Arena: Return to the seat of the inferno: 17 Ali Sami Yen stadium: Richard Williams describes Galatasaray's intimidating ground, where Manchester United play this week

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'WELCOME to the hell' was the message hand-lettered on the first banner the players and coaching staff of Manchester United saw as they arrived at Ataturk airport, Istanbul, on a sultry night last November. The next day, as Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel played chess on the balcony of a former sultan's palace overlooking the broad blue Bosphorus while their colleagues strolled through the hotel's manicured gardens, they may have thought they had arrived in paradise. But a few hours later, when they trotted on to the turf of Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen stadium, they knew the truth of which the banner-artist had written.

The Turkish champions' shirts are red and yellow. Translated to scarves and flags waved from every corner of the Ali Sami Yen that night, these took on the aspect of the colours of the inferno. Accompanied by a ferocious and incessant whistling from a crowd of 34,000, almost all of whom had been there for several hours, the effect was thoroughly frightening. No wonder that after a fruitless 90 minutes which saw United eliminated from the European Cup, Eric Cantona lost his rag and collected a red card as he went down the players' tunnel, with a Turkish policeman's nightstick beating a tattoo on his shirt. The Frenchman had fallen into the trap set by Galatasaray's fans, who then took to the streets and celebrated by driving around Istanbul with horns hooting until the early hours.

But then Galatasaray's roots are embedded in conflict. When the club was founded, in 1905, it was in conditions of secrecy. Football had been outlawed by Sultan Abdul Hamid, who feared that such organisations might act as a focus for dissident activity during what were turning out to be the final days of the Ottoman Empire. Football had been introduced to the pupils of the Lycee Galatasaray during the 1890s by two Englishmen, the Robinson brothers; the historian Simon Inglis records that in order to fool the sultan's secret agents, 'several Turks shaved off their moustaches, dyed their hair, adopted English names and played under the guise of 'Black Stocking FC'.'

Besiktas, the oldest of Istanbul's three great professional clubs, was founded in 1903; Fenerbahce, the youngest, appeared four years later. In between, eight boys from the Lycee created the club that bore their school's name; among them was Ali Sami Yen, who gave his name to Galatasaray's present-day stadium.

In 1908, Kemal Ataturk's revolution swept away the sultanate. But such was the enduring political and social instability that no proper structure was created for a professional league until 1923, when the Turkish Football Association came into being. From then until 1958, Galatasaray competed with their neighbours for the championship of the Istanbul League; not until 1959 did Turkey establish a national championship, which has since been won 10 times by Ali Sami Yen's club. Outside domestic football, their finest achievement came not with their victory over Manchester United last year but in the same competition in 1988-89, when they were beaten 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-final by the Steaua Bucharest of Hagi, Lacatus and Petrescu, having drawn 1-1 in the home leg.

At the inaugural match in 1964, the attendance was 45,000, but so bad was the crush that the limit was immediately cut to 35,000, which is how it remains.

Given their present pre-eminence in Turkish football, it is a pity that Galatasaray do not play in Besiktas's Inonu stadium, an elegant bowl designed in the 1940s by a Milanese architect and set into the slope of the hill which leads down from Taksim Square to the spectacular Dolmabahce Palace and the Bosphorus. Besiktas's fans can raise their eyes from the football and gaze upon the shores of Asia. But comparing that with the Ali Sami Yen is like comparing Versailles with a Tesco superstore.

Galatasaray's home is more like that of an old-fashioned English big-city club, squeezed on all sides by apartment blocks and offices. Its name (which means Galata Palace) may suggest an affinity with the historic Galata Tower - which was once the city's prison - and the nearby bridge of the same name across the Golden Horn, on which bustling restaurants serve grilled swordfish and sticky baklava cakes; in fact the ground is located in Mecidiyekoy, an undistinguished northern suburb a long and - at least that night last November - doleful coach-ride from the glittering hotels which line the Bosphorus.

(Photograph omitted)