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Turkey Soccer Team Returns to Cheers

June 30, 2002

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ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Turkish fighter jets escorted a plane carrying Turkey’s World Cup squad over the country’s airspace Sunday while thousands of Turks cheered, waved flags and treated the team to a hero’s’ return.

Dozens of fans, wearing Turkey’s red and white colors, cheered on the tarmac as the players, dressed in shorts and jerseys, descended the steps of the plane and climbed on an open-top bus.

Thousands waited outside the airport or lined streets to watch the national team parade through the city, shouting ``Turkey is the greatest″ and ``Turkey is proud of you.″

The players, wearing flower leis around their necks, smiled, waved flags and clapped.

The bus was to end up at the city’s largest square, Taksim, where a massive street party was underway.

Turkey placed third in the World Cup, beating co-host South Korea 3-2 Saturday.

Striker Hakan Sukur scored in the opening 11 seconds of the bronze-medal game, setting a World Cup record for the fastest goal.

The national soccer team’s unprecedented success has been a welcome distraction from the country’s gloomy economic crisis and political uncertainty. Turkey’s economy shrank 9.4 percent last year, leading to massive layoffs.

Tens of thousands of Turks poured out into the streets with every Turkish win, waving flags, dancing and driving in convoys of honking cars.

``We’re very happy,″ said Tolga Kadioglu, one of thousands celebrating at Taksim square Sunday. ``But it won’t last. ... Our problems will return in the morning.″

Fans danced, sang, lit flares and held up signs that read: ``Welcome back dream team,″ and ``Gunes’ golden boys are Turkey’s pride,″ in reference to Turkey coach Senol Gunes.

Turkey’s military assigned F-16 warplanes to escort the team in a rare honor only bestowed on top dignitaries.

As three large TV screens at Taksim showed replays of the squad’s best goals, some expressed yearning for the missed World Cup title.

``They have given us a lot of happiness, but I cannot help thinking that we could have won the cup,″ student Ceyda Sipahioglu said.

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