To say that Turkey is football-crazy is almost a cliché. Ever since the country finished third at the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002, the Turks' passion for the game has been universally acknowledged. And yet even the fervour for the national team is nothing compared with the excitement generated by the Istanbul derby between the country's two most successful clubs, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce.
As is often the way with derbies, beating your arch-rivals can be more important than winning the title as far as the fans are concerned, but for this 360th clash between the two teams, there is more than mere pride at stake. The winner will go top of the Super Lig, with Fener currently leading by the tightest of margins, one ahead on goal difference.
The atmosphere is sure to be electric at the Ali Sami Yen stadium on Sunday. "When you go to Galatasaray, they tell you 'welcome to hell'," recalls former Gala coach Eric Gerets. "During a derby, you have goosebumps from start to finish. You get involved in sport just to experience moments like that. I've coached and played in quite a few countries, but that definitely was another world."
It is a world which Fenerbahce goalkeeper Volkan Demirel knows well as he confidently anticipates his ninth derby. "It's never easy to prepare for a derby, but our team is playing so well and we've got so many players capable of scoring that we will end up on the score sheet," says the Sari Kanaryalar (yellow canaries) custodian. "I ."
Cimbom, as Galatasaray fans call their club, had been clear in first place but lost both top spot and their coach in one fell swoop three weeks ago. German tactician Karl Heinz Feldkamp resigned the day after Gala's disappointing 0-0 draw against Gaziantepspor, which allowed Fener to move past them into first - Cevat Guler subsequently taking over the coaching reins. A win for Galatasaray would give them a vital three-point lead over their fierce rivals with just two games remaining and prove a decisive step towards matching Fenerbahce's record haul of 17 league titles.
Two continents, one passion
Istanbul - the only city in the world to straddle two continents - is the ideal place for a good old-fashioned footballing rivalry. The two clubs were founded in the early 20th century a mere two years apart. In 1905 on the European side, pupils from the French high school in Galatasaray famous for educating the political classes decided to form a football team to take on Greek and English clubs. Ali Sami Yen was behind the project and went to become a legend at the club, with the stadium now bearing his name.
In a city of 13 million, however, it would be impossible to rally every football fan behind just one team. Thus it was that in 1907, on the opposite bank of the Bosporus, Fenerbahce were founded in the Kadikoy area of the city. The club was formed in secret and remained so for the first few years, given Sultan Habdullamid II's unfavourable stance on gatherings involving young people.
The geographical distinction was soon joined by a social one, with Fener known as the 'people's club' and Gala seen to belong to the aristocraticy. A century later, these differences have faded and there are plenty of supporters of both teams on either bank of the river, while the respective stadiums are filled with fans from all walks of life and social classes.
On the pitch, Fenerbahce took the lead in league titles last year with their 17th and are the only team to have a positive head-to-head record against the Lions (135 wins, 115 defeats and 109 draws in 359 matches). Galatasaray, for their part, have had more success in Europe. Their glory days came in the year 2000, when they won the UEFA Cup followed by the Super Cup, much to the chagrin of their city rivals, who have traditionally enjoyed relatively modest success on the international stage.
To keep pace with their near neighbours, Fenerbahce spent big in bringing the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Stephen Appiah, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Roberto Carlos and Zico to Kadikoy. The 2007-2008 season has almost seen Zico's men redress the balance between the two arch enemies with an excellent run in the UEFA Champions League. They were unbeaten at home in the Sukru Saracoglu stadium, recording wins over Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, Sevilla and finally Chelsea, who nevertheless edged out the Istanbul team over two legs at the quarter-final stage.
Legendary matches across the decades
The rivalry between the two teams reached another level in February 1934. What was meant to be a friendly turned into a pitched battle with players and supporters involved. Relations between the clubs have never been the same since then, making the derbies win-at-all-costs affairs.
In a country where football is a religion, newspapers - which are already very sport-orientated - increase their circulation by 50 per cent in the days before and after a derby, with the tension mounting as kick-off approaches. And as is often the case when two arch-rivals meet, fouls and bookings tend to be the order of the days rather than dribbles and fancy footwork.
After all, the result is the only thing that matters. Exciting, flowing football can wait - that is what the other 32 league matches are for. "The players know the importance of this match," says former Canaries star Rıdvan Dilmen. "If you win you go into another dimension. . We know it and the supporters do too."
Dilmen, known as 'the Demon', and his team-mates were part of a memorable comeback away to their hated enemies in a Turkish Cup match in 1989. After being 3-0 down at half-time, the club from the Asian side of the river did the unthinkable and came back to win 4-3, silencing the legendary wall of noise inside the stadium. Galatasaray got some deal of revenge seven years later when Scot Graeme Souness was in charge. The former Liverpool and Rangers manager thought he knew it all about heated derbies, but that was before the 1996 Turkish Cup final.
The Lions won the home leg 1-0 before losing the away tie by the same score. Towards the end of extra time with penalties looming, Welsh striker Dean Saunders scored the goal that gave the visitors the title. After the match, Souness got carried away by the moment and took a giant red and yellow flag which he planted in the central circle of the Fener stadium. It would take several hours and an escort involving hundreds of policemen to finally enable him to leave the stadium, and to this day the fiery Scotsman is a hero to one half of the city and a villain to the other.
There is a fine line between love and hate, and despite all the animosity between the two teams, Istanbul is all about the love affair between the clubs and their loyal supporters. Fans of both teams will be desperate for Sunday's match to cover their side in glory and move them one step closer to the title. And whoever wins can hold their heads up high on the streets of the city, until the next derby that is...