In Turkey we trust
Two into one does not go. Although the quarter-finals are still a few days away, Sunday's decisive Group A meeting between Turkey and Czech Republic in Geneva represents the first winner-takes-all match at UEFA EURO 2008. To the victors a place in the last eight awaits, while the losers face an early flight home.
As the countdown continues and both sets of supporters brace themselves for what is sure to be an emotionally charged evening, Turkey's legion of fans are beginning to their make their presence felt in Geneva. While their Czech brethren will be out in force at the Stade de Geneve, there is no question which side holds sway in the city's streets, with red flags adorned with the distinctive white star and crescent catching the eye everywhere and chants of 'Turkey, Turkey' ringing out around the town.
The sense of optimism and anticipation among the red-bedecked army is palpable. At the top of the cathedral tower overlooking the city, a clutch of Turkey fans proudly display their flags and chant their allegiance to their footballing heroes.
After making their way back down hundreds of steps to terra firma, Memet and Fazin, two young Turks who have travelled from Frankfurt to be here, explained to FIFA.com why they are so confident about their side's chances.
"Our team are the miracle men of the competition," said Memet. "We lost our first game to Portugal but after we went behind to Switzerland we had the strength to fight back and stay in the race. Now that we've come back from the dead, nothing can stop us."
Except, maybe, the Czechs. "I don't think so," countered Fazin. "The Czechs have gone through the opposite to us. They beat Switzerland and equalised against Portugal. They ended up losing that game, though, and now they've got their backs against the wall. Psychologically, we've already beaten them."
After talking up their team's chances, the supremely confident duo continue their tour of the city's places of worship by heading off to Geneva's mosque, a port of call earlier in the day for the newly arrived Turkey squad.
We leave the old town behind us and move on to the Fanzone, where the atmosphere is just as vibrant. It was here that a record crowd assembled on Wednesday evening to watch the match between the co-hosts and Turkey on the giant screen, and judging by the number of flags draped on the balconies surrounding the square, there is every reason to expect it will once again be the place to be come kick-off time on Sunday. And there is already plenty going on, including an impromptu but nonetheless nailbiting penalty shootout involving a group of children, watched over by their parents.
Using bags and jumpers for goals, the youngsters mimic their idols in celebrating each successful kick. It falls to 14-year-old Atil, sporting a Fenerbahce shirt emblazoned with the name of former Fener hero Tuncay, to score the winning goal.
Asked if he foresees the need for penalties when Tuncay and Co take on the Czechs, the teenager smiles self-consciously before his father Nedim, apologising for his son's shyness, comes to the rescue. "Penalties tomorrow? What are you talking about," he says incredulously. "Extra time and penalties only come into it from the quarter-finals onwards."
Evidently, Nedim is not up with the rules. Having both lost to Portugal and beaten Switzerland, the Turks and the Czechs are tied on three points and have also scored and conceded the same number of goals. Should they draw on Sunday, penalties will be required to separate the teams, a first in the competition's history.
While it takes a few minutes to convince Nedim that such an outcome is possible, it does nothing to shake his conviction that his favourites will prevail. "Don't you worry - there won't be any need for all that," he predicts. "We'll get the job done long before then. Tuncay and Nihat haven't scored yet but great players always wait for the big occasion, and tomorrow will be big I can tell you."
Should the Turks see off their eastern European opponents, they will match their best ever European Championship performance - the quarter-final place they attained at EURO 2000. Sunday's showdown also represents an opportunity to end a dreadful run of results against the Czechs, who have won nine and drawn two of the last 11 encounters between the two.
The time has come, then, for Turkey to make history and Nedim, for one, has no doubt the nation's heroes will come good. "We might not have the greatest players in Europe, but we Turks have the most passionate and loyal fans. The team will win because of us."