Heat, passion, tension and big money. Once upon a time, Turkish football was considered an also-ran on the European stage. The national team, infamously, could not cope with away-game pressure and never qualified for the big tournaments, while club sides had history but little else.
Now, however, over the past two decades, everything has changed.
There are no easy games against Turkish teams any more, with Galatasaray and Fenerbahce boasting training grounds that are the envy of many of western Europe’s bigger and more internationally successful clubs. These days, big-name players head for the Super Lig in expectation of far more than a last-contract pay day.
Absent from the finals of the World Cup and European Championship since reaching the last four at Euro 2008, the national side will be strutting its stuff in France this summer, while the country’s leading clubs strive to prove themselves in the Champions and Europa Leagues.
All this comes against a highly complex political backdrop which has seen Turkey drawn ever more into international focus – which is perhaps inevitable for a country whose borders stretch from Bulgaria and Greece to the west, right across the continental divide to Georgia and Iran in the east, and then on Syria and Iraq to the south.
Entangled are long-drawn-out negotiations about moving closer to “the west” through proposals for European Union membership, which are set against the internal tensions prompted by the increasingly authoritarian ambitions of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party.
Rumbling in the background is unrest over corruption talk which has produced regular tidal flows in first one direction and then another, and left no sector of Turkish society untouched; not even football.
The three biggest Turkish clubs continue to dominate domestically: recent league leaders Besiktas, defending champions Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, who are deemed the most popular and independent of the three. Abroad, Besiktas made a steady start in the Europa League, while Galatasaray revived hopes of Champions League progress with a 2-1 win at home to Benfica after conceding a 90-second opening goal.
Fenerbahce made an initial muddle of their own Europa League campaign, but they also have serious issues with European competition and UEFA which continue to cast a long shadow of resentment over every game.
In 2012, Fener president Aziz Yildirim, a multi-millionaire developer, was sentenced to jail and fined $560,000 for conspiracy and match-fixing during the 2010-2011 season. The match-fix case was a sensation, partly because it appeared to prove what rivals had regularly claimed, and partly because of its extent.
A year earlier, police raids on homes and football club premises led to 61 arrests in connection with 19 matches in the top two divisions – with those 61 including officials from Fenerbahce and Besiktas.
Accusations focused on 26 cases in the top two Turkish divisions as well as others in basketball. Fenerbahce links were alleged in 15 of the 19 top-flight cases, of which five concerned the grey area issue of so-called “third-party bonuses”.
In August 2011, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) barred Fenerbahce from the Champions League and gave their place to their rivals, Trabzonspor. UEFA duly banned Fener from European competition for two years and Besiktas for one season.
Fenerbahce went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and demanded €45million compensation from UEFA. But before the case could come before sport’s supreme court, UEFA flew to Istanbul for its annual congress. President Michel Platini suggested to Erdogan that the domestic stand-off was an embarrassment for European football and did the image of the Turkish game no favours at an increasingly delicate time, politically.
Suddenly, Fenerbahce withdrew its CAS appeal amid reports that the TFF would cough up most of the €45m. Simultaneously, an internal TFF report effectively cleared the club of wrongdoing.
Fenerbahce supporters claimed the case had been manipulated by political and commercial rivals of both Yildirim and the club itself, while Yıldırım insisted the match-fixing case was a politically motivated plot hatched by followers of the influential United States-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Prosecutors countered that the case arose as a consequence of investigations prompted by the Bochum football corruption trial in Germany.
On a wider sports scale, the scandal and confusion cast a fatal pall across Istanbul’s bid to win hosting rights for the 2020 Olympic Games and/or the finals of that year’s European Championship. The Olympics would be awarded to Tokyo, while Platini devised his pan-continental Euro 2020 plan as a reaction to the lack of a trusted candidate.
After a year in prison, Yildirim was freed in 2012 pending a retrial. Meanwhile, the hated “Special Court” system under which he had been convicted was scrapped.
In October 2015, he and his fellow defendants were cleared of all charges.
Not that this is the end of the matter. Fenerbahce are still considering a lawsuit against UEFA and Platini for damages. Anger towards Platini was raised to fever pitch by the Swiss justice authorities’ investigation of UEFA’s president for accepting the now-infamous “disloyal payment” from FIFA authorised by Sepp Blatter on the basis of a verbal contract.
The heat generated by football in Turkey has come as a shock to Fenerbahce’s Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira. Coping with language problems on the training pitch was one problem, but greater than that was the passion-driven impatience.
“I always thought that in Portugal we were very emotional,” says Pereira. “But when I came to Turkey, I found that they are even more emotional and passionate about football than us. Either everything is perfect or it is terrible.
“In Portugal we play our football with 50 per cent heart and 50 per cent head. But here, it’s 80 per cent heart and only about 20 per cent tactical stuff. This means that sometimes in defence we lose our balance because, under pressure, the players forget all our tactical planning. Fenerbahce have made a huge investment in new players but it takes time to cook the food to get the taste I want. We have too many national-team breaks when all our players go away for a week.
“I want us to play a passing game, dominating possession, but I haven’t been able to build the team I want as quickly as I want – and we haven’t been providing the results and level of performance the fans want. Time is short and we always need results. I came with a two-year project in my mind but here, for the fans, the project is only the next game.”
That demand for instant success led to tension between Pereira and Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman arrived from Manchester United to a hero’s welcome in the summer, but the fitness issues which dogged his last season at Old Trafford have followed him to Turkey, with he and Pereira disagreeing over how and when he should be used, creating more negative headlines.
“No one likes to be on the bench, especially when, even if you are 30 or 31 or 32 or 33, you still have your ambition,” said Pereira. “So I prefer a player to be angry. Sometimes conflict between players and the coach is a problem but often it’s a good sign. Football is competitive. You have to try to prove every day to the coach that you are the best player.”
Like Pereira at Fener, Hamza Hamzaoglu of Galatasaray and Besiktas’ Senol Gunes will be judged by their results in the derby games and then – if they make it that far – where their clubs stand at the end of the season.
Patience does not come into it, and Pereira’s eyes were opened by his first few days in Istanbul after arriving from a double-winning success in Greece with Olympiakos.
“The first week was incredible,” said the 47-year-old. “I couldn’t walk down the street.
When the people here like a coach or a player it’s amazing. Here they have football in the blood. When they are born, when they are babes in arms, it’s already there. It’s wonderful but it also creates problems because the passion is all
about the next game. Then the next,
then the next…”
And, for a coach, the next job.