Feature

The significance of Turkey v Brazil this week

Ronaldo of Brazil (L) tries to tackle Turkey's Alpay Ozalan (R) during the 2002 FIFA World Cup semi-final. (Getty)

Turkey hosts Brazil in a match-up of the two teams that contested the 2002 World Cup semi-final, but will the occasion be a celebration of the heights they scaled in Japan and Korea? Or tinged with melancholy at the dwindling football fortunes of both nations in the years since?

Brazil travels to Turkey to play an international which also serves as reminder of the World Cup semi final between these sides in 2002, decided in Brazil's favour by an inspired to poke finish from Ronaldo.

The perspective of time makes it increasingly apparent that Asia's first (and so far only) World Cup was a very strange competition. Turkey reaching the semi finals is strange enough – this is a national team that had not achieved much before, and has not achieved very much since – but this time it pushed Brazil all the way. In the third place play-off the Turks overcame Korea Republic; even home advantage (the Koreans co-hosted the competition with Japan) makes it hard to understand how Korea Republic was capable of such progress. It has gone to subsequent World Cups without making much of an impression. In the quarter finals the Turks fought their way past Senegal, another country with precious little pedigree either before or since. And after overcoming Turkey, Brazil clinched the trophy by beating a Germany side that was almost embarrassingly limited – as became clear two years later when its failure in Euro 2004 prompted a massive rethink of the country's football.

How, then, to explain such a curious sequence of events?

Some of the answer can surely be found in the calendar. This was a World Cup that was held a couple of weeks earlier than usual, in a bid to avoid the rainy season in that part of the planet. Kick off was May 31st, with the final on June 30th – contrast that with this year's tournament, which ran from June 12th to July 13th.

This is especially significant since it came at a time when Europe's Champions League had just been expanded. In the 2001-2002 season there were two separate group phases before the knock out matches began with the quarter finals. It is clear, then, that more demands were being made on the elite players – who then had less time than usual to recover from their exertions in time to give their best in the World Cup. The disappointing performances of many of the favourites – France and Argentina were highly fancied, but crashed out in the group phase – have a simple explanation. Come the end of the club season they did not have enough gas in the tank. Their physical weakness opened up space for less traditional, and frankly less talented, teams to enjoy results that were better than usual.

Brazil, winner of the trophy, is the exception, the big team that managed to live up to expectations. But look under the rock, and here, too, we find surprises. A couple of weeks after the 2002 World Cup I interviewed Paulo Paixao, who had been in charge of physical preparation with the Brazil team. He was quietly adamant about the role of his profession in his country's triumph. Dignified and thoughtful, he was keen to stress that it was not he personally who had tipped the balance – Brazil, he said, had a number of other specialists who could have performed the same function. But, he said, in the conditions applicable in that World Cup it was always likely that the team with the best physical preparation structure would win the tournament – and this was Brazil. Ronaldo made a superb return to form in the competition – after Inter Milan had been unable to get him fit. His partner was Rivaldo – Barcelona had claimed he would not recover in time for the tournament. The likes of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, who had played the same gruelling European season as everyone else, were still charging up and down the touchline like men possessed.

Much of this success, said Paixao, had its roots in difficulty. The absurd calendar of domestic Brazilian football, with its vast number of games, obliged the physical preparation specialists to come up with methods and strategies adequate for operating at the limit – a process that was boosted in the early 90s when the country's economy began to open up and it could import more sophisticated equipment. They worked out when to ease off on the physical training demands made on their players and when to step up the pace. Crucially, they now possessed enough detailed information to draw up schedules catering to players' individual needs. All of this, said Paixao, was far in advance of anything that was happening in European football.

Twelve years on, however, it is worth asking the question; might this success in 2002 have proved counter-productive in the long term? This is in no way a criticism of Paulo Paixao and the work of his colleagues – excellence in any field is always a goal worth achieving.

In subsequent World Cups Brazil has reached two quarter finals and one semi final – not a bad record at all. But it has never enchanted and looks increasingly to have been overtaken in terms of concepts of football. Its circulation of the ball from midfield is now inferior to that of the leading European teams. In retrospect it could be argued that the 2002 World Cup win, Brazil's fifth, engendered a dangerous sense of complacency.

It could also be put forward that reaching the semi finals and coming third in that competition gave Turkish football an unrealistic view of its own position, and raised the bar of expectation to a level that the national team was not prepared to sustain.

Wednesday, then, is a chance to relive memories of the World Cup semi final from 12 years ago. But there could be a touch of melancholy in the Istanbul air.