Why do so many renowned western European managers fail in Turkey?

Why do so many renowned western European managers fail in Turkey?

As Moestafa El Kabir loops over Harun Tekin to make it 3-0 to Ankaragücü, on the touchline Philip Cocu surely knows. An audible wall of boos ring around the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, with Fenerbahçe fans venting their anger at what is one of their worst ever starts to a season. After 10 games, the club find themselves in 15th place, just two points above the bottom spot of the Süper Lig.

Hours after the final whistle, with the match ending 3-1 to the visitors, Fenerbahçe release a statement announcing Cocu’s departure. The outpouring of relief on social media tells you all you need to know about the general consensus on the decision. Cocu was only in the job 128 days, yet left Istanbul with a telling legacy. The latest case in a long line of high-profile managerial casualties in the city, it lends further weight to the argument that many foreign coaches are simply incompatible with the highly-charged environment of Turkish football.

It wasn’t always this way, owing to Turkey professionalising the game relatively late on in the late 1950s. Foreign managers often possessed a far higher level of tactical expertise and saw better results. Until 2001 no Turk had successfully brought the Süper Lig title to Fenerbahçe, while between 1983 and 2007, only two native coaches managed to win the league amongst a sea of imports.

Those Turks who did succeed were often influenced by the west, such as the pioneering, English-educated Adnan Süvari at Göztepe in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the winning managers of Fatih Terim and Mustafa Denizli were heavily influenced in their playing days by German coach Jupp Derwall.

Arriving at a club that trained on pebbles, he is widely regarded as a revolutionising figure in Turkey. Between 1984 and 1987, Derwall introduced pioneering training regimes and tactics previously unseen in this part of the world. His legacy is visible in the fact that Galatasaray’s training facility carries his name. Following on from the pioneering German was compatriot Karl-Heinz Feldkamp, a notorious disciplinarian, Yugoslav Todor Veselinović and Englishman Gordon Milne at Beşiktaş. 

Despite these iconic names, a trend has emerged recently where Turkish players respond best to domestic coaches. Denizli took what was largely Derwall’s team to the 1989 European Cup semi-finals. Terim won the UEFA Cup in 2000 at Galatasaray, also getting the national side to the semis of Euro 2008. Six years before that, at the 2002 World Cup, Şenol Güneş steered an unfancied team to third place in Korea-Japan. Furthermore, since 2008, the league winning side has been led by a Turkish coach on each occasion. With the remaining 17 clubs this season led by Turks, it appears this run will stretch to 12.

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Notorious for being impatient when dealing with managers, one could argue fellow Turks understand far better how to lead these short-term expectations than outsiders. Back in the foreigner heyday far less pressure existed, owing to the absence of big-name international players. By contrast, success is now demanded instantly, with such hopes only heightened when factoring in an impressive CV.

Luis Aragonés arrived at Fenerbahçe in 2008 on the back of guiding Spain to the European Championship. He brought with him the Pichichi winner in Dani Güiza, adding to a squad already containing the likes of Alex, Emre Belözoğlu and Roberto Carlos. The Spaniard was tasked with reclaiming the league from Galatasaray but disappointed, ending the season in fourth, and was subsequently sacked.

His compatriot Vicente del Bosque fared no better, failing to live up to expectations, this time at Beşiktaş. Joining in 2004 with two Champions League titles to his name, he also negotiated the impressive captures of John Carew, Juanfran and Okan Buruk. Despite his reputation, and with a total of seven new first-team players to bed in, Del Bosque was cut no slack. Expected to continue the work of Mircea Lucescu in what was his first managerial appointment overseas, he never recovered from winning just one of his opening seven league contests.

Reflecting on been sacked in January 2005, Del Bosque believes he was not given enough time. “We won seven of my last nine matches and drew the other two. I think that patience is missing in Turkey.” There were also language issues, with neither able to speak either English or Turkish, and rumours Aragonés didn’t have complete control over team selection.

Whatever the root cause, one cannot put it down to coaching ability. As their success would indicate, Aragonés and Del Bosque clearly had the skill, but for whatever reason this counts for little if title-winning form is not instantly implemented at your new Turkish club.

One exception to this rule is Frank Rijkaard at Galatasaray, someone Del Bosque termed “an excellent choice” upon his appointment in June 2009. Yet again a coach arrived in Turkey with the Champions League on his CV, tying this in with big money signings. The likes of Elano and Abdul Kader Keïta came through the door at the Ali Sami Yen, but despite a trophyless season, Rijkaard was spared the sack.

In the following campaign, this new-found patience vanished. Galatasaray endured a poor start domestically, exiting the Europa League qualifiers on away goals to Karpaty Lviv, and the Dutchman paid the price in October 2011. A fellow flop at Galatasaray was Cesare Prandelli, who lasted just 145 days in charge in 2014.

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The Italian later labelled this move a “wrong decision”, stating he had gone to Turkey too soon. Ill-prepared for the culture shock, this is something Del Bosque concurred with. Despite making his love for the country known, the Spaniard remarked in 2010, “The environment is hard.” What exactly he meant by that is ambiguous but could well refer to the famously demanding nature of Turkish fans.

The unabating passion by which supporters treat the game is something foreigners cannot understand. It can be argued that the western coaches arrive blinded to reality. Prior to their visit in 1993, Sir Alex Ferguson commented: “The Turks are lovely people, we’re looking forward to going there.” However, upon arriving in Istanbul they were met by hundreds of baying Galatasaray fans at the airport, carrying banners reading ‘Welcome to hell’.

This naivety can also be seen in the way Graeme Souness was very nearly attacked in 1996 when he placed a Galatasaray flag in the centre circle of Fenerbahçe’s stadium. This concept even extends to one’s own supporters, with Marcelinho Paraíba stating during his short-lived spell with Trabzonspor in 2006 how fans would still be angry even if his club had won.

The impact of the supporters has been openly acknowledged by Ferguson and José Mourinho as an overriding factor in poor performances from their clubs against Turkish opposition. Meanwhile, RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner had to be substituted after just half an hour in a Champions League match at Beşiktaş last season, complaining of dizziness from the noise being generated by the crowd. His teammates, too, seemed overawed by the atmosphere, going on to lose 2-0 at Vodafone Park.

The passion of these fans is something that will quickly turn on managers if results are not going well, especially those who are expected to bring trophies. Again there are exceptions, with the charismatic Slaven Bilić seen off at the airport after two trophyless seasons at Beşiktaş. Overall, though, the discontent that affects any football fan suffering poor results reaches altogether different levels in Turkey.

During Roberto Mancini’s sole season at Galatasaray in 2013/14, the Italian was subject to frequent chanting during games for the reappointment of his predecessor Fatih Terim. A 1-0 defeat to bottom of the table Kayserispor in March 2014 left Gala some 11 points behind Fenerbahçe. Too much for many fans, banners were unveiled calling for Mancini’s sacking and the return of the man who brought four league titles in as many seasons, alongside Turkish football’s only European trophy.

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Such negativity is not helped by the media, with Turkey no different for the scrutiny the press place on managers. Overlapping partly with Rijkaard’s time in Istanbul was the ill-fated nine-month reign of Bernd Schuster at Beşiktaş. Contrary to the reserved demeanours of Del Bosque and Rijkaard, who were generally well received by the media, the fiery German encountered a whole host of problems with the press. Through picking verbal fights and storming out of press conferences, Schuster arguably placed himself in an untenable position of public scrutiny.

Another area worth examining is tactics, with there appearing to be a distinguishing line between European and Turkish interpretations. This can be seen in the way many native players have tried but failed when attempting to take their careers aboard. One only has to look at the failure of Terim at AC Milan, where Andrea Pirlo famously described his tactics as “inadequate”, for proof of this.

The same problem exists the other way around, with Turkish football recently proving to be somewhat alien to foreign managers. Del Bosque lamented how he was unable to implement his tactics at Beşiktaş, while Mancini described Galatasaray as “a very different sort of club”. It would appear in an environment so volatile that there is only one option nowadays: the Turkish way or the sack. Bringing in new ideas is often incompatible, requiring time to work, with the potential exception of Abdullah Avcı at Başakşehir and the impressive youth setup of Altınordu.

This brings us back to Cocu, who, upon his appointment, was seen as a milestone, possessing the potential to spark a revolutionary change in Turkish football. Having been so successful with PSV, his arrival was a coup for new president Ali Koç. Inaugurated in June 2018, he was supposed to usher in a move away from the previously trigger-happy president Aziz Yıldırım. Young signings such as Barış Alıcı, Berke Özer and Ferdi Kadıoglu were to receive game time, with Cocu given a three-year contract to mould this group into something special.

Four months on, however, and it would appear nothing has changed. Of the trio, only Barış has really played, with Cocu criticised for constantly changing the line-up. For a man new at the club unable to speak Turkish, surely this is only natural. One also has to factor in the especially poor state of the club’s finances, which perpetuated the departure of key men Fernandão, Giuliano and Souza all to Saudi Arabian clubs. Experimentation is something one can ill-afford in Istanbul.

With Fenerbahçe so far off the pace, Koç sought to go back on his vote of confidence a few weeks earlier and release Cocu. It appears, true to form, that a Turk will come in to firefight the growing crisis.

For Cocu, however, this firing is far from the end of the road. His countryman Guus Hiddink was sacked by Fenerbahçe back in 1991 but would go on to coach Valencia, Real Madrid and Chelsea, alongside spells with the Netherlands national side and back at PSV. Awaiting the next chapter of his coaching career, Cocu can rest easy knowing he is not the first foreign manager to fail in Turkey – and he certainly won’t be the last.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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