From the Gezi Park protests near famous Taksim Square in 2013 to the ongoing activities of the ISIS and Kurdish militants, Turkey has been majorly involved in various conflicts in the recent past. Football too hasn’t been spared and got severely impacted in the process. Indranath Mukherjee explores the disquieting sides of Turkish football as Arda Turan and his men are traveling to France to play their first major international tournament in eight years.
After a lazy brunch at Bebek and a blissful afternoon nap in the hotel room, I decided to go to Taksim to spend the Saturday evening. My first impression of Taksim square on that cold December evening was simply overwhelming. That was 2011 and my first trip to Istanbul. In the next twelve months, work took me to Istanbul couple of more times and I made sure that I went to Taksim square as often as I could. Istanbul is a spectacular city, the crossroads of civilizations where East meets West. While the rich historical Sultanahmet area takes one to a different time and space, the sheer vibrancy of Taksim square fascinated me. Gezi Park next to Taksim square was a lovely little green space which provided solace from the urban modernization of the Beyoglu district.
When I heard the news of the police breakdown at Gezi Park on 28th May, 2013, it was a personal shock. The then Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government decided to destruct the park as part of their redevelopment plan. The plan included building a replica of 19th century Ottoman barracks with a shopping mall and a mosque with added sidewalks to make the square more pedestrian-friendly. There was a protest demonstration at the park that attracted a few hundred environmentalists who braved police attacks that included tear gas and water cannons. For the larger section of the society, the fury was caused not just by the decision to destroy the park but largely because of the impervious way the redevelopment decision was taken by the government. Hence the abusive response of the authorities touched a nerve and more people started joining the protest and within days the hashtags #DirenGeziParki (Resist Gezi Park) and the account for Ayaga Kalk Taksim (Stand Up Taksim) started trending all over social media. Turkish actor Mehmet Ali Alabora tweeted (in Turkish), “It’s not just about Gezi Park friend, haven’t you understood? Come over,” and it got thousands of retweets.
The situation in Turkey became one of a war zone. There were diverse gathering across all the 81 provinces in Turkey and the government acted as if it’s waging an invisible war against its dissidents. Apart from anti-government media organizations, large number of people from civil society groups, members of football fan clubs, arts community and various marginal groups joined the protest. Prime Minister Erdogan managed to bring Turkey among the three countries in the world, alongside Iran and China, to have most journalists behind bars. There had been charges against Mr. Erdogan that he tried to play the financially stressed football clubs against their fans who played prominent role in the “Gezi Park Protest”.
In particular, 35 football fans had been prosecuted based on the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government during the mass protests. All the fans were associated with the ‘Carsi’ group, the well-known supporter group of Besiktas Gymnastics Club which notably includes the Besiktas Football Club. Carsi is tad different from typical fan groups and they manifest their difference during football matches through their chants, as well as through the placards they carry to the stadium. People from different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds came together to form the group and they stand against racism, fascism, sexism. Their pro-environment stance made them participate in the Gezi Park Protest spontaneously and with strong intent. However, prosecuting them for attempting a coup was completely baseless. Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Human Rights researcher in Turkey, said, “Charging these Besiktas football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty.”
The court accepted the lawsuit on 11th September, 2014. According to the summons, the Carsi members were accused of attempting to capture the Prime Minister’s offices in Ankara and Istanbul and overthrow the government. In reality, the accused Carsi members were actively participating in the mass protest at Gezi Park and on the night of 2nd June, 2013 they hotwired a bulldozer from the construction site outside Besiktas’ Inonu Stadium and used it to push the police’s water cannon trucks away from their home turf. The evidence submitted against the fans consisted of intercepted phone calls and text messages, possession of gas masks and goggles. The defendants’ intercepted calls and messages did not establish any proof of criminal activity but just their opinion about the government, emotional sentiments of support for the demonstrations and a few abstract claims. Cem Yakiskan, one of Carsi’s leaders jokingly said, “If we had the power to carry out a coup, we would make Besiktas the champion.” For the record, Besiktas last won the league in 2008-09.
On the first day of the trial, some of the defendants and lawyers wore black-and-white Besiktas jerseys. Fans marched to the Istanbul court carrying banners with the Carsi logo—with its characteristic anarchy-style A, shouting slogans. There was unprecedented support from large section of people including fans of city rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce who otherwise are known as sworn enemies.
For a lot of people, the sight of people wearing surgical masks and safety helmets, chasing the police and waving Turkish flags from the top of a bulldozer was one of the most enduring images from civil unrest.
I remember what one of my colleagues Guner, who was a Besiktas supporter, told me in one of our post lunch customary Turkish coffee drinking sessions. He said that Besiktas may not have as much money as Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, but they have got heart. After talking to number of people in Turkey, after having read as much as possible about the situation in the country, I realized that not only do they have heart but they are also well equipped to combat police attacks. They have been subject to the Turkish police throwing tear gas cans towards them before football matches. “Pepper spray is a Besiktas fan’s perfume” was a joke cracked by one of the Carsi members.
The snatching of the bulldozer was to show that they were against the demolition of their beloved stadium too, but the act was not particularly out of character for the Besiktas fans. They have been playful with their banners and often made political statements through the banners. Once, before a game between Besiktas and Fenerbahce, they had made a banner of Argentina’s Ariel Ortega – Fenerbahce’s star player at the time – with the caption “Cobarde Gallina Ortega,” meaning, “Coward Chicken Ortega.” This was in criticism of Ortega’s admission that he would fly back to his home in Argentina if a war erupted in Turkey’s neighbouring countries – a fear he voiced in February 2003, just before the allied troops invaded Iraq.
Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”
Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”
It’s true that among all the football fans, the Carsı group were on the frontlines in the “Gezi Park Protest”. Despite police brutality, they maintained their humour all along through their tweets and graffiti. A tweet asked everyone to call 155 (police hotline) to say that it is already noon and the police are late.
A graffiti (seen in the above picture) said: “You messed with a generation who grew up beating up cops in GTA”. GTA referred to the famous video game series Grand Theft Auto. They at times were direct yet subtle in their message. The “Please don’t come back!” graffiti was clearly addressed to Mr. Erdogan who went to a trip to North Africa amidst all the disturbance. What an irony it was to see a graffiti which read “Enough! I will call the cops.” Another one mocked the tear gas throwing police: “With this much gas, the government can shit (shit is often used as “to fuck up” in Turkish) at any moment.”
A New Yorker article in 2011 cited a headline that sarcastically called the Besiktas stands, “the only place where the Armenian problem has been solved”. It’s well known that the history between Armenia and Turkey is not very pleasant and hence there is a stereotype that Armenians in Turkey support Besiktsas. Carsi has a strong pluralist image. One of their most prominent members, Alen Markaryan, is of Armenian descent. They say: “We are the people’s team; our leftists are populists, our nationalists are populists, our Islamists are populists – you can’t find extremists in Carsi . Our members support and protect the people and Carsi is an umbrella under which everyone is included.” I remember Guner saying: “We have heart.”
If we go back in time, Besiktas was established during the late Ottoman period in 1903. Fuat Balkan who had represented Turkey in the 1924 Paris Olympic in Fencing was the president of Besiktas in the early years. He was a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revolutionary army officer who founded the Republic of Turkey. Quite naturally, Atatürk’s sympathy and support gave Besiktas a philosophical foundation of secularist principles and an adherence to hard left-wing politics.
Although Mr. Erdogan is adamant in his stand that “Gezi was a coup attempt, they didn’t succeed,” the Besiktas fans’ trial isn’t the first time he had sought to clear-out dissent from the football pitch. In August 2013, he made Besiktas football club ask its fans to sign a pledge when buying season tickets that they would not raise any political chants during matches that could “trigger mass, political or ideological events.” The fans of course rejected the club’s attempt to make them sign the pledge.
The reason why Mr. Erdogan had been able to whip clubs into line and use them against their own fans was the “uncertainty over the sustainability” of the finances of the clubs. As per Bloomberg, the shareholders’ equity for three of the four Istanbul clubs, Galatasary SC, Besiktas JK and Black Sea club Trabzonspor FC, are negative. Galatasary has accumulated a lot of debts in the recent past to acquire big names like Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder and manager Roberto Mancini and their debt-to-cash ratio is 13:1. The other two cases are even worse, the ratio for Besiktas is 24:1 and Trabzonspor is 40:1.
What is most ironic about targeting football fans by Mr. Erdogan is that he himself was a semi-professional footballer and played for Kasimpasa between 1969 and 1982 before being elected as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
Money laundering, match fixing and bribery have historically been the scourge of the Turkish football economy. The battle over freedom of expression on the pitch was being waged as Mr Erdogan unveiled what he termed a historic democracy package that granted greater liberties but fell short of the expectations of everyone – liberals, Kurds and Orthodox Christians. The greatest concern about the state of football has been rightly expressed by the football economist and journalist Tugrul Aksar: “If Turkish football isn’t reformed, institutionalized and if all goes as it has so far, Turkish football is doomed to hit a wall.”
As per the statement made by Turkey’s Sport Tourism Union (STB) President Ferit Turgut in December 2015, the country has suffered a loss of 52 million Euros in revenues from visits to football training camps in tourism hot-spot Antalya. Close to 900 pre-planned training camps were cancelled, with the clubs citing security reasons and the Russian jet crisis as the reason for the cancellations.
Hakan Sukur, Turkey’s all-time top scorer chose politics as a career post his retirement from football and joined the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but resigned in December 2013 when a corruption probe targeted Erdogan and the ruling elite. In early 2016, he faced a sedition charge that could send him to jail for up to four years as one of his tweets apparently insulted Erdogan and his son.
On 22nd February, Trabzonspor and Galatasaray were having a feisty encounter. The score was 1-1 and Tranzonspor were already down to nine men when referee Bitnel red-carded Luis Cavanda for a foul and awarded Galatasaray a penalty. The Trabzonspor players started complaining and in the confusion the referee dropped the red card on the ground. At that point, Trabzonspor defender Salih Dursun picked it up and waved it at the referee, who in return held it up to the player as he sent him off as well. Gala won the match 2-1. Dursun received support for his act from both his club and the fans. Trabzonspor chairman Muharrem Usta said: “Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.”
“Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.“
The head of Turkey’s central referees’ commission, Kuddusi Muftuoglu, acknowledged: “We share the disappointment of Trabzonspor.”
This year the (in) famous Kıtalar Arası Derbi between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce was to be played on Sunday, 20th March, but the Turkish authorities called off the match just about a couple of hours before kick-off. A brief statement from the Istanbul governor’s office said that the match was postponed following “the assessment of serious intelligence”. No other details were provided. The fans of both the clubs were found arguing with security officials outside Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena Stadium. The unofficial claim is there was a serious bomb threat in the stadium and hence the authorities were forced to cancel the high voltage game. The decision came a day after an Islamic State group linked suicide bomber blew himself up killing four tourists and injuring 36 others on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street of Taksim Square located at the heart of the city. Alarmingly this was the sixth attack since July 2015 and all of them are mostly linked to either ISIS or Kurdish militants.
Away fans are barred from attending the derby games between the Istanbul big-three, Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce. This ban was applied several times in the last decade to avoid violence and has become a norm since 2011. The ban has been extended to men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball games as well. There have been number of protests against this ban but the authority is firm that the ban on the away fans is here to stay.
The Turkish authority has introduced “PASSOLIG” card in conjunction with Turkish law no. 6222 on prevention of violence and disorder in sports. The card is also an attempt to put an end to the era of printed tickets. It’s a multipurpose card which acts as ATM, credit and store discount card and in contracted cities, it also works as transportation card. On the flip side, people need to enter their personal data to register for the card and personal details include their favourite club as well. Fans see this as a way to uphold the ban of the visiting fans in Istanbul which caused serious downfall in attendance in Turkish super league games. This is a serious issue of breaching privacy and most of the common Turkish people see this as an attempt by the government to control football fans.
The Fenerbahce team bus was shot at by a gunman en route to the airport after their 5-1 win over the Black Sea side Caykur Rizespor in their Turkish Super League game on 4th April, 2015. None of the players were injured but the bus driver was wounded and had to be taken to the hospital. The league was suspended for a week after this incident.
Few months later, on 11th August, 2015, Fenerbahce’s 29-year-old Turkish midfielder Mehmet Topal’s car was fired at by a gunman. Topal was returning home along with his team mate Uygar Mert Zeybek after a training session when the car was attacked. Fortunately, Topal’s car was bulletproof and the gunmen could only damage the passenger side of the widescreen without piercing the glass. The club was shocked by this “armed terrorist act” and called the series of events as “peak point of hostility” towards them.
The game between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahce on 24th April, 2016 was abandoned after a Trabzonspor fan assaulted the assistant referee Volkan Bayarslan. The home side were down 4-0 when a Trabzonspor fan jumped onto the field of play and pushed the assistant referee to the ground and punched him. The home fans were already throwing projectiles onto the field from the beginning, after the incident the game was immediately called off.
On 14th May, 2016, Eskisehirspor was playing at home against Istanbul Basaksehir for a win to avoid relegation. Stefano Napoleoni scored for the visiting side early in the second half but Tornike Okriashvili equalised for the host in the 66th minute. However, three minutes into stoppage time Sokol Cikalleshi scored for the away side to finish the match 1-2 which ensured relegation for Eskisehirspor. The fans went crazy and vandalised their ground and some people got seriously injured in the process. Even the stands at Eskisehir Atatürk Stadium were set on fire by some disappointed fans.
The golden time for Turkish national football was between 2002 and 2004. In the 2002 FIFA World Cup, they finished 3rd and repeated the same feat in the 2003 Confederations Cup. They reached their highest FIFA ranking, 5th, in 2004. In the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship, Turkey lost in the semi-final to the eventual runner-up Germany by a 90th minute goal by Philipp Lahm. Since then Turkish football has been going through a crisis. They missed qualifying for the 2012 Euro but made it to Euro 2016 as the best third-placed team after beating the already qualified Iceland 1–0 , in the process ousting another favourite The Netherlands. The tournament will be the first major tournament in eight years for the Turkish national team and it will be interesting to see how they perform in France at a time when their domestic football is in deep crisis. A good show by Arda Turan and his men may pump in some money and bring some long due regulatory measures in Turkish football.
UEFA Europa League Preview
The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform
The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.
Liverpool FC Anzhi Makhachkala FC Udinese Calcio BSC Young Boys
None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.
Atletico Viktoria Plzeň Academica H.Tel Aviv
Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.
Olympique de Marseille Fenerbahçe AEL Limassol Borussia Mönchengladbach FC
Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.
Bordeaux Newcastle United Club Brugge Maritimo
Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.
VFB Stuttgart FC København Steaua București Molde FK
Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.
AIK Solna FC Dnipro PSV Eindhoven Napoli
Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.
FC Basel Videoton K.R.C. Genk Sporting CP
Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.
Inter Partizan Neftchi Rubin Kazan
Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off. In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.
Athletic Club AC Sparta Praha Lyon H.I. Kiryat Shmona
Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.
Panathinaikos S.S. Lazio Tottenham NK Maribor
Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.
Metalist Kharkiv Bayer Leverkusen Rosenborg BK SK Rapid Wien
Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.
Twente FC Levante UD Hannover 96 Helsinborg
The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.
Welcomed at the Gates of Hell
Football derbies are often more important than winning the championship, they often ruin friendship and even blood relationships, but they are always intensely exciting. Indranath Mukherjee provides an account of one of the most (in)famous of football derbies
“How can you do this to us, Indra!” was how Didem had reacted on seeing me browsing through the official website of Fenerbahçe. She, like most of the other project team members, was a diehard Galatasaray fan. During my 20 days stint in the fascinating city, I was planning to visit the Fenerbahçe Stadium as I had read that it is the best stadium in Turkey for design and acoustics. Didem protested again: “Our new stadium is better”. Galatasaray had moved to the Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex Türk Telecom Arena recently, a new stadium with increased capacity recently.
As luck would have it, the Kıtalar Arası Derbi was scheduled on December 7, my last week in the project at Istanbul. “How do I get hold of a ticket?” was my immediate concern. Just so my team members don’t feel they have a novice amongst them when it comes to football, I narrated some stories of watching the game in England and Spain, over lunch. “The experience here will be very different from watching football anywhere else in Europe”, they retorted. And must I say, true to their word, it was…and how!
With a stadium capacity of a little over 50,000 and seats filling fast, getting tickets to the match would have been impossible, had Didem not gone the extra mile to ask her brother a favour – to use his Galatasaray card to book tickets for us. She had used her own to buy tickets for herself and her dad. Her husband being a Fenerbahçe fan had to stay at home, since by law, no Fenerbahçe supporter can go to the Galatasaray stadium for the derby game and vice-versa. The games between the two clubs had often caused mass uprisings in the past and last season’s match-fixing scandal had only added to the tension among fans. The Fenerbahçe president, Aziz Yıldırım is still in prison on charges of bribery. As many as 92 club officials and football players are still suspect and the trial will begin on February 14, 2012.
Having experienced the madness among Turkish football fans on my first day at Istanbul when Besiktas, the other city rival, had hosted Galatasaray, I was preparing myself for another emotionally charged night of football. But the reality was nothing compared to my imagination. Anticipating heavy traffic on the street, we decided to take the metro and by the time we reached Taksim, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience. Thousands of fans singing together in support of their club wasn’t new to me, but the intensity was clearly manifold higher. It was a rainy evening in Istanbul but that couldn’t dampen the spirit of the Gala fans.
Some of the singing and chanting was clearly targeted at two Fenerbahçe footballers. One of them being Volkan Demirel, the Fenerbahçe goalkeeper, who went on record saying he will not shave his beard until the club president comes out of prison. Didem had said about him: “He always plays against us”. The other was Emre Belözoglu, the 31-year-old midfielder who was one amongst 125 best living footballers in the FIFA 100 chosen by Pelé. He had left Galatasaray to join Internazionale in Italy and then spent three years in Newcastle United in England before moving back to Istanbul to join Fenerbahçe. Gala fans had greeted him with a garland made of money when he first came back to play there. That night, he was being remembered with the choicest of words again.
The Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex TT Arena, the newly built home of Galatasaray, was absolutely packed with fans. Coming into the game, Fenerbahçe was at the top of the Spor Toto Super League with 28 points from 13 games while Gala at number two with 25 points from equal number of games.
Galatasaray started the game strongly but Volkan made three very good saves which reminded me what Didem had said about him always playing well against the Galas. Fenerbahçe played some good passing game but failed to penetrate in the final third. Felipe Melo of Brazil did a good job of holding for Gala while Johan Elmander gave the Fenerbahçe defence a really tough time. The former Liverpool man Milan Baroš missed a sitter for Gala before the ex-Arsenal man Emmanuel Eboue danced them into the lead in the 32nd minute from an assist by Elmander. Eight minutes later, Elmander grabbed the ball from Bilica (Fabio Alves Da Silva) and netted a goal, thanks to a poor piece of goalkeeping from Volkan.
Fenerbahçe started the second half with a little more composure. Alex de Souza, their Brazilian captain started showing more initiative but Tomáš Ujfaluši was rock solid at the Gala defence. Fenerbahçe had more possession of the ball during this half of the game but they failed to create clear chances for goals. In the 66th minute, the Fenerbahçe defenders were caught sleeping when Melo got a free header to score the third for the Yellow-Reds from a corner from Selçuk İnan. Alex scored a consolation for Fener in the last minute of the game.
With the 3-1win, Galatasaray moved up to the top in the league standings with superior goal difference. A dejected Aykut Kocaman, the Fener manager revealed after the game: “We are truly very upset. We had to have dominance over Galatasaray and we were supposed to direct the game. However, we failed in meeting our expectations and we did not perform at our utmost in the first half of the game. In the second half, we seemed to play better but that did not help us win the necessary points at the end. Now we have to focus on the upcoming game against Bursaspor.”
In terms of overall quality of football, the game might not have scored enough to be topmost in my memory but the sheer intensity and energy among the Gala fans before, during and after the game sure have. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in words; superlatives like ‘most electrifying’ may also seem understated. They all sang for Cim Bom on their way back home. Even the most helpless of Gala fans hadn’t quite expected the score they saw. Little wonder that the score was discussed the next day; it will continue to be discussed in offices, bars and bedrooms until the two fiercest of rivals meet again.