I considered watching football to be quite a silly pastime until the age of nine.
That year, 1994, I was in the middle of haranguing my father for watching the World Cup, when I glanced over at the television and saw what I now know to be a famous quarter-final between Holland and Brazil.
While my mind recalls it as a captivating riot of colour and spectacle, filled to the brim with incident, flair, and outrage, a cursory YouTube search informs me that actually the teams were playing in blue and white. At the time it seemed impossibly exotic; two countries I was vaguely aware existed, but which definitely sounded like places where heroism and derring-do occurred, were going at it hammer and tongs.
After obsessively consuming the rest of the tournament in the way only a child can, I demanded more football. This was how I became a regular visitor to Watford, my father’s team. Now, while undoubtedly a midfield of Andy Hessenthaler and Craig Ramage holds its own charms, Dunga vs Rijkaard it was not. So when Euro ‘96 swung around I craved something that would recreate the endlessly beguiling spectacle that drew my impressionable young mind into the sport in the first place.
What I got was Croatia vs Turkey.
We were living in the Midlands at the time, and with this game being at the City Ground and not impossible to get tickets for (I assume, as my involvement in the ticket-buying process at age 11 was at best minimal), it made the most sense. I wouldn’t be aware until afterwards of the effect of seeing a Croatia team containing Prosinecki, Boban, Suker, and Boksic in person. Instead, I was just excited to go and see a real-life international tournament game on a night out with my father, involving high stakes and weird names.
Even sitting in the upper tier of a big stadium by a river felt exciting and new, but the City Ground was a quickly forgotten backdrop. The one single element of the game that will always stick with me is the Turkish fans. We were sat in the same stand as them, and I think before that night I’d seen maybe one flag at a football match. The entire Turkish end seemed to be nothing but flags, a nationalist spectacle stretching as far as the eye could see, accompanied by the loudest drums I’d ever heard, and just plain noise. No discernible chanting, nothing to make out over the din apart from the din itself. It was terrifying.
I remember thinking that if I had to come out and play football in front of that, to try and score in front of this seething mass of people actively wishing me harm, I would likely soil myself. It was bad enough just being across from them and discernibly English.
I looked at my father, and looked back at the Turkish fans, and then back at my father. “Dad!” He looked over too at the roiling sea of red and white, and turned to me. “I know. I know.” It was thrilling, in the same way that being on a possibly unsafe rollercoaster, pretty sure that the safety bar is locked in place but not convinced, is thrilling. At Vicarage Road in the mid-90s you could hear an old fella with a blanket over his legs cough from the other side of the ground. Darren Bazeley didn’t produce these kinds of emotions from fans.
Prosinecki and Boban were essentially wizards with the ball. The effect of seeing such a thing in person magnifies the skill involved to the point where you realise you’re watching something otherworldly. Turkey had to resort to a high degree of violence to wrest the ball from them, the simple act of repeatedly kicking a man until he gave up being something I was far more familiar with.
While the first half didn’t produce the drama to match the unending passion of the Turkish fans, I’ll never forget the second half. With Rustu Recber’s neon yellow outfit and a mullet that even an 11-year-old in 1996 knew was proper dodgy, and every touch from Croatia whistled to the high heavens, the intensity cranked up.
Croatia had a series of eminently presentable chances, a header from Suker flashing across the goalmouth with the entire Turkish team stranded simply by watching Robert Prosinecki’s feet.
Recber stopped an onrushing forward crotch-first, one of many unorthodox goalkeeping techniques in a playbook which did not include coming for crosses.
Another Suker header flashed wide. When every time it seemed as if there was nothing the ball could do but hit the back of the net, there was an intake of breath among the Turkish fans, and then the noise would come back tenfold. Rather than quieten down when their team were under the cosh, it only drove them on.
With five minutes left, Turkey got out of their own half for the first time in what felt like forever and won a corner. The noise was just extraordinary. The whistling, the shouting, the drums, the flags, the scarves. The whole upper tier shook to bouncing supporters and I remember thinking that, if Turkey were to score from this corner, we’d all go down with the stadium, a mess of flares and flags, nothing but red and white and red and white.
It was a tame corner and the Croats scrambled it out. But the noise remained. One laser-targeted pass, one broken tackle, and suddenly the little-celebrated substitute Goran Vlaovic was flying into the Turkish half completely by himself. The crowd inhaled. Vlaovic passed Recber’s latest crotch-first assault and calmly passed the ball into the empty net.
You know that moment when the away team scores, you’ve seen the ball hit the net, and the noise from the fans hasn’t quite made it to you yet? It comes dispiritingly half a second later, an aural confirmation of a visual truth you don’t want to believe.
The Turkish crowd never exhaled. A small whimper, to scale, reached us from the Croats at the other end, and every single Turkish fan slumped into their seats for the first time in the game. They knew it was over. The noise never came back, and a thousand flags seeped out into the Nottingham night.
I’ve never really seen anything like that since. Almost certainly it was nowhere near as intimidating and just straight-up mental as I remember. In my memory, the intoxicating terror was unmatched.
Obviously I’ve tried to recreate it since. My father repeatedly tells me that I once nearly got us both killed in Scotland at a Kilmarnock game, after a massive Scotsman next to me stood up and yelled “KILL THE ENGLISH!” and I leaned over and said in what I thought was a whisper “But Dad, we’re English aren’t we?” I was a smart kid.