FOX Soccer Exclusive
Fener-Gala derby reignites old flame
With the sunset melting into a blue-red picture postcard shot over the western bank of the Bosphorus, ferries stuffed full with soccer fans glide from west to east. This is the scene of the intercontinental derby, where Galatasaray this weekend crossed the mighty river from the European side of Istanbul to the city’s suburb of Kadiköy, on the Asian side, which Fenerbahçe calls home.
In any other campaign, Saturday’s edition would have been a title decider with Galatasaray’s nine-point lead, meaning a single point would see it snatch the championship from its rival on Fener’s own turf. This, however, is no normal season in the life of the Turkish Süper Lig.
It’s a development that surely dismays one of America’s greatest players. Turkey was once the home of one-time national team and current Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
“Turkey was probably my favorite year and a half living outside the U.” Friedel told FOX Soccer this winter. “It was a completely different experience, and really eye-opening. Galatasaray is an enormous club and unless you go, you probably won’t know what I’m talking about. The fans are absolutely fanatical.
“We won a game at Fenerbache and our manager, Graeme Souness, staked this massive Galatasaray flag at the center of the ground and they wouldn’t let us out of the changing room for three hours. They knocked out all the windows on our bus, and that was when they tried to turn it over!”
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It became clear that this would be so as early as the first weekend of July last year, when a swathe of Sunday morning police raids based on an investigation into suspected match-fixing in 2010/11 yielded an initial group of 60 arrests. The most prominent of these was Aziz Yildirim, the president of newly-crowned champion Fenerbahçe. Although he has been conditionally released for medical treatment on a couple of occasions, Yildirim remains in custody with the case still being processed, the highest-profile suspect of a scandal that has already heavily tainted the Turkish game.
This has the feel of a Year Zero in the Süper Lig, as Turkey faces the formidable task of visibly cleaning up an environment that has seen cash frittered with little regulation for too long. If parallels can be drawn with Portugal’s Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) and Apito Final (Final Whistle) cases, lessons can certainly be learned too, as the Portuguese authorities chose to act in haste and have subsequently been forced to repent at leisure. The balance between reacting firmly and investigating thoroughly is an impossible one to strike, and the Turkish Football Federation’s (TFF) canvassing opinion on whether the punishment of automatic relegation for clubs found guilty of match-fixing should stand has caused some consternation.
The Süper Lig’s new format (agreed in August) means that no champion will be crowned at the end of the regular 34-game season on April 8. Instead, the top four will go into a round-robin mini-league, playing each other home and away with their points totals from the main campaign halved.
Galatasaray will certainly enter the new event as favorite as it deserves to, having successfully ripped it all up and started again this term after a bare few years. The most successful club in the history of the Turkish game and the only one to have snared a European trophy (the 2000 UEFA Cup), it was last champion in 2008 and finished a humiliating 8th last year.
The impetus for change, therefore, was a culmination of internal pressure rather than a reaction to wider events. A new president, Ünal Aysal, was elected in May and he persuaded legendary former player and coach Fatih Terim to return for a third spell in charge. Terim’s arrival was a statement of intent not just in the sense of the history he brought with him, but in in his predilection for creating teams that practice attacking soccer.
Gala signed eleven new players and, in keeping with opting for Terim, opted for seasoned campaigners, notably with the acquisitions of Tomas Ujfalusi (now club captain), Felipe Melo, Johan Elmander and Emmanuel Eboué, as well as Süper Lig knowhow in the shape of Engin Baytar and Selçuk Inan.
Unusually for a champion but befitting a club under fire, Fener’s path has been more of a rearguard action. Since Yildirim was waylaid, his vice-president Ali Koç has been attempting to keep things together at the Sükrü Saracoglu Stadium. As the club anticipated the worst, André Santos was moved on to Arsenal, the prolific Mamadou Niang joined Qatari side Al Sadd and long-serving defender Diego Lugano moved to Paris Saint-Germain.
Lugano’s loss hurt the most. He was more than a player: he was a leader, who truly connected with the supporters. They took him to their hearts even more after his explosion of rage in the April 2009 derby with Gala at the Ali Sami Yen (which earned Lugano a five-match ban), and thousands of supporters dressed in Fener’s yellow gathered at Atatürk airport to cheer him off on his way to France.
Alex, the club’s iconic midfielder and top scorer, chose to stay and is now the focus of even more adoration. The now-captain inked a new two-year deal that will take him through to the summer of 2013, and a decade of service at Fener. Alex plans to retire on the expiry of this contract.
Knock-off replica shirts and scarves bearing the Brazilian’s name hung from makeshift stalls and from the arms of street vendors on the gentle uphill walk from Kadiköy’s harbor to the Sükrü Saracoglu. Whereas the intense rivalry between Fener and Gala may have tested the city’s police elsewhere, there is a buzzing yellow homogeny on the streets, with no tickets available to Galatasaray fans for the fixture.
Inside, the lack of a counterpart dampens little of the intensity of feeling for a support that has felt its club is under siege in recent months. With more than half-an-hour to go before kick-off, the Sükrü Saracoglu’s stands were packed almost to capacity, with fans chanting support for their heroes and whistling the visitors in equally ear-splitting volume.
This propelled the hosts to a lightning start, going two up inside the first 15 minutes thanks to a pair of stunning goals by Moussa Sow (an improvised bicycle kick over his shoulder) and the inevitable Alex (a magnificent, raking left-footer from range high into Fernando Muslera’s top right-hand corner).
Yet Galatasaray kept its head in the cauldron as Fenerbahçe’s vociferous fans exulted. Showing the value of what LigTV pundit Emre Utkucan rightly points out as being top experience in the side’s key positions, Terim’s men never panicked, pulling a goal back via the outstanding Elmander before another doughty campaigner, the rugged Hakan Balta, eventually equalized in the closing stages following a metronomic period of Gala domination.
That Terim’s side managed to recover so well in such a hostile environment said everything you need to know about them. The Sükrü Saracoglu, where Gala haven’t won since 1999, creaked with tension in the second half as its side tried in vain to cling on.
The sound as Elmander’s and Balta’s efforts hit the net was as bracing a silence as you’ll ever hear, similar to the feeling of submerging your head underwater. No doubt a few fans present in the stadium felt like doing likewise in the Bosphorus on the way home. The Fenerbahçe players’ body language after the game told of a side that knew it had been bested.
Alex cut a downcast figure in the media center, curled into his chair and speaking in a hushed tone behind his spectacles. “We didn’t play well,” he spat. “They were better than us for 70 minutes.” A shell-shocked Reto Ziegler had already given us his thoughts, staring into space as he spoke. “It’s hard to understand,” he said. “We have to learn how to hang on to the result.” Fener had been carried away in the atmosphere of the moment, while Gala had managed to stay cool and detached. Perhaps the absence of any support was even an advantage.
Terim was upbeat, despite entering the room with a small plaster above his left eye, having been hit by an object hurled from the stands in the aftermath of Balta’s equalizer. Koç later stated his wish to “personally apologize he had to experience such a thing,” though the anarchic scenes 800km southwest of here, in the Panathinaikos v Olympiakos match of the following day, put the level of malevolence into perspective.
With the playoffs to come, Fener’s title hopes are still alive. “Even if we go the playoffs with the current points gap,” said Ayut Kocaman, “we’ll have a chance to finish the job by winning those two games.” It’s little wonder that Gala’s Milan Baros and Engin sat flabbergasted on the pitch after the final whistle after the former diverted Inan’s free-kick onto the crossbar seconds before time.
As the dust settled, the two boardrooms clash again, with Gala’s Aysal berating the “standards” of Fener fans in throwing missiles from the stands, while Koç dismissed him as an “opportunist”, having apologized to Terim. This tit-for-tat may be a lamentable showing between two club leaders, but it is at least a strong sign that Turkey has a functioning, thriving soccer culture against such a vivid background of uncertainty. For now, that’s good enough.
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