Göztepe and the long journey back to Turkey’s top flight

Göztepe and the long journey back to Turkey’s top flight

OWING TO A KNACK of scoring late goals, Semih Şentürk is known in Turkey as “the lifeguard”. One particularly famous example of his match-saving efforts came in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals against Croatia, where he sent the game to penalties in the final seconds for his nation to go on and win. Nine years on from that feat, in June last year, he had another chance to live up to his nickname.

The date is 4 June 2017, and he walks up to take a penalty for Eskişehirspor in their 1. Lig playoff final match with Göztepe. The 34-year-old decides to keep it simple and shoot down the middle, but unfortunately for him it is saved. Semih has thrown the proverbial rubber ring to his hometown club, with Göztepe now having a chance to win the shootout and end a 14-year exile from the top flight. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of Sinan Özkan, who strides up purposefully to power his shot to the right-hand corner of the goal.

Ruud Boffin guesses correctly and gets fingertips to it, but the ball nestles in the back of the net. Pandemonium ensues from the players and supporters, some of whom storm the pitch to celebrate, with one bold man striding to replicate Graeme Souness and plant a flag in the centre circle. Flares alight like a spreading forest fire in the Göztepe half of the Antalya Arena, with the thousands of joyful tears shed unable to extinguish such outpouring of emotion. This club has been seen it all, falling as low as the fifth tier and almost disappearing completely, but they’ve made it. Göztepe are back.

Historically one of Turkey’s biggest clubs, Göztepe hail from the western city of İzmir, a coastal settlement that is the country’s third largest. Established in 1925, they won their sole league title a year prior to the competition becoming professionalised in 1951. They enjoyed a golden period in the 1960s under the guidance of Adnan Süvari, where a squad featuring several internationals helped Göztepe push the traditional giants of Istanbul for honours.

A part-time footballer and also wool mill worker in the 1950s, Süvari travelled to London on the orders of his boss to spend three-and-a-half years studying textile mechanics. He used his summers in England to pick up valuable coaching experience, which was brought back to Turkey in 1960 when his former school friend and now president of Karşıyaka Şelçuk Yaşar invited him to be manager. He left the team in October 1960, being brought across İzmir to Göztepe by his brother Sebahattin, who served as president.

Süvari was a true innovator, video analysing other successful teams and implementing aspects of their play at Göztepe. Of particular interest was the World Cup-winning Brazil side of 1962, with use of space and positional play crucial. He implemented one of the first uses of 4-3-3 as a formation, with emphasis placed on quick counter-attacks. He also adopted the unorthodox approach of likening football to basketball, with his first training session at the club involving players throwing balls to one another in search for space.

Also central to Göztepe’s success was a policy of using local players, with all but three of the squad during this period academy graduates. Gürsel Aksel was the leading light, known as ‘Grand Captain’ thanks to his leadership qualities and phenomenal goal-scoring record. A testament to Süvari, in his first season working with him, the midfielder nearly doubled his previous season’s goal tally. Also of huge importance was bullish striker Fevzi Zemzem, still the all-time record scorer with 185 goals, and the only Göztepe player to have topped the league scoring charts.

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By now Süvari’s talents for team building had not gone unnoticed, and in 1967 he was appointed Turkey boss alongside his club duties. The first tangible thing for the side known as Efsane Göztepe – Legendary Göztepe – came about in 1968/69 when they won the Turkish Cup, triumphing 2-1 over Galatasaray. A first leg lead courtesy of Ertan Öznur was cancelled out in Istanbul by Ahmet Čelović, with Nihat Yayöz then scoring in extra-time to seal the win for Göztepe. In the league, they never really challenged for the title, although did enjoy an unprecedented period of consistency, with only one finish below fifth in eight consecutive seasons.

This meant participation in European competitions, with the club enjoying a solid run in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the precursor to the UEFA Cup, in 1969. In a campaign marked by several oddities, including a first-round win over Marseille courtesy of a coin toss, and void quarter-final after Hamburg withdrew, Göztepe made history. Despite losing 8-1 to Hungarian side Újpest in the semis, they became the first Turkish club to reach this stage of a European competition, something which they are still immensely proud of.

Regardless of the loss, Göztepe retained their domestic cup with an inspirational comeback over Eskişehirspor. This meant qualification for the Cup Winners’ Cup, where they went on to reach the quarter-finals via victories over Union Luxembourg and Cardiff City, prior to losing 2-0 to Roma. The next season they exited in the second round, losing to previous year’s runners up Gornik Zabrze. Meanwhile, a penalty shoot-out loss to Bursaspor in the semis of the 1971 Turkish Cup denied them a shot at another European campaign.

By this stage, however, the golden generation were beginning to age, and Göztepe began to drop down the league. Süvari left the team in 1971 following the death of Sebahattin, with Gürsel and Zemzem leaving in 1972 and 1973 before relegation on the final day of the season in 1977. Bouncing back at the first attempt, two unspectacular seasons later they found themselves back in the second division, although they again won promotion straight away in 1980/81.

The penultimate match of this campaign was none other than an İzmir derby against Karşıyaka, with the two teams directly fighting for promotion. Over 80,000 fans – a world record for a non-top-flight game – packed into the İzmir Atatürk Stadium to witness a goalless draw, before a late winner on the final day sent Göztepe up in place of KSK. Süvari then returned as manager for a solitary season, just as he had done in 1974/75, although was unable to keep them up. It would take a long while for Göztepe to get back.

They finally re-reached the Süper Lig for 1999/2000, although like before, this ended in relegation, and after another few years of yo-yoing, Göztepe were relegated for the final time in 2003. This signalled a descent into the abyss, with owner Dinç Bilgin arrested on corruption charges and the club being seized by the TMSF. A government organisation set up with the intentions of limiting shady dealings, the club became property of the TMSF in exchange for Bilgin’s debts. This landed Göztepe in a heap of financial trouble, with three more relegations in the next four seasons putting them in the fifth division.

The fans remained loyal, though, with matches during this sole season in amateur football regularly attracting larger crowds than many games in the Süper Lig. Escaping this level only came about through a merger with fourth division Aliağa Belediyespor, as on the pitch Göztepe had lost 7-6 on penalties in the playoff final to Ayazağaspor. They then went on to win the league and return to the third tier, confusingly called the TFF Second League, with the club then bought from the TMSF in 2010.

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This coincided with a return to the second division the following season, although they were relegated again in 2013. A $9 million takeover by energy magnate Mehmet Sepil in 2014 meant additional funds, leading to a return to the First League in 2015, and, after surviving at the higher level, Göztepe started 2016/17 in a positive manner.

In the promotion picture all season under the guidance of Okan Buruk, the former international midfielder was sacked in March following a run of three consecutive losses that put the club 10 points behind leaders Yeni Malatyaspor. In his place came experienced hand Yılmaz Vural, who in his 33rd managerial role steered Göztepe into the playoffs.

After comfortably disposing of Boluspor in the semis, it looked as if the dream would be left unfulfilled in the final. Following a first half delayed for 17 minutes due to flares being thrown onto the pitch, a goal from Chikeluba Ofoedu in the 54th minute put Eskişehirspor into the lead. Desperate, Vural threw everything at it with three attacking changes in the final five minutes. In stoppage time it paid off, with a low ball into the box from Sandro Kobakhidze stabbed in at the back post by Adis Jahović to force extra time. After a goalless half hour, Göztepe triumphed 3-2 on penalties.

Back in the Süper Lig for the first time in 14 years, and İzmir’s first representative in the top flight since 2011, fans were eager to see how they would perform. A contract extension failed to be agreed with Vural over a wage dispute, although Beşiktaş assistant Tamer Tuna has excelled in his place. He has been aided in no small part by a raft of established recruits, with Champions League experience in Adama Traoré, Beto and Yoan Gouffran blended together with Süper Lig stalwarts such as Óscar Scarione, Sabri Sarıoğlu and Selçuk Şahin.

Beto has arguably been the best goalkeeper in the Süper Lig this season, stopping three penalties and keeping six clean sheets, while André Castro has excelled in the number 10 role. The form of Jahović – who has now moved to Konyaspor – was also key too, with the Macedonian striker hitting 14 goals in his debut top-flight season for Göz Göz.

Despite enduring a tumultuous past 10 years, if anything this adversity has served to enhance the fans’ passion. Each year on 14 June, the club’s birthday, thousands of Göztepe supporters take to the coastal front to light up flares and fireworks in a remarkable display. Amongst this they sing İsyan Marşi – The Rebellion Anthem – which has become the soundtrack of their remarkable comeback.

As a club Göztepe have always been brash and unconventional, and thanks in no small part to a local lifeguard, they are now back doing it on the big stage again.

By James Kelly  

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