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Anatolia still searching for Turkish title

Back in February it looked as if one of the most remarkable stories in Turkish football history was about to unfold. Sivasspor, a club who have only been in the top flight since 2005, were sitting on top of the league and were poised to become only the fifth team to win the Super Lig title.

By the final day of the season the club's title dream was still a mathematical possibility, but a defeat to Galatasaray coupled with Besiktas' win over Denizlispor sent the title to Istanbul's Besiktas. Not that it was seen as failure in the eyes of the fans.

By all accounts the scenes of celebration in Istanbul were matched in Sivas. The disappointment at a final day defeat and any lingering ambitions of what would have been a truly amazing title win were soon put to rest by news that third-place Trabzonspor had fallen 2-1 to Fenerbahçe, thus giving the small Anatolian side a place in next season's Champions League.

Losing felt like winning and a city of just 380,000 celebrated well into the night.

"In Istanbul, there is Laila," Sivas coach Bülent Uygun said at a press conference, referring to the city's once-popular celebrity nightclub. "In Sivas, we have 'La ilahe illallah,' a phrase in the Koran that means, 'There is only one God'." And the party thrown in their honour, in a largely alcohol-free city, ended before midnight.

Many have followed the rise of the club this season, but few expected them to last the pace. They are a squad of average players, with meagre financial backing behind them, who have only been in the league for four years and with a rookie coach as well; but, if anyone can claim credit for the club's remarkable run of form, it is the 37-year-old in charge.

Uygun, a former player who was nicknamed "The Soldier", learnt his trade from World Cup winning tactician Carlos Alberto Parreira while the pair were together at Fenerbahçe and he has been a great success in his first major appointment.

He has forged a battling mentality at the club and, as Sivas do not have the class of players on show at the likes of Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray, has been forced to instil a fighting spirit. But ironically, given that his nickname suggests otherwise, he has not ruled with an iron fist.

"Actually if you compare us to the rest of the clubs in Turkey we are one of the most relaxed clubs in the league,'' Sivasspor goalkeeper Michael Petkovic said. ''We haven't got that military thing about us.

"He [Uygen] doesn't put too much pressure on us and has drawn a strong group of players together - we are not all superstars but we fight for each other."

The ex-Turkish international has reinvented the club, but Sivas also owe Uygen a debt of gratitude for helping to change the negative perception of the city too. The Madimak massacre in 1993, when 37 Alevi artists and intellectuals were killed in an arson attack on a hotel, lives long in the memory and football has begun to play a part in rebuilding its image. While Uygen has also combated criticisms of the city's nationalism by exposing his political views in more romantic ways, for example, with poems on his website.

The coach has been at the centre of everything at the club for the past four years, but it is his philosophy that is so appealing. Recognising the achievements of his side without raising expectations, he said before the final weekend: "We will see who will win the league, but we are the champions already." And in many eyes, they are.

That said, with the focus purely on the pitch, Sivas may rue what could have been as they lost three of their last five games to hand the advantage to Besiktas, who claimed their first title triumph since 2003.

We will see who will win the league, but we are the champions already.
Sivas' coach Bülent Uygun, before the final game of the season.

Not for 25 years has a side from outside of Istanbul managed to win the trophy and smaller clubs have a habit of blowing their chances towards the end of the season - the most recent being Sivas' own attempts in 2007-08.

Despite Uygen's constant avoidance of title talk, the Anatolian side notched up 70 points - an unexpected total from anyone but the Big Three and Trabzonspor - but defeat to Besiktas and Galatasaray in the final six games spoiled their run and they finished fourth, missing out on Europe.

Gaziantepspor, in 2000-01, went to Fenerbahçe with the knowledge that a win would greatly increase their chances of landing the title after a brilliant start to the season. But after being 3-0 up at half time, they capitulated and lost the game 4-3 after a stunning comeback which eventually dropped them to third and Fener went on to take the title.

Ankara's best hope of glory came in 2003-04 when Gençlerbirligi, led by Ersun Yanal, nearly caused a shock. With a game based on all-out attack, the side finished with 13 more goals than champions Besiktas, but dropped to third after fading away in the final six games of the season.

Notably, Trabzonspor were the last club to bring the title to Anatolia in 1983-84, and they had a superb chance in 1995-96 when Senol Gunes' side were minutes away from sealing a famous win, but let a one-goal lead slip from their grasp in losing to Fenerbahçe.

With Sivasspor now showing that they are a side who have the credentials to push the established order until the end of the season, despite the tribulations of recent history, it may not be long before someone breaks the duck.

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