Slaven Bilic might not have been the obvious choice to take over as Besiktas manager last summer. The former Croatia coach’s stock was at its lowest, when he was dismissed from Lokomotiv Moscow after taking them to their worst finish for a generation.
But there is an affinity for Bilic in Turkey, ever since his Croatia side were beaten by Turkey in their classic quarter-final at Euro 2008. His undiluted emotion was not forgotten and when Besiktas chose a new coach Bilic was the popular choice.
Since then Bilic, along with the well-respected president Fikret Orman, has revitalised a club that had drifted into lazy profligacy and corruption. Reimposing the right values of modesty, humility and team-work they nearly dragged Besiktas to the Super Lig title last year, only for Bilic’s side to drop crucial points on the run-in, slipping behind Galatasaray and Fenerbahce – whose exclusion from European competition allowed Besiktas to qualify for this year’s Champions League.
It is a change of fortunes from last year, when Besiktas were barred from the Europa League by a match-fixing ban of their own, concerning their 2011 Turkish Cup win. But they are now a club on their way back up, a club trying to leave that past behind.
The deeply unpopular former president Yildirim Demiroren, blamed by many for the financial state of the club, left in 2012 to take over at the Turkish Football Federation. The era of big spending on semi-interested foreign stars – Guti, Ricardo Quaresma and Simao – and coaches like Bernd Schuster, was over.
New president Orman promised to run the club in a far more sustainable way, and did not promise Bilic lavish funds. Instead, Bilic set about reorganising a team who had lost any sense of balance or discipline. He won his first four games and has been popular ever since.
Bilic’s politics – he talks about playing “socialist football” – and his passion have also struck a chord with Besiktas’s famous fans group, the carsi. They are a left-wing and anarchist group who have assumed a new national prominence, taking a leading role in the Gezi protests against the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last summer, making them one of Turkey’s most influential fan movements.
At the game with Arsenal the carsi will unveil Turkey’s largest ever hand-made banner, reading “La Vittoria Sara Nostra” (victory will be ours) with anarchist “a” symbols.
While the 45,000 Besiktas fans will make a good atmosphere, it will not be quite as good as it should be. The game will be played at Besiktas’s temporary home of the Olympic stadium, most famous for Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final win, but not especially popular with local fans: it is on the western outskirts of the city, and has a running track around the pitch.
Next season Besiktas hope to be back at the centre of Istanbul, at the new Vodafone Arena, which should be just as loud as their famous old ground.
Besiktas should be even more of a force next year, as their young players grow into a side who can be Turkey’s best again. Three of their youngsters – Oguzhan Ozyakup, Kerim Frei and Gokhan Tore – played in England and are all now proving themselves again.
Demba Ba is the one star of this post-stars team, although Younes Belhanda, Dynamo Kiev’s brilliant Moroccan midfielder, could join next week. They might not have enough to beat Arsenal but, even in their temporary home, they are a reborn team with their values and pride back.
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