Ali Sami Yen: the iconic founding father of Galatasaray

Ali Sami Yen: the iconic founding father of Galatasaray

As the ball is played through, Colin Kâzım-Richards bears down on both his opponent’s goal and history. In rounding Şekerspor goalkeeper Önder Tiryaki and slotting into an empty net, the London-born striker scores the insurance goal in a 3-1 cup victory for Galatasaray. Simultaneously, it is one of the most significant strikes in the club’s 106-year existence, being the last ever at their iconic Ali Sami Yen Stadium.

The home of Galatasaray since 1964, and known to western fans as “hell”, the stadium served as the stage for so many greats of Turkish football. The goals of Metin Oktay, the flair of Gheorghe Hagi, the fighting spirit of Bülent Korkmaz; qualities that epitomise the nation’s most successful club. All of this, however, would never have been possible without the man whose name is given to the stadium they left behind.

Ali Sami Yen was born on 20 May 1886 in Istanbul, the son of Albanian-Ottoman writer Sami Frashëri, a key individual in the development of modern Turkish literature. Owing to his father’s new-found affluence, he received a top-class education at the prestigious Galatasaray High School, where classes were taught in a blend of native tongue and French. Dating back to 1481, making it the second-oldest school in Turkey, it is here where, in October 1905, Ali Sami Yen would form Galatasaray Spor Kulübü.

At the time, football within Turkey was still very much a foreign concept, originating in the late 1870s through English immigrants in İzmir. The game reached Istanbul around the turn of the 20th century, still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and concerted efforts were made to prevent locals engaging with the sport. In 1904 the Constantinople Football League was founded, but this was solely for immigrant teams, with Turkish players banned from competing.

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Having witnessed the sport being played by the British, Ali Sami dreamt of the idea of organising the school into a football team. He initially put each class into a side in a form of trials, prior to choosing the best players for what is today the oldest Turkish football club. The founding statement was simple: “To play together like Englishmen, to have a colour and a name, and to beat the other non-Turkish teams.”

Analysing this phrase, the first part relates to the aforementioned interactions of Ali Sami with British migrants in Istanbul, who at the time were widely seen as pioneers of the game. It is they, along with Armenians and Greeks, who constituted the non-Turkish teams he referred to defeating. Finally, in terms of colours, the now iconic red and yellow were chosen to signify fire, again “with the hope of it carrying us to victory.”

It is clear therefore from the outset what Ali Sami envisaged. He sought for his club to strive for the excellence bred within the Galatasaray High School, being the best not just in the land, but further afield. From that mission statement, it was clear to Ali Sami that being domestically successful did not constitute a grand enough ambition: he wanted as much as possible for his club.

It didn’t take long for this to happen, with Galatasaray quickly emerging as a domestic force. Central to this was Ali Sami, a graceful, technical midfielder who concurrently served as the club’s first player and president. Between 1909 and 1911 he won three straight Istanbul league titles, retiring a year later. He remained on board in the latter role, fulfilling his duty as president until 1919.

During these opening years, people weren’t allowed to refer to the club as Galatasaray, with there being no law in the Ottoman Empire allowing for the registration of such associations. Instead, they were simply referred to in English as “another team”. This changed with the 1912 Laws of Associations, when the club won legal recognition to become the Galatasaray incarnation we know today.

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Activities were suspended by World War One, in which the Ottoman Empire formed one of the Central Powers alongside Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Germany. Defeated, the Allies of Britain and France sought to impose the Treaty of Sèvres, which harshly broke Anatolia up. In response came the Turkish War of Independence, led by Mustafa Kemal, which resulted in the expulsion of invading forces and replacement of the Ottoman Sultanate with a parliament.

The newly named Republic of Turkey officially became a sovereign state on 24 July 1923, and Ali Sami remained a key figure in the sport. In the same year he took charge of the nation’s first international match – a 2-2 draw with Romania in Istanbul. Further afield, a year later, he served as president of the Turkish delegation for the 1924 Olympics, the nation’s first appearance at the Games. Ali Sami would go on to reign as chairman of the Olympic Committee until 1931, also playing a large part in the development of basketball, tennis, volleyball and motorsport within the country.

In June 1934, Mustafa Kemal introduced a law requiring all Turkish citizens to adopt a fixed surname. He was granted the name Atatürk – meaning Father of the Turks – by parliament, in order to signify his enormous importance in building the nation. Meanwhile, Ali Sami chose to drop his Albanian moniker of Frashëri, becoming Ali Sami Yen. Literally translating to “win”, this underlined the relentless intentions of the man.

Tragically his grand vision of competing in Europe was denied by his death in 1951, five years before Gala first entered the European Cup. In his absence, the club he built have lived up to his adopted surname. Amongst the top teams in the country, they have won 21 league titles and 17 cups – both records. Galatasaray also hold the distinction of being the only Turkish club to win European silverware, achieving this in 2000, in time for Ali Sami’s widow to witness the realisation of her husband’s dream.

This success has bred support, with almost half the Turkish population tying themselves in fervour to Galatasaray. This equates to approximately 35 million people whose blood runs red and yellow. No matter who they are, though, it is safe to say none stand as important as Ali Sami Yen, the pioneering figure behind Turkey’s most successful football club.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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