FOX Soccer Exclusive
Caliber stars make Galatasaray legit
The red carpet was literally rolled out at Galatasray’s headquarters. Didier Drogba emerged from the spacious people mover with its blacked out windows sporting thick spectacles, open-necked shirt and slick jacket over his jeans. There was a sudden flurry of flashes, rolling cameras, a bunch of minders in close attendance. All in all, it gave the exact impression that the club had been wishing for: Look at us, we have a footballing version of a Hollywood A-lister right here.
It did not take Drogba long to justify the hype. On Friday night, Galatasaray were fumbling through an away game at Akhisar Belediye, when Drogba was summoned from the bench to make his first move in his new club colors. Five minutes into his debut, he rose to break the deadlock with a towering header. Moments later, he set up another goal. The shuddering sense of excitement, which had been building over the past few weeks, lurched into overdrive.
From the moment Drogba landed on Turkish soil a few days ago, and emerged from a private jet to be greeted by a bouquet of red and yellow blooms, the glare of expectancy burned. Fans at the airport greeted him with scarlet flares, twirling scarves, and full-blooded song. His arrival is a big moment for Galatasaray and they all knew it. It wasn’t just the rest of Europe – where there are no shortage of clubs that should have been interested in him despite Drogba’s advancing years - who were left taken aback by this deal. Even within Turkey people were astonished.
But Galatasaray mean business. That much is obvious considering the way they audaciously stole the headlines during the winter transfer window. Adding two high caliber international stars, players who have recently been instrumental to their former clubs winning the Champions League, sent out the strongest possible signal. "We have added Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba to an already very strong team," enthused sporting director Bulent Tulun. "I think we can go all the way to the end of the Champions League and win it, I really do."
That is some statement, and it is easy for anyone outside Istanbul to scoff. Turkish football has endured a rough ride in recent years, and historically, they have only ever produced one team capable of lifting a European trophy (the UEFA Cup, precursor to the Europa League, back in 2000). But how seriously should we be taking them?
Certainly Galatsaray have ensured that the world will be paying much more attention than was the case before their luxury spree. Clearly, the balance of their upcoming Champions League tie with Schalke 04 (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Wednesday, 2:30 a.m. ET) has shifted somewhat.
Galatasaray have shown they have the resources to compete for elite players. The club is enjoying renewed health, ever since a new stadium, new sponsorship, a change of President, and the return of a much loved and successful former coach, Fatih Terim, combined to give the club fresh ambition.
Terim wore the expression of a cat who has just won a lifetime’s supply of cream as he embraced Drogba for the first time as a Gala player in Istanbul. But the coach has added two high quality, vastly experienced attacking players to a squad that was faring well enough. With the likes of the infuential Felipe Melo anchoring behind an attacking line-up that includes Drogba’s power, Sneijder’s finesse and the finishing of Burak Yilmaz, they have gained real authority. Tulun has described this transfer as “"the most significant in the history of Turkish football."
The last time the Ivorian appeared in the Champions League he enjoyed the kind of seminal moment very few players ever get to experience. It was his penalty kick which decided the last tournament, which guaranteed that Chelsea, rather than Bayern Munich, planted their flag at the absolute summit of club football.
Drogba knew he would be leaving European football then. His next destination was China, which turned out to be nothing like the brochure. This latest career twist was entirely unexpected. Just before Christmas, Drogba’s agent called Tulun to explain that his Chinese club, Shanghai Shenhua, had not been paying their players. Talks began immediately, and before long Tulun was on long distance flight to meet a player who they had not even dreamed of pursuing. The agreement was signed at the Ivory Coast’s training camp in Rustenberg, where they were based during the Africa Cup of Nations. There was a concern when the Shanghai club put up a fight to hold Drogba to his contract, but their position always looked doomed considering they hadn’t kept their part of the financial bargain.
The last few days might have been a whirlwind, but once Drogba gets on a football pitch he is not easily fazed. Now aged 34, the man himself is clearly ready to rumble.