Lions cap great year with top 16 spot

Lions cap great year with top 16 spot

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Lions cap great year with top 16 spot

Aydın Yılmaz and Burak Yılmaz were on the scoresheet as Fatih Terim’s Galatasaray advances to the Champions League knockout stages. AP photo

Few people could have foreseen that Galatasaray would be so illustrious in the year 2012.

Galatasaray capped its successful year by booking a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds, doing so for only the second time in its history and the third time in Turkish history. The European success, coupled with Galatasaray’s first national league title since 2008, makes the Lions the year’s most successful team in Turkey.

The unprecedented lows the team hit last year couldn’t seem any more distant.

At the beginning of 2011, Galatasaray was struggling in mid-table mediocrity and threatening to descend and join the relegation fray.

Chairman Adnan Polat’s days were numbered, just like those of coach Gheorghe Hagi, who replaced Frank Rijkaard just a couple of months earlier. The club’s relocation to a new stadium was more problematic than lucrative as initially expected – just a couple of thousand were paying to see a lowly team at the state-of-the-art Türk Telekom Arena. The arrival of new Chairman Ünal Aysal and his hiring of club legend Fatih Terim as head coach for a third spell would later prove to be game-changing, but that was not immediately apparent in the summer of 2011.

Fight fire with fire

For Aysal, a graduate of the Galatasaray High School, in whose classrooms the club was founded a century ago, and a successful businessman living in Belgium, there were two ways to steer the ship. One would be downsizing, a path that similarly cash-strapped Beşiktaş would later follow. The other one was fighting fire with fire: Playing it big, spending big and acquiring marquee signings so that the fans would fill the stands of the arena to help the club make full use of its lucrative ground.

Around 25 million euros were spent on the likes of Turkish playmaker Selçuk İnan, Swedish marksman Johan Elmander, Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, Spanish winger Albert Riera and Ivorian right back Emmanuel Eboue last year. With that empowered squad, Galatasaray would win the league title to return to the Champions League. A similar amount was spent for transfers this past summer as well, to buy out Felipe Melo from Juventus and to acquire Turkish forwards Burak Yılmaz and Umut Bulut along with Moroccan winger Nordin Amrabat.

For Galatasaray, the two-season gamble of playing it big duly paid off in the Champions League, the top-level European club competition. In addition to the qualification prize of 8.6 million euros and the broadcasting rights income of 14.5 million, the team’s collection of 10 points and its advancement to the round of 16 will fill the club’s coffers with a further 7 million from UEFA, the continental football’s governing body.

Emperor’s new high

While matters have been brighter off the pitch, Galatasaray coach Fatih Terim has been boasting at leading his team past the group stages for the first time in a decade. Although he is the club’s most successful coach, thanks to four consecutive league titles between 1997 and 2000, in addition to an unprecedented UEFA Cup victory in 2000, Terim’s Galatasaray has never made it past the group stage, a fact that has always rankled. Dubbed “the Emperor” for his leadership and charisma by Galatasaray fans, Terim is now stronger than ever in his seat, and rightly so. Galatasaray will now wait until Dec. 20 to see which of seven group winners – the list does not include Manchester United as they already met in the group stage – it will face, with the possibility that it could meet Barcelona, largely hailed as the world’s best side. As intriguing as a battle between Barça’s Argentine wizard Lionel Messi and Galatasaray’s home-grown defensive warrior Semih Kaya would be, the Lions had better pray Barcelona is pitted against another team.

“Ask any of the eight teams and they will say, ‘We don’t want Barça,’” Terim told NTVSpor late on Dec. 5, before going on to coin another one of his confident musings. “But nobody should expect us to back down – against any opponent.”