveled. Greek fans were subjected to three levels of security before they entered the ground. When Turkey’s Fenerbahce hosted Greek club Panathinaikos in October 2002, home fans held up a banner saying «Istanbul since 1453,» a reference to the Ottoman Turks conquering what used to be Greek Constantinople – the former name for the Turkish port. For the Turks, who have won only three of seven qualifiers since their best World Cup finish, victory is essential. Although they travel to Kazakhstan in next week’s round of games, another loss would drop it five points behind Greece and probably eight behind Ukraine with four games to go. «Our people have to fill the stadium to support us in this match,» forward Necati Ates said. «If we want to go to the World Cup, we have to win this match.» The Greeks, who will be happy just to avoid defeat, go to Turkey without suspended captain Theo Zagorakis and another Euro 2004 standout, injured Traianos Dellas. Zagorakis’s one-match suspension means he will miss his first international after 101 consecutive appearances. «This cannot be used as an excuse,» Greece coach Otto Rehhagel said. «We must have a good performance and cover the gap created by those absences… It is important that we maintain the two-point lead we have over Turkey. We must strengthen our grip on second spot in the group and after that mathematically everything is possible, even first place,» he added. Asked if a draw with Turkey would be a good result, Rehhagel said, «Yes it will, because we will hold on to our lead over Turkey.» Rehhagel’s bid to reach the 2006 World Cup didn’t start well with a 2-1 loss at Albania. Since then, the Greeks are unbeaten in six games, with four victories and two draws. They hope to make up ground on Ukraine by beating the group leaders next Wednesday at Karaiskaki Stadium. (AP, Reuters)

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