Fenerbahce got preparations for their centenary year off to an early start last July when Brazilian legend Zico was appointed coach, a clear statement of intent from a club determined to reimpose their domestic authority and make a mark on the European scene in the years to come. Objective number one safely secured, the newly crowned champions are planning their assault on Europe by augmenting an already sizeable Brazilian contingent.
The journey to title success was far from smooth, however. Zico's brave new era started in the worst possible way when the Sarı Kanaryalar (Yellow Canaries), minus his summer recruits, had their wings clipped by Dynamo Kyiv in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. The crushing disappointment of that reverse was compounded a few days later by defeat to Sakaryaspor in the league, all this while the unheralded Vestel Manisaspor surged to the top of the table. Not surprisingly, rumours of the former Brazil icon's imminent demise soon began to circulate.
Mindful of the situation he found himself in, the ex-Japan coach rolled up his sleeves and promised brighter days ahead. "Any team hoping to win the title cannot afford to be so inconsistent," lamented the Brazilian after watching his side let victory slip away to Ankaraspor in October. "Our fans follow us all over the country expecting to see more from us. And they are right. We have to work even harder to ensure we stop making the same mistakes." With an away trip to the surprise leaders and crunch derbies against Besiktas and Galatasaray in the offing, and the fans impatiently awaiting success, Zico and his men duly came up with the goods.
Manisaspor back to earth with a bump
The first of those hurdles was cleared when Brazilian striker Deivid struck a hat trick to down Vestel 3-2, a result that proved a turning point in the Turkish Super Lig season, marking as it did Fenerbahce's resurgence and the end of Vestel's unlikely dream. After an amazing start to the season that saw them go ten games unbeaten, the Manisa-based outfit entertained serious thoughts of becoming only the fifth club to win the Turkish championship after the three Istanbul giants and Trabzonspor.
"Over the next five years our aim is to make Manisaspor a regular title challenger and to be successful in Europe," announced club president Haluk Cubukcu ahead of the club's first season in the top flight. However, it was a case of too much too soon for the Tarzans, as the team have become known, Vestel picking up just four wins in the 23 games which followed that defeat to Fenerbahce, narrowly avoiding relegation in the process.
Claiming all three points in that fateful match saw the Istanbul giants leapfrog the provincial upstarts and take to the top on goal difference, a position they would hold all the way through to the end of the season to land their 17th league crown, a national record. "We had to overcome a lot of obstacles to win this championship, but winning the title with two games to spare just goes to show our superiority," commented the former Seleçao No10 after the draw with Trabzonspor that secured the title, the second trophy of his managerial career following the Kirin Cup triumph with Japan in 2004. "It is a reward we fully deserve."
An idol in both his homeland and Japan, Zico is well on the way to acquiring hero status on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Such is the rivalry between the city's big three (Galatasaray and Besiktas on the European side, and Fenerbahce on the other) that beating the neighbours is even more important than winning the league itself, and after going unbeaten in the season's four derbies (two wins over Galatasaray, and a win and a draw against Besiktas), the Brazilian has the fans eating out of his hands.
Tigana and Gerets throw the towel in
While the yellow and blue side of Istanbul continues to celebrate, the mood is a good deal more subdued across the water. Despite guiding Besiktas to a second consecutive Turkish Cup success and a league runners-up spot, Frenchman Jean Tigana decided to call it a day as coach at the end of the season.
The third member of the triumvirate, Galatasaray, are also coachless after Belgian Eric Gerets failed to follow up on his 2005/2006 league success. Bottom of their Champions League group, the Lions capped a miserable domestic campaign by missing out on qualification for next season's premier European club competition altogether, trailing in third behind their two bitter rivals.
To make matters worse for their shell-shocked supporters, Galatasaray also come off second best in three of the season's four Istanbul derbies. After such a calamitous run, Gerets needed no persuading to call it a day and will be replaced by the German Karl-Heinz Feldkamp, who returns to the club where he won the Turkish championship back in 1992/93.
Waiting for Roberto
Fenerbahce were powered to the title by some impressive individual performances. Leading the way with a 19-goal haul was Brazilian attacker Alex de Souza, who eclipsed last term's tally of 14 to take the league scoring honours ahead of Galatasaray's Umit Karan (18) and Kayserispor's Gokhan Unal (16), the sharpest shooters last time around.
Canaries skipper and gifted midfielder Tuncay Sanli, the undisputed hero of the Sukru Saracoglu stadium, produced yet another storming season, adding a touch of steel to his all-round game, much to the delight of the home fans. Little wonder then that continent's big-hitters have been trailing his signature. Intent on keeping his stars happy, Zico's aim is to take the club into the European stratosphere, and with that in mind he has decided to think big in the transfer market.
An iconic figure at Real Madrid for the last ten years, flying left-back Roberto Carlos, will be bolstering Fenerbahce's Brazilian brigade next season. With compatriots Alex, Deivid and defender Edu Dracena having adapted well to life in Turkey, the 2007 champions will be hoping the arrival of a second Auriverde legend will help them cement their dominance of the national scene and make a big impression in Europe.