The mood on the terraces became agitated as Galatasaray strove in vain for an equaliser in atrocious conditions. One-nil down at home to Cluj in October, they were going out of Europe.
Heavy rain started four hours earlier and became so bad that attempts to clear the standing water from the pitch were farcical – four men with wooden brushes who swept the 10 metres closest to the sideline and little more. The rain worked against the Turkish champions because they couldn’t play.
They’d lost their first game 1-0 at Old Trafford, before Braga beat them 2-0 at home. Three defeats from three matches would all but bring another premature end to Galatasaray’s European hopes.
“You’ll be ok,” a Galatasaray fan told me, “don’t get too worried if people start to fight among themselves because they are not happy.”
I didn’t share his confidence. Everyone in the section knew we were English and in Istanbul to make a short film about how loud Gala’s fans were. They were friendly, as were the fans earlier in the night on a street lined with bars near the old Ali Sami Yen stadium. Fans still meet there before games and travel by metro to their new home. Those fans met us with flares and sang songs, though not all were happy at our presence and the mood turned.
“F*** you, Leeds United,” hollered a small group of head the balls, presumably because we were English. Most Galatasaray fans were appalled when two Leeds fans were stabbed to death in Istanbul in 2000. One with us called it a stain on the history of their proud club, yet a tiny minority wore it as a badge of honour. It was time to get out of the area and into the stadium.
And what a stadium Galatasaray’s new home is. Think of Arsenal’s Emirates, except with an atmosphere. We were taken into one of the main vocal areas and our expectations were exceeded. But Galatasaray did disappoint. The rain didn’t help their cause, nor did missing a penalty. With 15 minutes left against 10 man Cluj the giant flag behind one goal with an image of the European Cup and the message ‘You are next’ looked so optimistic it was laughable.
Gala’s frustrated fans were arguing among themselves and the mood worsened, until Burak Yilmaz got a 77th minute equaliser. He’d not scored in his 16 previous Champions League games, now he’d bagged Galatasaray’s first European goal of the season.
Fetih Terim’s side beat Cluj away 3-1 in the next match with a Yilmaz hat-trick. With Manchester United running away with the group, that result was enough to push the Turks into second.
I returned to Istanbul a month later for the United game. The English side were through and fielded a weakened side. Galatasaray needed a win and the noise level was ear-piercing, far better than you get in England. They won 1-0, another win, another Yilmaz goal.
In their final group game, Yilmaz scored again, his sixth in four group games as they beat Braga away to finish second and earn a last 16 draw with Schalke 04. United’s reward for winning the group? Real Madrid. And we know what happened there.
Galatasary were in the last 16 for the first time in 11 seasons, Yilmaz was named player of the group stages by UEFA. When they drew 1-1 against Schalke in Istanbul (another fine Yilmaz goal), they were favourites to be eliminated. Yet the Istanbul side had changed. They kept their best players like defensive midfielder Selcuk Inan and Yilnaz, but bought Didier Drogba and former Real Madrid midfielder Wesley Sneijder.
Hamit Altintop, their top earner who’d signed from Madrid at the start of the season made a timely return to form to score a 30-yarder in Schalke. Yilmaz, who is only the second player in Turkey to play for the country’s four most successful clubs, got his eighth Champions League goal of the season in Gelsinkerchen before Umut Bulut bagged a 95th minute winner. Bulut, Selcuk Inan and Yilmaz all had previously played together at Trabzonspor.
Galatasaray are four points clear of Fenerbahce in the Super Lig, ranked the 12th league in Europe according to UEFA’s co-efficient. England’s Premier League, in second, doesn’t have a team in the last eight of the Champions League.
Their biggest game of the season is tonight in the Bernabeu. They’re well supported wherever they travel and will have 3,800 fans officially inside, with many more around the stadium in home areas. Support won’t be a problem, Real Madrid will be.
Emboldened by their victory at Old Trafford and back to back wins against Barcelona, Madrid think they can win a 10th European Cup. One priority is keeping a clean sheet at the ninth attempt in the Champions League this season.
Historically, they’ve played Galatasaray three times, each in the 2000-2001 season. Galatasaray won the European Super Cup and they then came from 2-0 down to beat Madrid 3-2 again in the Champions League quarter-finals first leg. Madrid won the second leg 3-0 to go through.
They’re favourites to win by a similar scoreline tonight, but Galatasaray have formed the habit of surprising bigger opponents – not to mention their own fans.