The link between the king of the jungle and Turkish football may not be apparent at first glance, but scratch below the surface and it all becomes clear. While the lion is very much the leader of the pack in the animal kingdom, its footballing namesake, Galatasaray Sports Club, from the banks of the Bosporus, is the most successful team in the country's history.
Aslanlar (The Lions), certainly have a long and rich sporting and educational pedigree. Legend has it that in the 15th century, a certain Gul Baba presented Sultan Bayezid II with two roses - one yellow and one red - while they were on a hunting excursion. The Sultan showed his gratitude in the form of a piece of land on the banks of the Bosporus, on which the Galatasaray Lycee, a school for future statesmen and diplomats, was founded in 1481.
Birth of an institution
However, the origins of football in Turkey only go back around 100 years, to a period when foreigners first began playing the game and setting up clubs in the country. After a group of students at the Galatasaray Lycee in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was at the time, watched a match, they decided to form a club of their own.
“Our aim is to play collectively like the English do, to have our own colours and name, and to beat all of the non-Turkish teams,” declared Ali Sami Yen, the co-founder and original president of the club, in 1905. The search for the right name ended with Galatasaray, which translates as ‘Palace of Galata’, a district in the European part of Istanbul, and the club played their first match on 26 November 1905 against a local French school.
The search for club colours proved to be more problematic. First red and white was tried, then yellow and black, and finally it was decided that yellow and red was the right combination. “After visiting many places, we went to Yanko the Fat's shop in Bahcekapi and saw two elegant woollen cloths. One was a sweet and dark red, which was almost purple-brown, and the other was a thick yellow carrying traces of orange,” said Sami Yen at the time.
“The shopkeeper combined the waves of two cloths with incredible sleight of hand, resulting in a flash of bright colour resembling the head and neck of a goldfinch. It was as if we were watching the flickering colours of fire, which made us imagine the brightness of yellow-red fire sweeping over our team and carrying us from one victory to another. And so it proved.”
The making of a legend
Of course, it would take a long time before the newly-founded club could set about becoming the most successful in Turkey. The country's FA did not create the SuperLig, or Milli Lig as it was called at the time, until 1959, and Galatasaray have been part of the elite ever since, having already taken part in the fledgling European Champions Clubs’ Cup a few years earlier in 1956/57.
The Lions were a permanent fixture in the top three during the first ten years that the league was in existence, winning the title in 1962, 1963 and 1969 before becoming the first ever team to win the Turkish league three years in a row from 1971 to 1973. Only two other clubs have emulated this feat since then, namely Trabzonspor (1979-1981) and Besiktas (1990-1992), though Gala outdid them all when amassing a record four in a row between 1997 and 2000.
They have also had considerable success on the European stage, and in the 1988/89 season became the first Turkish team to make it to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Galatasaray also ushered in the new millennium in style, defeating Arsenal 4-1 on penalties to win the UEFA Cup in 1999/2000 before going on to win the 2000 UEFA Super Cup after a 2-1 success over the mighty Real Madrid. These were the first two pieces of European silverware ever collected by a Turkish team and, combined with the 1999/2000 league title and victory in that season’s Turkish Cup, made for a historic quadruple triumph.
Galatasaray has always enjoyed considerable pulling power amongst players and coaches, both from Turkey and abroad. Claudio Taffarel (Brazil), Milan Baros (Czech Republic), Harry Kewell (Australia), Franck Ribery (France) and Gheorghe Hagi (Romania) have all proudly worn the red-and-yellow jersey over the past decade, along with local heroes Hakan Sukur and current captain Arda Turan.
“Galatasaray are always in the hunt for the league title, and playing for a team like this means that you are permanently under pressure and always hungry for success,” said Turan in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, outlining the fascination that the team holds for so many.
A number of German coaches have been at the helm of the club, such as Jupp Derwall, Karl-Heinz Feldkamp and Michael Skibbe. Plenty of big international names have also held the Gala reins, including former Turkey coach Fatih Terim - the team's most successful coach to date - and Frank Rijkaard. “It's an honour. This is a big club, the biggest in Turkey," said the Dutchman when he joined in June 2009.
Galatasaray currently share with Fenerbahce the honour of having won the most Turkish championships. But despite having to vie for success with fierce city rivals Fener and Besiktas, the Lions remain arguably the biggest name in Turkish football, as the hundreds of medals and trophies in the club museum built in 1905 attest.
The rivalry between Fener and Gala, which spans two continents, has produced one of the most fiercely contested derbies in the world. The two clubs have played each other over 350 times, with the Yellow Canaries currently holding the upper hand over the Lions. "You get goose bumps right from the kick-off when it's a derby. It's the kind of experience you live for as a sportsman. I've played and coached in various different countries but this really is unique," said former Gala coach Eric Gerets.
For 40 years, the Ali Sami Yen stadium, named after the club's founder, was home to the Lions, with 23,000 fans turning the atmosphere white-hot for every home game - so much so that they themselves renamed it Cehennem (Hell). “Anyone who comes to Galatasaray is stepping into the Lions' den,” as Gerets put it. However, on 11 January 2011, the mythical venue witnessed its last ever match: a 3-1 Turkish Cup win over Beypazarı Sekerspor.
It has given way to the brand-new Turk Telekom Arena, a €230m stadium which, with a capacity of nearly 53,000 seats, more than doubles that of Gala’s previous home. What it more, it has created two precedents, being the only stadium in Turkey with a retractable roof and which bears the name of a sponsor.
19 Turkish Championships: 1962, 1963, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 201314 Turkish Cups: 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1973, 1976, 1982, 1985, 1991, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2005
Rüdiger Abramczik (1984-85), Gheorghe Hagi (1996-2001), Claudio Taffarel (1998-2001), Franck Ribéry (2005), Hakan Sükur (1992-95, 1995-2000, 2003-08), Fatih Terim (1974-1985), Franck de Boer (2003-04), Ümit Davala (1996-2001, 2002-03), Rigobert Song (2004-08), Lincoln (2007-09), Arda Turan (2004-2011)
*The honours listed above are considered to be the club’s major titles and, as such, are not intended to be a full list of achievements.