Turkey-Greece Game Not Just a Game
ANKARA, Turkey -- Greece vs. Turkey historically has made North Carolina-Duke look like a friendly game of backgammon. But when a group of 50 visiting Greek fans were allowed to hang one banner in hostile territory Tuesday at Ankara Arena, a message of peace was chosen.
The banner read in Turkish and then was translated into English underneath, "We are neighbors not enemies.''
That wasn't all. Many of the Greek fans wore T-shirts that had a similar phrase and showed an interlocking puzzle, with one piece being the Greek flag and the other the Turkish flag.
"We want to show that sports should unite,'' said Kostas Tsibogiannis, 53, a flower importer in Athens and one of the organizers of the Greek fans who traveled to Turkey for the FIBA World Championship.
That doesn't mean, of course, Tsibogiannis didn't desperately want his team to win. Speaking at halftime, when Greece trailed Turkey 41-39, Tsibogiannis sought to correct a reporter who asked "if'' Greece were to win.
"You mean, 'When we win,' " Tsibogiannis said.
Well, that didn't happen. Behind 26 points from Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, Turkey scored a pivotal 76-65 win to move very close to locking up Group C. Turkey raised its record to 3-0 while Greece fell to 2-1.
Just in case anybody didn't believe in peace, there were about a dozen security officers wearing orange vests surrounding that Greek cheering section of 50. But they didn't have much to do since Turkish fans were so busy singing and cheering a victory in front a sellout crowd of 10,500 that Turkey guard Ender Arslan called the "best atmosphere'' in which he's ever played.
While Greece and Turkey have been squabbling since Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and have faced each other in four major wars since then, relations have been much better lately. And Turkish coach Bogdan Tanjevic remarked something happened Tuesday at Ankara Arena that was "more important than basketball.''
Turkey's minister of foreign affairs Ahmet Davutoglu invited Greek deputy foreign minister of foreign affairs Dimitris Drucas to watch the game with him. Before tipoff, the two spoke to players in each locker room.
"It was very nice,'' Tanjevic, who is from Bosnia and who saw only the message delivered in his locker room, told FanHouse. "They said congratulations but they said to have a fair playing of the game. It was important for the relationship (between Greece and Turkey) because there's been so much conflict in the past. Stupid, conflict situations.''
The nations still bicker over territorial waters and airspace. But the players didn't seem to have any problems with each other Tuesday. After the final buzzer, players from opposing teams shook hands and hugged one another.
"We never think about politics,'' said Turkey guard Karem Tunceri. "It's only sports. We like each other.''
Just then, Greece center Yannis Bourousis walked over and gave Tunceri a big hug. Bourousis later said, "The players are friends.''
"I'm sure there are things that have happened in the past,'' said Greece forward Antonis Fotsis. "But we don't now have any problems. We are neighbors. We don't have any problems in sports.''
Turkish television sports broadcaster Aylin Guney did say that at a soccer match about five years ago in Greece, Turkish fans threw stones at Greek president Karolos Papoulias, although he wasn't hit. But she stressed that "lately, everything is going well.''
Outside of sports, some of the biggest tensions in recent years have been related to the island nation of Cyprus, just south of Turkey. Since Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a decade of violence between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, the island has been divided in the middle by a Berlin Wall-like structure called The Green Line. The north part of the island now consists nearly entirely of Turkish Cypriots and the south part Greek Cypriots.
After 29 years, the border finally was opened to travel across in 2003. There's a bar on the Greek side of The Green Line in the divided city of Nicosia called Berlin Wall 2 that has a sign reading "Checkpoint Charlie.'' But a Turkish border official recently offered no emotion when asked if the Greek section of Nicosia is nice.
"I have no reason to go there,'' he scoffed.
Some Greek fans apparently believed they had no reason to go to Ankara. Counting the 50 who arrived as a group as well as perhaps a few dozen more scattered throughout the arena, there were apparently less than 100 Greek fans on hand Tuesday.
"Ankara is not the most welcoming place (to Greeks),'' Tsibogiannis said. "Istanbul is a lot more welcoming.''
Tsibogiannis (right) later clarified his comments to say that some Greek fans did not want to go Ankara because they did not believe it to be as accommodating as Istanbul, where the Greeks are expected to play next week in the medal round and where Tsibogiannis said 100 more fans will join the group.
"We don't have any problems,'' Tsibogiannis said. "They've been very nice to us (in Ankara) ... Nobody has thrown anything at us. They have just booed us. But we're making as much noise as we can with us having 50 and them 11,000.''
But not every Turkish fan booed. Can Mituk, 27, who was seated near the Greek section, said he had his picture taken with a Greek fan. Mert Caka, 23, another Turkish fan seated near the Greeks, said he wanted to buy one of the group's T-shirts but there were no extra ones to be had.
"If we have problems, it is between people in government, not between people,'' said Caka, an industrial engineer.
And apparently not between basketball players. The game was cleanly played, quite in contrast to an exhibition game Greece played Oct. 19 against Serbia in which a brawl broke out and two players from each team were suspended. Serbian center Nenad Krstic, who tossed a chair, got sat down for the first three games of the Worlds and Serbian Milos Teodosic and Greek players Fostis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis both were suspended for two games.
Fostis and Schortsanitis returned Tuesday, but didn't do a lot. Fostis scored seven points on 2-of-6 shooting and Schortsanitis had nine points but also five fouls and four turnovers.
The game was intense throughout, and the Greeks remained pesky even after a 29-13 run by Turkey extended a 43-41 lead early in the third quarter to 72-54 early in the fourth quarter. Greece went on an 11-2 spurt to close the deficit to 73-65. But Turkey forward Hedo Turkoglu drilled a three-pointer with 3 1/2 minutes left for a 76-65 lead, and nobody scored the rest of the game.
"I think every time Greece plays Turkey in sports, it's a very special situation,'' said Greek fan Loukas Balafoutas, 29, who is from Athens and lectures on economics at an Austrian university.
Fans of both teams were as spirited as could be. Turkey fans waved flags and were loud throughout the game. But Greece fans made themselves heard despite being so outnumbered.
During the Greek national anthem prior to the game, the group of 50 unfurled a giant flag and held it in the air. And even though their team lost, Greek fans were singing at the end.
All, of course, is not lost. The teams could meet again in the medal round, and Greece will at least have 100 more fans on hand to combat Turkey's throng.
Chris Tomasson be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@christomasson