After achieving fame as the first football team from a Muslim country to win a major European competition, Istanbul’s Galatasaray club faces virtual collapse.
In the space of four years, the team has gone from being a symbol of national pride to a source of deep national concern. It is facing bankruptcy, bitter managerial wrangles and a decline in the league.
"In 2000, when Galatasaray won the UEFA championship and the Super Cup, this was the greatest success in Turkish footballing history," says Semih Gumus, a leading soccer columnist for the daily Radikal.
The team was Turkey’s first, being set up in 1905 during the Ottoman era by Istanbul’s prestigious, French language Galatasaray high school.
For many years, it dominated the domestic league – winning the Turkish championship a record 15 times - and became Turkey’s main representative in international football.
Yet, the team led by coach Fatih Terim that defeated Arsenal to win the UEFA cup in 2000 and put Turkey on the international soccer map rapidly fell from grace.
Terim left to coach in Italy, returning to take up his old job at Galatasaray in 2002 without any great success. From then on, the team plummeted.
"It was a bad choice bringing him back," argues Bagis Erten, a commentator from Acik Radyo. The problem was, Erten adds, that "while Galatasaray won the UEFA cup, there was nothing more behind that. The system behind the team was very weak - especially the financial system."
This financial weakness has left the side with massive debts.
"A world class team was created by Fatih Terim," says Gumus, "but not a world class club. That’s why now, with debts of some $150 million, Galatasaray has become the most in debt club in Turkey."
The debts have also led to a vicious circle. Without cash, no football team can continue to compete – particularly in the spectacularly expensive international transfer market.
"Galatasaray’s budget is shot. Without the budget to transfer the right players the team will be in deep trouble"
"To start winning again, the club needs to put the right players in the right places," says Gumus. "Yet Galatasaray’s budget is shot. Without the budget to transfer the right players, next year – Galatasaray’s 100th anniversary – the team will be in deep trouble."
Pride and fall
In terms of its league performance, it already is. Lying in sixth place, it may also fail to qualify for any European competitions next year. This would be the first time it had failed to get into Europe for around a quarter of a century.
"Galatasaray in Europe has always been a symbol of Turkey in Europe," says Erol Gurtun, a loyal fan.
"Many Turks – whether they support Galatasaray or not – would always rally round the side when it took on teams from England, Italy or other European countries. At such times, Galatasaray became Turkey," he adds.
Regrettably, such national pride has also on occasion spilled over into violence. In 2000, just before the UEFA cup semi-final against English team Leeds in Istanbul, two Leeds fans were stabbed to death in a swirling brawl in the centre of the city.
Coach Fatih Terim (C) holds the
UEFA trophy with the team
Before then, Galatasaray fans had achieved fame by greeting visiting supporters with the banner Welcome to Hell at Istanbul airport.
The team’s Ali Sami stadium also had a fearsome reputation, as fans beat drums and let off firecrackers in often-spectacular displays of allegiance.
Yet now, the Ali Sami stands empty.
"The stadium has become a symbol of the failure of the team’s board of directors," says Erten.
A refit of the creaking old stadium has been botched, with Galatasaray now playing out of town at Istanbul’s Olympic stadium. Uncertainty surrounds when the team might be able to move back, or whether a new Ali Sami will be built.
"Istanbul rival Fenerbahce began talking about a new stadium at the same time as Galatasaray," says Erten. "Now Fenerbahce has a terrific new stadium, while Galatasaray doesn’t have a usable one of its own at all. This shows a big problem with the Galatasaray board – they have been unable to translate the team’s success in UEFA into economic success."
"The stadium has become a symbol of the failure of the team’s board of directors"
Acik Radyo commentator
Many fans blame the old school of Galatasaray governors for this failure.
Recently, many supporters protested outside an emergency session of the board, which had convened to elect a new management team. As it turned out, they re-elected the old one instead, led by Ozhan Canaydin.
"Galatasaray does not belong to the high school," read one banner held by protesting fans.
Terim has now resigned, to be replaced by Romanian Gheorghe Hagi – himself one of the Galatasaray team that won the UEFA cup.
"Hagi is the fans’ favourite," says Gumus. "The management brought him back as a populist policy. They were scared of the reaction supporters were giving to events so they brought Hagi in to defuse the situation."
Hagi is now faced with a daunting task – and already, commentators and fans are questioning his ability to turn the team’s fortunes around.
"Hagi’s history as a player is good," says Erten, "but as a coach it’s pretty bad."
He coached the Romanian national squad and Turkish team Bursaspor after retiring from the pitch. Neither job was a great success.
Galatasaray players battle it out
during happier times
"With next season [being] the 100th anniversary of the club’s foundation, Galatasaray has to be champion," points out Gumus. "Once it’s understood that this isn’t going to happen, both Canaydin and Hagi will probably be shown the door."
"We got used to success," says supporter Gurtun. "It will be a great shock if we are not in Europe next season. That will have an impact on supporters."
Meanwhile, others try to put a brave face on things.
"All the great clubs go through declines," says Enis Bahceli, another fan. "Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Juventus – after winning a lot, they stumble. But they come back, they always return to their rightful place."
And many across Turkey are hoping that won’t take too long.