Gareth Bale (left) and Burak Yilmau (right) face each other in Baku
After a hopeless performance in the European Championship opening game against Italy, Turkey is already under pressure to win in Group A. In Baku against Wales, which wrested a point from a superior Switzerland, Senol Günes' team will enjoy home advantage on Wednesday (6:00 p.m.). Up to 35,000 Turkey fans are expected in Azerbaijan. “Turkey, our hearts beat with you!” Is translated on numerous posters in front of the national stadium.
The 3-0 defeat in Rome was as clear as the result suggests and meant Turkey's ninth defeat in their 14th European Championship group game. The Turkish association president Nihat Özdemir had already seen bankruptcy coming – and said: “Even if we should start unlucky in Italy, Baku awaits us – where we will get six points,” Özdemir was quoted in advance by the Azerbaijani media.
Team boss Günes now also expects nothing less than “a much better performance”. “We have sold below our value.” Turkey has not survived the group stage since reaching the semi-finals in 2008. After the missed EURO 2012, 2016 was over after the preliminary round. In 2021, after a strong qualification with only three goals conceded, they were quite hopeful – and started the tournament as a secret favorite by some experts.
So now the game that is not only pointing the way for the further success of the tournament for the two teams, it also has geopolitical dimensions in the nervous Caucasus region. Turkey is the military protecting power of Azerbaijan and recently supported the country in the war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Of course, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, who has led the former Soviet republic in an authoritarian manner for more than 17 years, are also expected in the stadium. Erdogan last referred to Aliyev as “brother” in the Turkish parliament.
While the Turkish selection started the 3,100 km journey to Baku, Wales, which played its opening game in Azerbaijan's capital in front of 8,782 spectators, prepared for a heated atmosphere on site. “We know it will be loud,” said Liverpool youngster Neco Williams. “But we also know that if we stick together, we have a good chance of winning the game.”
The British have been without a win for three games, but the 1-1 draw against Switzerland almost felt like a win. “Getting off to a positive start was important for us,” said Wales coach Robert Page. “If four points are enough (to qualify), perfect. If not, we will continue. We respect all the teams in this group, but we are not afraid of anyone.” Hopes rest again on header specialist Kieffer Moore, who gave his team the point with the goal against Switzerland.