Only eight months ago the Turkish national team (Milli Takim) were taking the European Championships by storm with a brand of “never say die” attacking football and last minute heroics (or controversy depending on who you ask) as they made a name for Turkish football in Europe and across the world. It was yet another impressive addition to the growing football CV held by Türkiye and its football history, already bolstered by their third place finish at the 2002 World Cup and the crowning of Galatasaray as UEFA Cup champions in the 1999-2000 season.
Despite narrowly losing to Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2008, with nearly a second string team due to suspensions and a long list of injuries, and after recording spectacular last minute goals that knocked out both the Czech Republic (courtesy Nihat Kahveci’s breath taking goal against Peter Cech) and Croatia (cue in Semih Senturk’s screamer past Pletikosa), the buzz and excitement generated by coach Fatih Terim’s “fight to the death” brand of football was quickly forgotten by those fans who were so enthralled during the summer when the new European season started.
Perhaps to blame for this fading impression made at Euro 2008 was the mediocre performance by Turkish clubs in European competitions. Whilst Fenerbahçe, runners-up in the league last campaign, earned a spot in the group stages of the Champions’ League, their fierce rivals Galatasaray (reigning champions) failed to keep up and lost their spot to Romania’s Steaua Bucuresti. Thus, the champions were relegated to playing UEFA Cup football along side Besiktas and cup-winner Kayserispor, while Fenerbahçe looked to improve on its quarter-final appearance from the previous edition.
Fener’s new Spanish coach Luis Aragones (fresh from his tenure with Euro 2008 champions Spain) boasted new talisman Daniel Güiza and the summer signing of ex-Galatasaray youth academy midfielder Emre Belezoglu to spearhead another run which fans thought might better their previous quarter-final showing against Chelsea.
Any hope of such a run was put to rest by Fenerbahçe’s poor showing against FC Porto, Arsenal and Dynamo Kyiv. Adding insult to injury, Fener were denied an opportunity to carry out their European dreams in the UEFA Cup and a chance to play the final scheduled in their own Sükrü Saraçoglu stadium. Cup winners Kayserispor were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by a resurgent Paris St.Germain while Besitkas, having defeated FC Metalist Kharkiv 1-0 at the hostile Inönü Stadium, crashed out in dramatic fashion losing 4-1 in Ukraine and on the aggregate.
By December, the only representative flying Türkiye’s flag in Europe was Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup Group Stages. Yet their journey to the group stages left much to be desired demonstrated by a seven goal shootout which ended in Galatasaray scoring one more goal than their Swiss minnow opposition, Bellinzona, and then leaving it late thanks to a strike by Yaser Yildiz in the return leg at Istanbul. A loss in the group stages to the same Metalist Kharkiv side that eliminated Besiktas was the only loss sustained in the group stages and Galatasaray had some measure of hope instilled by away wins at Benfica and Hertha Berlin. The final draw for the knock out stages of the UEFA Cup paired Galatasaray with a familiar foe in recent European competitions, FC Girondin Bordeaux.
Since that miracle goal struck by Semih Senturk in Vienna back on June 20, 2008 against Croatia, one would think that the memories of Turkish resilience on the pitch have been long forgotten. Nothing has done much to revive these memories, certainly not the tepid football played by Turkish clubs in either the Champions’ League or the UEFA Cup, but fading memories were surely revived by Galatasaray’s second-leg match at the Ali Sami (“Hell”) Yen Stadium against FC Girondin Bordeaux. It was a reminder why I personally have followed and supported not only Galatasaray since their UEFA Cup run back in 1999-2000, but why I follow Turkish football in general whether that interest revolves around the milli takim or the domestic league.
After a rather exhilarating 0-0 draw (if there is such a thing in football) in Bordeaux, all eyes in Türkiye were fixated on the return leg. I imagine Fenerbahçe fans keeping their attention on this game in secret hope that their rivals would lose and thus possibly spare them the indignity of watching Galatasary contest the UEFA Cup final in Fener’s own stadium. For other neutrals in Türkiye, I would speculate that there was a certain amount of curiosity as to whether newly appointed manager, Bülent Korkmaz (captain of that 2000 UEFA Cup Galatasaray team) would save Galatasaray from a rut that saw them humiliated in their own stadium some four nights earlier by relegation candidates Kocaelispor (a humiliating score of 5-2 with four of Kocaeli’s goals scored at the rejuvenated Taner Gulleri).
With the whistle having just been blown to start the match, Bordeaux were already up 1-0 thanks to David Bellion’s clinical finishing and Mehmet Topal’s blunder. A valuable away goal only seconds into the match. Near the end of the first half it was first Arda Turan’s shot at the top of the penalty area and then a shot by Harry Kewell with Olympic archery precision into the top right corner of Ulrich Rame’s giving Galatasaray a 2-1 advantage at the half. A second goal from a subtle tap by Arda Turan from a Cassio Lincoln cross put this game beyond the reach of Bordeaux at 3-1. Yet a non-existent and an error-strewn Galatasaray defense gifted Bordeaux two goals within the span of a minute to level the score at 3-3 with fifteen minutes left. Was this the perfect scenario for another Turkish ending? Could it happen again? Even at this point, one has to wonder how many Turkish fans were thinking back to those summer (and rainy) nights in Vienna, Geneva or Basel.
And then in a flash, as Lincoln’s corner was swung in, knocked away by a Bordeaux defender and then struck by Galatasaray’s Sabri Sarioglu at the top of the area and weaving into the lower left corner of goal past an outstretched Ulrich Rame, it all started to come back. At the death, when a 3-3 final would book Bordeaux’s passage to the next round, and at perhaps the last kick of the match, Galatasaray resurrected itself from the dead. Turkish football in Europe for the 2008-2009 season lives on for another two-leg tie. And it begs the question whether we’re about to witness what we did in Euro 2008. If you’re a fan of Galatasaray, you surely hope so. But you should hope so if you’re a genuine fan of football.