Why the Turkish Süper Lig is so much more than a retirement home for ageing stars

Why the Turkish Süper Lig is so much more than a retirement home for ageing stars

Olivier Giroud moving to Beşiktaş, Mesut Özil at Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray signing Fernandinho. All three stories are fabricated, but also believable. For many years, Turkish football has suffered an unfortunate reputation abroad of being little else than a retirement home for players past their sell-by date.

In recent weeks that image has hardly been helped by the crowning of Istanbul Başakşehir as only the Süper Lig’s sixth champion in 62 years. With a squad containing the likes of Demba Ba, Eljero Elia, Gaël Clichy, Martin Škrtel and Robinho, it was an easy story for the headline writers. Except it really isn’t that simple.

In explaining this, one must first acknowledge that Turkish football does have a lot of older players in it. Go through any squad of the top two divisions and chances are you will find a name you recognise. Alanyaspor have Papiss Cissé, Lukas Podolski is at Antalyaspor whilst Stéphane Sessègnon captains Gençlerbirliği. Indeed, all but four of the 18 Süper Lig teams this season fielded a former Premier League player over the age of 30.

To explain this, we must travel back to 1984 and the arrival of Jupp Derwall as coach of Galatasaray. The German brought about a revolution in coaching methods and drastically improved the standards of Turkish football. Quickly, other foreign coaches such as Guus Hiddink, Gordon Milne and Sepp Piontek came to work in Turkey. Consequently, the standard of football went up and the nation started to become a far more appealing destination for footballers.

Prior to Derwall’s arrival, the only foreigners came from Yugoslavia or other Eastern Bloc countries, but now they came from across the world. The first big names landed in 1987 and 1988 in the form of Didier Six and Harald Schumacher, who joined Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe respectively. In the years that followed, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Raimond Aumann, Dalian Atkinson and 1995 Champions League winning pair, John van den Brom and Peter van Vossen, all ventured to Turkey.

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What really lit the fire was, in 1996, when Galatasaray signed Gheorghe Hagi. Turkish football’s most significant import, at the time large sections of the press questioned Fatih Terim for signing the 31-year-old Romanian. Hagi would, however, help deliver four titles in five seasons.

Alongside him at Ali Sami Yen was Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel. Both players would secure the only European trophy in Turkish football history, as Galatasaray defeated Arsenal to lift the 2000 UEFA Cup.

Such success clearly illustrates how, despite their advancing years, both players still had the ability to compete at elite European level. They are not alone either. Denmark captain Lars Olsen led them to victory at Euro 1992 whilst playing for Trabzonspor. Four years later, Beşiktaş striker Stefan Kuntz was part of the Germany side that triumphed at the finals in England.

Into more recent times and ageing stars have continued to contribute. Wesley Sneijder played some of his best football after joining Galatasaray aged 28, winning two Süper Lig titles and the hearts of fans. Mario Gómez enjoyed one of the most prolific seasons of his career at Beşiktaş in 2015/16. Meanwhile, the likes of Nani, Ryan Babel and Ricardo Quaresma have all resurrected their careers in Turkey to earn national team recalls.

Alongside the more established achieving in Turkey, the Süper Lig also acts as a launchpad for lesser-known players. Jay-Jay Okocha bedazzled for two seasons at Fenerbahçe before being bought for £14m by Paris Saint-Germain. Franck Ribéry came to the attention of top European clubs whilst with Galatasaray.

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Geremi played for Gençlerbirliği before being signed by Real Madrid, whilst Manchester United picked up Ronny Johnsen from Beşiktaş. It is at such a club where Les Ferdinand enjoyed a productive loan before returning to the Premier League and becoming one of the division’s most prolific marksmen.

This pattern is replicated right through into recent years. One of Aston Villa’s best performers last season, Mahmoud Trézéguet, burst onto the scene during two seasons with Kasımpaşa, whilst Porto left-back Alex Telles’ first taste of European football came at Galatasaray. Current Lyon defenders Jason Denayer and Marçal both developed on loan in Turkey, with Cedric Bakambu experiencing his breakout season at Bursaspor. The likes of Brad Friedel, Kamil Grosicki and Mile Jedinak all developed in a similar way before coming to England.

According to UEFA, the Süper Lig is Europe’s 11th best league, and such a level of competition means it is ripe for far more than just housing ageing stars. Alongside foreign players are the domestic talents who have impressed in Western Europe. Whilst Turkey is by no means the greatest exporter of players, in recent years Çağlar Söyüncü, Cengiz Ünder, Mehmet Zeki Çelik, Merih Demiral, Okay Yokuşlu and Yusuf Yazıcı have all moved west with success.

Those who opt to stay in Turkey don’t do so for lack of ability. Domestically-based Hasan Şaş and İlhan Mansız were key two players in taking Turkey to third in the 2002 World Cup, whilst Arda Turan was equally influential at Euro 2008. Tanju Çolak won the European Golden Shoe in 1988, while Sergen Yalçın is considered by many of football’s big names as talented enough to have become one of the world’s best players.

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There are also foreign players who are revered in Turkey but not as highly respected outside. Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera is entering his tenth season at Galatasaray, and Brazilian Alex effectively became Fenerbahçe’s record goalscorer during an eight-year stay. A similar legacy was established by Ibrahim Yattara, who came close to signing for Chelsea and Real Madrid during his time with Trabzonspor. All three players arrived in Turkey before their 27th birthdays.

To that list I would add Edin Višća of Başakşehir. The Bosnian winger joined the club in 2011 prior to their rebranding, dropping down to the second tier in 2013. In just under a decade he has developed into one of the most underrated players in Europe, recording double figures for goals and assists in each of his past five seasons. At 30, his chance of a move west is probably gone, but for all their experienced names, Višća is hands down Başakşehir’s most important player.

This returns us to such an illustrious contingent. As stated at the beginning, it is impossible to escape the aspect of ageing players in Turkey. In the past decade, Alexander Hleb, Álvaro Negredo, Asamoah Gyan, Dirk Kuyt, Emmanuel Adebayor, Emmanuel Eboué, Florent Malouda, Guti, José Bosingwa, Pepe, Falcao, Robin van Persie, Roberto Soldado, Samir Nasri and Samuel Eto’o have all turned out in the Süper Lig.

However, to dismiss this as all Turkish football stands for is oversimplifying. Alongside the passionate fans and intimidating atmospheres is a highly competitive league that has been won by at most a five-point margin over each of the past six seasons.

Alongside these compelling title races is a platform for undiscovered talents, for domestic success stories and for the launching of careers. Ba, Clichy, Škrtel and co may have just been crowned champions, but Turkish football is so much more than a vacation for ageing stars.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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