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“One nation, two states” is a popular saying across Azerbaijan and Turkey that sums up the ties between the countries. Those four words offer a reminder to Wales that, as if the task were not tricky enough, when they face Turkey in Baku they may as well be playing before a partisan crowd in Istanbul. Never mind that this week the Turkey flag at the entrance of the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, Wales’ training base, was subtly removed.
Turkey is Azerbaijan’s biggest ally and relationships run deep: culturally, historically and politically. Azerbaijan received military muscle from Turkey in a brief but bitter war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region last year and on Tuesday the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, visited Shusha, the city at the heart of that conflict, to sign a trading and security alliance.
Erdogan will be a guest at Wednesday’s game, when a crowd of more than 30,000, the overwhelming majority rooting for Turkey, is expected at the Olympic Stadium.
On the promenade here, the odd Wales flag hangs outside hotel windows but on the junction outside the striking Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, Azeri and Turkish flags stand side by side. Last month, Turkey played Azerbaijan in a friendly, winning 2-1 in Alanya and on Wednesday locals, many of whom support Turkish teams and watch Turkish television, will get behind what many view as their “older brother” to drown out the few hundred hardy Wales fans who have made the 3,000‑mile trip.
On Tuesdayhe Turkey captain, Burak Yilmaz, makes clear his gratitude to the Azeri people. “I would like to start by saying thanks to Azerbaijan citizens – they are our friends and brothers,” he says.
“Since we came here [in Baku] we have felt it. In Italy we were an away game – 100% from the beginning. [This game] we will be at home and it will make a world of difference. The Azeri people have been with us, it will give us great feelings and with their help we can win.”
Dean Saunders, the former Wales and Galatasaray forward, tells of a ball bearing flashing before his eyes like a shooting star in a game at Trabszonspor, the noise deafening and his vision impaired by smoke billowing from the flares in the stands. A half-full bowl in the coronavirus era is hardly conducive to recreating a similar ambience but Wales know they will need to play the game, not the occasion.
“I doubt it will be a positive atmosphere for us,” says the Wales defender Ethan Ampadu. “It could be a shock [for some players] but we have all played in front of crowds before. We all know what we are expecting.”
Gareth Bale is looking forward to it. “We’re used to playing in away games and being in front of hostile crowds,” he says. “If anything it kind of spurs us on to be a bit more ruthless on the pitch and hopefully we can keep them silent.”
Turkey have their own problems. A 3-0 defeat by Italy in the opening game of the European Championship means victory against Wales is regarded as essential if they are to advance to the knockout stages of a major tournament for the second time since finishing third at the 2002 World Cup under Senol Gunes, their current manager.
“It’s going to be difficult, especially after their last game,” says the defender Joe Rodon. “They’re going to want to come out firing. It’s the same for us. We want to come out and win.”
Gunes is expected to make changes. Ozan Kabak could replace Merih Demiral in central defence, and the speed of the Roma forward Cengiz Under, who spent last season on loan at Leicester, could help Turkey get through Wales. More will be expected of Zeki Celik, who won Ligue 1 with Lille last season, and the Milan midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu.
A young Turkey team were caned by their national press over their insipid showing against Italy. Yet Turkey lost their opening game at the 2002 World Cup to Brazil and there is optimism in that they surely cannot play worse than on Friday, a defeat that left the forward Kenan Karaman and the defender Umut Meras grovelling to the nation.
It is fair to say Wales expect Turkey to bring the noise. “It would be good if we all had a megaphone on the pitch,” says Ampadu, with a smile.
In March Turkey beat the Netherlands 4-2 and Norway 3-0 in World Cup qualifiers and they took four points off France in Euro 2020 qualifying, during which they conceded three goals in 10 games.
Gunes acknowledges they fell drastically short of their standards, and Calhanoglu insists they have learned from their mistakes after a team meeting. “We will show who we are … you will see our game,” Yilmaz says.
The last time Wales played Turkey, they came out on the wrong end of a 6-4 defeat in a 1998 World Cup qualifier.
Robert Page, now the interim Wales manager, was in the starting lineup. So were Saunders, Nathan Blake and Robbie Savage – all of whom were on the score sheet and will also be at this match in a media capacity.
Bobby Gould fielded Ryan Giggs at left wing-back and Gary Speed in defence and hauled Neville Southall off at half-time. Wales know there is no margin for error this time.