There cannot be many European countries as fanatical about their football as Turkey, or many cities where it is as important as in Istanbul. Young and old alike go crazy for the beautiful game, and in the same way that the Bosphorus splits Turkey's largest city into a European and an Asian half, football does the same, with the vast majority of the 10 million inhabitants divided up between Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray.
This Sunday, emotions will be running even higher than usual when Galatasaray host Besiktas in the Ali Sami-Yen Stadium. Not only is this an Istanbul derby, but it has been one of the traditional focal points of the season since the Turkish league championship was founded in 1924. The stakes could hardly be any higher.
The head-to-head statistics show that Galatasaray have historically had the upper hand, winning 13 of the 30 meetings between the teams, with Besiktas coming out on top 10 times and seven games ending in a draw. Last season, Galatasaray won both matches between the two, 3-2 at home and 2-1 away. These wins were crucial in the final analysis, with Galatasaray finishing as champions, two points clear of Fenerbahce and no fewer than 29 ahead of Besiktas, who scraped into third.
This was the 16th league title for Cim Bom, as the club is known to its legion of fans, and saw them equal the record held by Fenerbahce. Besiktas, by comparison, have a "mere" 13 league titles to their name, but can console themselves with the fact that they are the oldest team of the three, and indeed Turkey's oldest sports club. Besiktas Jimnastik Kulübü, to give the club its full title, is situated in the working class area of the same name on the European bank of the river, and was founded in March 1903 by a group of 24 young men during the time of the Ottoman Empire.
Black eagle soaring in recent years
Though at that time, it was actually forbidden to create sporting associations, the club went from strength to strength and, in 1911, its members amalgamated with two local football clubs. In the 1932-33 season, the team played in all black after the death of their president, Seref Bey. The club's attacking style of play had already led to comparisons with to birds of prey, and the nickname Kara Kartallar - the Black Eagles - soon followed.
Galatasaray were formed two years after Besiktas, in September 1905, as the Galatasaray Spor Kulübü. Noblemen from the city's grammar school were behind the founding of the club, based in the heart of the European side of the city. Galatasaray has since become the most successful and, according to a recent survey, most popular club in Turkey, due in no small part to their success both on the domestic and European fronts. In 2000, the team became the first Turkish club to win the UEFA Cup, and followed this up with victory over Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.
Galatasaray and Besiktas may be poles apart in many respects, but they do have certain things in common. At the moment, both teams have European managers - Belgian Eric Gerets is in charge at the former, while the latter have Jean Tigana. The French legend got the season off to a good start with a 1-0 over win over Galatasaray in the Turkish Super Cup, which pits the winners of the previous season's league title and cup. First blood, therefore, to cup-holders Besiktas.
Title-holders off to a rocky start
This has not been the only setback to befall Gerets this season. His team currently have only one win to their name, having drawn the other four of their five matches to lie ninth in the table - hardly a position worthy of the defending champions. Much will now depend on the performances of Japanese international Junichi Inamoto, who joined the club just before the transfer deadline. A win over Besiktas, who lie fifth after three wins and two defeats, is almost essential if Galatasaray are not to lose any more ground in the title race.
The same is true for Besiktas, who need the three points to keep leaders Fenerbahce in their sights. The Black Eagles are also pinning their hopes on a recent foreign import, namely Ricardinho, who was brought in to provide the goals they will need to compete for the title. "Our first objective is to win the championship," said the 30-year-old attacker who was in the Brazil squad at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, "and we're obviously looking to make progress in the UEFA Cup as well. We have high hopes."
Confident stuff from Ricardinho, but words alone will not carry sway when the Istanbul derby gets underway on Sunday. For fans on both sides of the divide, there is nothing worse than losing face against one of the city rivals, so the spectators in the Ali-Sami-Yen Stadium should be in for a treat.