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May 22, 2013

Muted celebrations as Gala look ahead

"This is maybe the worst title celebration I've ever been at," says the girl next to me as Galatasaray's players wave their farewells and saunter back down the red carpet to the TT Arena's home dressing room, with the Super Lig trophy in tow. It seemed as if she was being a little harsh. The whole squad and coaching staff were introduced one by one to fervent cheers, Felipe Melo was joined by his two children in a reprise of his famous pitbull routine and iconic full-back Sabri Sarioglu led the home crowd in a chant, as is traditional.

Normal standards do not apply in Turkish football, known for its intensity, and Galatasaray's atmosphere is world-renowned. Another female fan in front of me brandished a scarf with the legend "Welcome To Hell" splashed across it in flame-colour letters, a nod to that international notoriety. The choreography before the derby with Besiktas here in February last year, in tribute to local legend Fatih Terim, was so evocative that the emotion was evident on the face of the famously hard-headed coach.

When they left the original Ali Sami Yen behind and decamped to this plush new facility on the edge of the E80 highway in 2011, the spirit and the fire came with them. Hell didn't freeze over - it just moved to the edge of town.

Yet Saturday's final game of the season against Trabzonspor was not the best example of it. Another fan later described the atmosphere in this expectant bearpit of a modern stadium - with its steep stands looming ominously over the pitch - as "the quietest this season". A look around the empty arena before kick-off might have led one to anticipate the mother of all parties; 19 huge pennants hung from the stadium's roof beams, one for each time Galatasaray have become Turkish champions, with their second successive title of this year moving them ahead of bitter rivals Fenerbahce, who have 18.

Yet the planned title celebrations - which had included hours of live music, fireworks and the whole shebang - were canned earlier in the week, deemed inappropriate after the tragic events in Turkey last weekend. Firstly, the twin bombings in the town of Reyhanli on Saturday killed 51. Then, even more close to home, 19-year-old Fenerbahce fan Burak Yildirim was stabbed to death at an Istanbul bus station on his way home from the derby with Galatasaray.

The rivalry has always been intense, but has spread beyond the pale. This is the second season in which away fans have been banned from attending derby fixtures (also incorporating matches including Besiktas and Trabzon), but it appears as if the violence has just been directed away from the stadiums, rather than being quelled. While the problem clearly requires social solutions,the appalling behaviour of some of the players involved in last weekend's derby was certainly an unedifying accompaniment to the current landscape, with Fenerbahçe captain Volkan Demirel and Galatasaray's Sabri both sent off for brawling towards the end of the match.

Turkey is attempting to move away from these tired, and tiring, scenes. So long caricatured as a destination for mercenary players looking for a quick buck, Galatasaray's thrilling Champions League tussles with Schalke and Real Madrid this season brought the nation's football to the world's attention - and not before time, with a league replete with full engagement on the pitch and intense passion off it paradoxically not the best at marketing itself internationally.

The shock January arrivals of Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba aimed to be a step in the direction of ending this isolation. Sneijder missed the Trabzon match through injury but Drogba led the line, and was there in both body and spirit - there were few more enthusiastic participants in the post-match lap of honour with the trophy - but he seems a pale facsimile of his best self at the moment. It's understandable given his exile in China but he is not the first player to be caught on the hop by the physical challenge posed in the Super Lig. Terim has expressed his belief that a proper pre-season will make the duo as potent on the pitch as they promise to be on paper by the time next season begins, which offers rich promise for the team - and club - both domestically and internationally.

Then again, the visit of Trabzon was little more than exhibition given that there was little to play for, and that the match itself was a fairly tame spectacle - won 2-0 by the hosts thanks to Albert Riera and Burak Yilmaz goals - was no surprise. The visitors showed the odd moment of flair but were clearly keen to just get through the afternoon without freh injuries ahead of the cup final against Fenerbahce on Wednesday.

The mood was one of solidarity, with Trabzon arriving onto the pitch to be greeted with two banners in the stands printed with the words: "2010-11 Sampiyonu Trabzonspor Arenaya hosceldin" ("Welcome to the (TT) Arena 2010-11 champions Trabzonspor"). The feeling outside Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu stadium that the Yellow Canaries got away with the match-fixing charges from that season refuse to go away, and are still gnawing away at fans here. Fenerbahce took that 2011 title from Trabzon on goal difference and were cleared of rigging the matches, despite their president Aziz Yildirim's conviction and six-year prison sentence on criminal charges related to the matter.

Accordingly, Turkish Football Federation (TFF) president Yildirim Demiroren is persona non grata at the TT after presiding of the constitution changes that saw Fenerbahce avoid being stripped of the title and relegated, making distinct the conduct of Fenerbahce and their president. When Demiroren's deputy Mehmet Ozerten came on to the field to present the Super Lig trophy, he did so to a cacophony of boos and whistles.

Terim's desire will be that Galatasaray transcend these domestic concerns and continue the upward trajectory that he has authored so far in his third spell in charge. Still plenty of work is required inside and outside the stadiums for Turkish football and its biggest clubs to be able to shine to the world as they should.

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