FOX Soccer Exclusive
Fenerbahce highlights the positives
For once, Fenerbahce can relax. The Istanbul club is involved in a mighty scrap at the top of the Turkish table, the fourth of six clubs within four points of the summit, but in the Europa League it entered into its final game already qualified for the last 32.
This is not about position, it’s not about points, it’s not about qualification; it’s purely about pride and perhaps giving a rest to limbs and minds worn out by the exertions of the past few months.
Mental fatigue is probably the more significant. This year has arguably been the most difficult in the club’s history. In July, Fenerbahce’s chairman, Aziz Yildirim, a millionaire NATO defense contractor, was sentenced to over six years in jail – three years and nine months for match-fixing and two years and six months for forming an illegal organization – following a scandal that erupted in July 2011. Police raids led to the arrest of 61 people, including players and executives from a number of clubs, in connection with suspicions over 19 games in the top two divisions. A total of 48 were convicted although all have appealed.
Yildirim, who was released on bail pending the appeal which began a fortnight ago, continues to deny the allegations, insisting they are part of a conspiracy against his club, a view shared by the hundreds of Fenerbahce fans in club colors who packed the streets outside the courthouse. Fenerbahce was barred from last season’s Champions League but has not been stripped of its league title.
The club could have been relegated for the offense but escaped following a series of bewildering political machinations in the lead-up to Yildirim’s trial. Fenerbahce appealed against its expulsion from the Champions League and, when that was rejected, turned to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, demanding $60million in compensation from the Turkish Football Federation. It also rejected what was in effect a plea-bargain, by which, in return for admitting its guilt, it would have faced a points deduction for this season rather than relegation.
In March this year, as UEFA held its annual congress in Istanbul, its president Michel Platini met privately with Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan. In that meeting, he is believed to have urged Erdogan to intervene to resolve the crisis, pointing out that it was a major embarrassment for the European game, particularly if Turkey had serious aspirations to host Euro 2020 (whether it does or not depends largely on how Istanbul’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games goes and whether Platini pushes ahead with his plan to spread the tournament over multiple venues).
In April, Fenerbahce abruptly withdrew its CAS appeal amid reports that the TFF would pay most of the $60 million sought after by the club. At the same time, the TFF received an internal report that effectively cleared Fenerbahce of match-fixing.
Then, just as the season had got under way and it seemed – temporarily at least – possible for Fenerbahce to leave the accusations to one side, the club lost the player who has been the icon of the club for most of the past decade: Alex de Souza.
The Brazilian attacking midfielder joined the club in 2004 and went on to make 340 appearances for them, scoring at just over a goal every other game. So popular was de Souza that in September this year, a statue, paid for by fans, was erected of him in Kadikoy Yogurtcu park. It was unveiled just on time; 16 days later, his contract was terminated following a dispute with the coach, Aykut Kocaman, over playing style.
Sad as his departure was, though, it’s hard to argue against what Kocaman has done. His 4-2-3-1 shape has given Fenerbahce a solid base. It may be the lowest scorer in the top seven of the Turkish league but it also has the best defensive record (excepting Trabszonspor, which has played a game less). That resilience has been particularly notable in away group matches on the Europa League, all three of which Fenerbahce has won. It has kept three successive clean sheets in the competition.
The game away to Borussia Monchengladbach was key. Fenerbahce had only drawn its first game, at home to Marseille, and there was a sense it needed at least a point in Germany if it was to have any realistic chance of making it through an awkward group. It went far better than that.
With the Turkey international Mehmet Topal sitting alongside the former Chelsea player Raul Meireles at the back of the midfield, Fenerbahce gained a foothold after going behind early. With Dirk Kuyt, once of Liverpool, shuttling on the right and another Turkey international, Caner Erkin, on the left, Fenerbahce was able to counter-attack at pace, with the Brazilian Cristian Baroni operating just off Moussa Sow. Goals from Cristian, Kuyt and Meireles put Fenerbahce up 3-1. Although Igor De Camargo pulled one back, Cristian sealed Fenerbahce's first win over German opposition late on.
Back-to-back wins over the Cypriot side AEL and an unexpected 1-0 victory in Marseille secured Fenerbahce’s progress. Thursday’s game may not have the intensity of some of the earlier encounters but after a wearying year for Fenerbahce there is relief in that. For the rest of Europe, meanwhile, the game represents another chance to examine one of the more awkward potential last-32 opponents.