Fenerbahce swing to Brazilian beat
© AFP

With bright yellow stripes on their jersey and a nickname like the Yellow Canaries ( SariKanaryalar), it is fitting that Turkish giants Fenerbahce have a large Brazilian contingent in their ranks as they look to write a glorious new chapter in the club's history.

The latest era at the Istanbul club began in July 2006, with the appointment of Brazilian legend Zico as coach. After a rocky start that saw the Istanbul giants crash out of the UEFA Champions League in the qualifying rounds, Zico steadied the ship and gradually won over the Fenerbahce faithful. In 2007, the club's centenary year, the Yellow Canaries won a record-breaking 17th league title, stealing a march on their cross-city rivals Galatasaray and Besiktas in the process.

Pivotal to the team's success has been their orchestrator-in-chief, Alex de Souza. Deployed as an attacking midfielder, he is ideally placed to dictate proceedings thanks to his consummate ball control and passing ability. Moreover, the Brazilian has shown a keen eye for goal, as evidenced by the 19 strikes that made him the league's top scorer last season.

"Right now, Alex is Brazil's most important footballer. That said, he needs a coach capable of handling him. As a player, he absorbs everything, and I believe he deserves his chance with the national team," said Zico.

This season, the 30-year-old made headlines after scoring the winner against Inter Milan at the Sukru Saracoglu stadium in Istanbul during the group phase of the Champions League - the Italian champions' solitary loss in their pool.

Building on last year's domestic success, Zico's men have carried their good form into Europe's premier club competition, where they have lost just once (against Inter in Milan) and earned creditable draws away to PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow. After emerging as one of the surprise teams of this year's group phase, the Turkish side secured a historic first qualification to the knockout phase of the competition. However, the club's ambitions have not been fulfilled yet, and they head into the away leg of their Round of 16 tie against Sevilla with a 3-2 lead and their sights set on a place in the quarter-finals.

Taking their chances
As the match against the UEFA Cup holders demonstrated, the Canaries are a practical side that aim to take maximum advantage of their opponents' errors. In this respect, one of their most potent weapons in attack, alongside Mateja Kezman is Deivid de Souza. The 28-year-old striker, whose preferred route to goal is down the right flank, is a veritable globetrotter, having had spells at, among others, Santos, Corinthians, Cruzeiro, Lecce, Bordeaux and Sporting before arriving in Istanbul in 2006.

The club are also well-served by a couple of defensive specialists from Brazil. Marco Aurelio, or Mehmet Aurelio as he has been known since taking Turkish nationality, is particularly good at covering for Alex during his frequent sorties forward. With his formidable physique, this holding midfielder protects his zone intelligently, yet is also capable of contributing creatively.

A bit further back sits Edu Dracena, a 26-year-old central defender who is especially good in the air. Completing the Brazilian defensive contingent is Gokcek Vederson, or Wederson Luiz da Silva as he was known before becoming a Turkish national.

One former Seleção star that needs no introduction is the evergreen Roberto Carlos. At 34, the flying wing-back bade farewell to Real Madrid, where he spent 11 very successful years, to join up with compatriot Zico for the latest challenge in a career that has brought him almost every honour in the game. "I'm shown a lot of respect in the dressing room, but I'm not after any special privileges," he said.

"I give advice to anyone who asks for it, but I don't see myself as an older brother or father figure. That would suggest I'm nearing retirement - not something I want to happen, as I still feel like a youngster. I like football that's passionate, and the fans here are nothing if not that. It's very impressive.

Completing the South American presence at the club are defender Diego Lugano and midfielder Claudio Maldonado. From Uruguay and Chile respectively, the pair have ample experience of Brazilian football, the former with Sao Paulo and the latter with Sao Paulo, Cruzeiro and Santos.

Zico has also managed to nurture the talents of home-grown players like Ugur Boral and Semih Senturk as he leads the club on their historic quest in Europe. On the home front, Fenerbahce continue to push hard for what would be their 18th league title, and currently find themselves only a point behind leaders Galatasaray. All in all, it is shaping up to be a very promising new century for the Canaries.