The sword of Damocles hangs over the Bosphorus like the fog that, come winter, clings to every street in Istanbul. For Galatasaray, it is unseen, unheard and unknown.
For manager Hamza Hamzaoğlu, who with recent victory in the Süper Kupa won his third trophy of his nine month tenure, the very idea seems laughable. But it is there, nevertheless.
It is a common axiom that pride comes before a fall. Not far from Istanbul it was Paris’ greatest success, his capture of Helen of Sparta, which prompted the destruction of Troy.
The Lions would do well to heed the warnings of classical mythology: success may be comforting but it is no guarantee against collapse. Galatasaray must modernise or die.
The glee with which Fenerbahçe’s elimination from the Champion’s League in the qualifying rounds was greeted by Galatasaray fans is hardly surprising, particularly given that it came at the hands of a Shakhtar Donetsk side managed by former Lions’ manager Mircea Lucescu. Come December, however, this may be cold comfort.
For a team who pride themselves on being Avrupa Fatihi, the Conquerors of Europe, the Champion’s League is the biggest stage of all. Historical, cultural, political, intellectual and sporting aspirations swirl in a powerful milieu to create that most addictive feeling of all: desire. It has been some time, however, since any Turkish team conquered Europe.
In 2013, Galatasaray acclaimed themselves with a 3-2 victory over Real Madrid at the Türk Telekom Arena that saw their exit in the quarter-final tempered by pride in their performance. In the past five years, Madrid, Manchester United and Schalke have all found themselves victims of the Avrupa Fatihi in Turkey.
Last season, Galatasaray finished bottom of their group with only a point to their name, unable to overcome even European minnows Anderlecht in two attempts. It is a sign of the importance of Europe to Turkish fans that it was this humiliation that prompted the costly sacking of Cesare Prandelli.
Yet whilst Hamza Hamzaoğlu might have turned things around domestically, Galatasaray are kidding themselves if they are pretending to have reclaimed their mantle of Conquerors of Europe.
Come December, it may well be the turn of Fenerbahçe fans to laugh at Galatasaray and their conceit, entering Europe so confident only to leave so despondent.
Recently, I argued that Turkish football is at a crossroads, with a golden opportunity to become Europe’s new emergent powerhouse. Despite the recent attack on Mehmet Topal, I continue to stand by this. Nevertheless, the alternative to success for Galatasaray is not mediocrity: it is disaster.
There are serious structural problems with Turkish football, encapsulated perhaps above all by the Istanbul club. Despite prolonged exposure to the commercialised world of European football, Turkish clubs often remain an impenetrable web of vested interests, an old boys’ clique interested more in political machinations and self-promotion than success.
Almost all of Galatasaray’s directors, for instance, continue to be drawn from alumni of the Galatasaray Lisesi, one single high school, which retains almost as predominant a position as it had in the days of the club’s founding in 1905.
This is not rule by men of talent but rather by men seeking to carve themselves fiefs out of the flesh of Galatasaray as if they are the same Sultans and beys who ruled in the days of the club’s birth. A presidential vote at the Istanbul club is more reminiscent of a Papal election, shrouded in mystery and superstition, than anything democratic.
Success is largely by chance. Occasionally, this impervious college of would-be pashas is pierced by a man of genuine ability. Such was Ünal Aysal, a man whose presidency from 2011 to 2014 coincided with the club’s most fruitful years in Europe.
This was a leader with a genuine vision, of modernity and European integration, a man who looked more to Atatürk than to the Sultans of old. Under his leadership came Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, paragons both of a new age.
This age would not last. Come today, Dursun Özbek’s tenure represents everything that is wrong with Turkish football. The average age of Galatasaray’s last three chairmen at their time of ascendancy has been 71.
Contrast this with the same figure for the last three presidents of Champion’s League winners Barcelona, which stands almost three decades lower at the positively juvenile age of 46. Özbek is 66.
He too is a graduate of the Galatasaray Lisesi but has far less vision than Ünal Aysal. Rather, Özbek has deepened the introverted climate of Galatasaray. Whereas Fenerbahçe’s have signed Robin van Persie, Nani, Simon Kjær and Diego Ribas in the past two seasons, Lukas Podolski is the only player signed by Hamza Hamzaoğlu well known outside of Turkey.
Nevertheless, if Galatasaray are to advance, they need to be more than Turkish. They need to be European. They need to be international. Car hire firm Garenta may have just agreed a deal to sponsor Galatasaray to the tune of a million euros a year for three years but when Manchester United agree a deal with Adidas averaging over a hundred million euros a year, this seems small change.
Despite having twice as many followers on Twitter as Bayern Munich, Galatasaray similarly struggle to attract shirt sponsors in a way that their European rivals do not.
If sponsorship is not the means of modernisation, then, emergent markets are. Despite their disproportionately large fanbase outside of Turkey, aided by a large Turkish diaspora in countries like Germany, there are no lucrative pre-season tours, no attempts to unlock new markets in the Far East, no intention of spreading the Galatasaray brand.
There is no real choice: it is modernisation or death. Galatasaray will continue to worsen in Europe unless they arrest their decline now. Modernisation entails a wholesale renovation of the club structure, to open it to men of talent and not of background, an emphasis on business over politics and investment in new players.
Currently, there is little stability. The transfer saga surrounding Felipe Melo came to a head with the manager saying that that the Brazilian had signed a contract extension at the same time as the player denied it.
Hamzaoğlu expressed admiration for Ozan Tufan just hours before he signed for Fenerbahçe. Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Sivasspor saw Sabri Sarıoğlu, who the club saw fit to give a hugely improved contract this summer, put in a pitiful performance. And this just in the last week alone.
But with this, mismanagement would no longer become an option. For all his brilliant service and sometimes surprising fidelity to Galatasaray, icon Wesley Sneijder is entering the last year of his contract.
Özbek has allowed a situation where the darling of the Türk Telekom Arena might be allowed to depart at the end of this season on a free transfer. For Galatasaray, the implications of this are unthinkable.
Modernisation is the only route, for Galatasaray, out of a quickening journey towards European irrelevance. If Galatasaray wish to avoid the harsh laughter of Fenerbahçe fans now and in the future, the club must realise that it stands at a crossroads, offering a Manichean choice between light and darkness.
Two paths lay open, each as avoidable as the other: one is modernisation, the other is death. Only with the former will the Lions roar again.