Thursday, June 11, 2009

Turkish Season in Review: New Anatolian Horizons

Justin Paul fills us in on the top flight Turkish football season.

The Turkish Süper Lig saw one of its most competitive seasons ever recently finished. Most notably, two provincial Anatolian sides, Sivasspor and Trabzonspor, were competitive up until the final week. It was however Beşiktaş, historically Turkey's 3rd club from the Istanbul big three, that took the crown. It was their first title since 2003, and did a lot to placate a restive fan base tired of seeing Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe swap the title back and forth. Ironically, up until their win over Galatasaray at home, they had not beaten any of the other Top 5 clubs in league play (having only drawn or lost to them).

Beşiktaş are reputed to have slightly more working class fan base than Galatasaray or Fenerbahçe. However, there have not been the historic lines of division on class as we see in most other countries. Beşiktaş play in a posh district near the Bosphorus known for top hotels and as well as the nearby Bahçeşehir University, a rising star in Turkish academia. One Turkish friend of mine once described the club as having an identity crisis, of wanting to play the underdog, yet still having to deal with an elite and well endowed past.

Some of the Black Eagles signings pale in comparison to their rivals in profile, if not success. Slovak Filip Holosko was excellent in Beşiktaş Turkish Cup victory over Fenerbahce, a 4-1 rout. Similarly, Fabian Ernst, signed from Schalke in January, has added a lot to the defense. Beşiktaş goalie Rüştü Reçber, was the hero of the 2002 World Cup side, and his aged gracefully since leaving Fenerbahçe. In the past, when Besiktas went for bigger names, they got an angry John Carew (who spit at a referee in 2005), an out of shape Ailton, and a rather unfocused Kleberson. Lower profile surely does not mean lower quality. The impatience of Beşiktaş chairmen Yıldırım Demirören has seen 5 managers since May 2004.

Where Jean Tigana and Vincente del Bosque failed to win the league title, the wily Turkish veteran Mustafa Denizli has succeeded. Denizli has managed the Turkish national team, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and most recently Tehran super club Persepolis. His win was proof that you don't need a middle ranked German or Brazilian hire to win the league. Beşiktaş' İnönü stadium won praise from Pele for being among the most gorgeous he's played in. This does not detract from the desire for more revenue from a new ground. However, land in the district where they play is scarce and planning permission may not be received.

Sivasspor were mentioned more in depth in a previous guest blog post of mine, and their fantastic result will hopefully not be a one-off. Their manager Bülent Uygun is known for his pious references to Conservative and moderately Islamist nationalism. Yet, it was truly the city pride of Sivas that mattered at the end of the day, with fans celebrating despite loss and dreaming of a big Champions League tie. This is nothing to underestimate for a club whose first European entry was this last year's Intertoto Cup.

The top goalscorer was Galatsaray's.Milan Baros, with 20 goals. Baros became just the third non-Turk to ever lead the league in scoring. Georgia's Shota Averladze last did so with Trabzonspor in the mid 90's, and is still a cult hero in the Black Sea port. Yet, despite some tremendous quality from Baros, Harry Kewell, Lincoln and rising Turkish star Arda Turan, Galatasaray could only muster a 5th place finish. Galatasaray should be commended for their strong European performance, including a come from behind win over Bordeaux. I joked to a Turkish friend of mine that this makes Galatasaray champions of France, which makes sense because their origins are from a famous French lycee in Istanbul.

Fenerbahçe went for Daniel Guiza and the return of Emre Belözoglu from England, but struggled against many low ranked clubs. Guiza's 11 goals was decent, but clearly swapping the Balearic Islands for the Bosphorus did not prove magical, as he was no goal king this year. Both teams will be in Europa League, below their regular high standards. Galatasaray meanwhile must hope that their new stadium Turk Telekom Arena, will be finished for 2010 season. Türk Telekom Arena is slated to be 52,000 seats, 1,500 more than Fenerbahçe's Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium. While Ali Sami Yen Stadium's intimacy and fierce atmosphere will be missed, commercial realities dominate. The new revenues are needed as currently it is Fenerbahçe that is richest club, and looks to snare coveted midfielder Mehmet Topuz from Kayserispor.

Lastly, it appears that 2 out of the 3 Ankara clubs may be merging. With a population of 4.8 million people, Ankara is the largest city in UEFA to have never seen Champions League football. Ankaraspor and Ankaragucu hope shared resources can spur them onto better things than mid table finishes. It must be noted though that in 2001, another Ankara team, Gençlerbirliği (then led by this year's Trabzonspor coach Ersun Yanal) had eliminated Blackburn Rovers, Parma, and Sporting Lisbon on a UEFA Cup run. Much like what happened to Yanal this year on the Eastern Black Sea, Gençlerbirliği ran out of steam and fell to Valencia. Yet, this shows that there is a tradition to be expanded upon for a city maligned for its smog, early bar closing (compared to Istanbul's raging scene), and frowning bureaucrats, to eventually make her football mark.

Lastly, speaking of football wilderness, spare a thought for the beautiful city of Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey (2.5 million). Turkey's most anti-clerical, and militantly secular city on the Aegean Sea has 3 proud football clubs, Karşıyaka, Göztepe, and Altay. All currently languish in the Turkish 2nd Division, there has not been top flight fooball in the city for several years. Karisyaka were eliminated in this year's playoffs, but could be promoted if the Ankaraspor-Ankaragucu merger goes through. The return of Trabzonspor, the rise of Sivasspor, realignment in Ankara, and maybe Super Lig's return to Izmir speak well for balance in the Turkish competition.

Turkey is not a small country whose footballing destiny is eternally demographically handcuffed to a few capital city clubs. As this proud nation asserts herself more and more on the world stage, and dispels more European prejudices that were based on a faith most Europeans now deem obsolete, it is possible to think that Turkish football could rise considerably up the European club ladder. Having more depth to compliment Istanbul's big three, will go a long way in achieving this.


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