Istanbul is far and away Turkey’s biggest city, with a population exceeding 13 million. The city’s dominant position is reflected in the nation’s football, where Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray have amassed a total of 47 Super Lig titles between them, including 25 in the last 26 seasons.
However, momentous change seems to be in the air. Bursaspor emerged from near-obscurity to seal a sensational championship triumph last term, and now it appears to be the turn of another provincial upstart to make their way towards a place at the top table.
Thirteen games into the campaign, Fenerbahce are fourth, Besiktas sixth and Galatasaray tenth in the standings, far below their own expectations and making a mockery of the pundits’ pre-season predictions. Instead, the headlines belong to a club from Kayseri, a city of 900,000 situated to the west of Cappadocia in central Anatolia, where Kayserispor are handing the Super Lig another thorough shake-up.
"Turkish clubs have become much more professional," new Kayserispor signing Selim Teber said in an exclusive FIFA.com interview. "The attitude to transfers has changed completely: you’re seeing many more big-name players, clubs are investing heavily in top-class scouting, and they’ve worked hard on youth development, which is making the league much more attractive.
"These are the major factors, and they’re changing the rules of the game. The smaller clubs believe in themselves against the Istanbul clubs now, and it's bringing success. It’s much more competitive, and the league’s a lot more exciting now.”
Consolidation after years of instability
At the time of their foundation on 1 July 1966, few people could have imagined that Anadolu Yıldızı (the Star of Anatolia) would one day be mixing it near the top of the Super Lig. Events over the next few decades did little to dispel that notion.
After a period spent oscillating between the first and second divisions, Kayserispor hit a new low in 1990-91 with relegation to the third tier. The men in red and yellow subjected their fans to further extremes in subsequent years with a string of promotions and relegations, but much-needed stability arrived after their ascension to the Super Lig in 2004.
The newcomers finished 15th in their first season back in the top flight, and were then fifth three times in a row, before winning the Turkish Cup two years ago. Kayserispor finished a respectable seventh and eighth in the last two seasons, but are now determined to secure a berth among the Super Lig elite.
A strong hint that something was stirring in Anatolia came in the fourth round of matches, when the home side beat Fenerbahce 2-0. Kayserispor have only lost once since, a 2-1 defeat away to eighth-placed Antalyaspor a week after the triumph against Fener.
Kayserispor bounced back strongly from that setback, forcing a goalless draw against leaders Trabzonspor, before beating Manisaspor 2-0 and Sivasspor 4-1, and topping the lot with a 1-0 victory on their home Kadir-Has stadium turf against the Black Eagles of Besiktas. Last Sunday, again at their lofty home some 1,054 metres above sea level, the minnows drew 0-0 with Galatasaray and currently occupy third spot in the division.
"Our support is a huge factor in our success. We always attract good crowds to our new stadium and the fans are 100 per cent behind us. It makes us very confident as a team," Teber told FIFA.com.
The goalless draw with the 17-time champions was Kayserispor’s eighth clean sheet of the campaign. The defence, the meanest in the league with just six goals against, is shored up by current Cameroon keeper and 2010 FIFA World Cup™ participant Hamidou Souleymanou, who joined the club in summer 2008 and is the undisputed first-choice.
The task of marshalling the defensive line falls to former Turkey international Onder Turaci, a summer capture from Fenerbahce, who lines up alongside Aleksander Amisulashvili and Serdar Kesimal, both of whom have contributed two goals to this season’s effort. Former Bundesliga stars Teber (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Jonathan Santana (Wolfsburg) have added solidity to the midfield anchor roles.
However, the real jewels in the squad coached by Georgian boss Shota Arveladze are to be found up front, where a South American trio has captivated the hearts of the Turkish footballing media and public alike.
Centre-forward Marcelo Zalayeta is the best-known of the three, as the former Uruguay star lists Juventus, Sevilla and Napoli among his previous clubs. Zalayeta currently has four goals in eight games in his adopted country. On the flank, Argentinian Franco Cangele has chipped in two goals but is currently sidelined with injury, while Brazilian striker Andre Moritz has scored one of the club’s 18 league goals to date.
"All four South Americans are quality players. Zalayeta boasts valuable experience from Serie A and Santana from the Bundesliga. Cangele and Moritz have already proved their worth in Turkey," said Teber, when asked to assess his prominent team-mates.
Big game in Bursa, not Istanbul
Kayserispor clearly harbour title ambitions, and could take another giant stride forwards next Monday in a showdown graphically illustrating a potential shift in the balance of power in Turkey, at least in the eyes of those responsible for fixture scheduling.
Saturday’s programme sees fifth-placed Istanbul BB take on Fenerbahce, before Galatasaray and Besiktas face off on Sunday in one of the nation’s most prestigious derbies. However, the big game of the round does not take place until 29 November, when second-placed Bursaspor entertain the up-and-coming hopefuls from Kayseri.
As Teber said: "Our aim is to remain there or thereabouts for as long as possible. It's still fairly early in the season, but if we can be somewhere near the top for the last five or six matches, we’ll try and make the best of the situation."