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May 18, 2010

Bursaspor claim their place in history

It has been quite a long wait - 26 years to be exact - but finally Turkey can claim to have a league that is not completely dominated by the big boys.

Besiktas (in the early 90s) and Trabzonspor (in the late 70s/early 80s) have offered resistance to the dominance of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe in the past, but all too often a smaller side's challenge for glory has fallen short. Lowly Sivasspor, last year, were the ones to fail at the final hurdle and, just 12 months on, found themselves fighting a relegation battle which they only just won.

But now, Turkey has a new force: Bursaspor - a side that were only founded in 1963 and play at a 19,000-capacity stadium in the country's fourth largest city, They are only the fifth side to win the Turkish league in its history.

In clinching their first ever title, the 'Green Crocodiles' have laid down a marker for the future success of smaller sides in Turkey - a shining example that the underdogs can have their day. And no one can say that they have not deserved it.

A 1-0 home victory against Istanbul giants Galatasaray and a 3-2 win away at Besiktas in the first half of the season set the tone, but it was a 3-2 comeback (having been two goals down) against title rivals Fenerbahce in February - thanks to two goals in the final five minutes from winger Ozan Ipek - that really convinced fans and pundits of their pedigree.

By the end of the campaign, Bursa boasted the second best defence in the Turkish league (conceding 26 goals compared to Besiktas' 25) and smashed 65 goals at the other end to take the plaudits.

Unsurprisingly, for a side built on meagre resources, the goals were spread evenly around the team with Argentine midfielder Pablo Batalla (8) and winger Ipek (8) the only ones standing out.

Indeed, seeing out the final few weeks of drama owed much to the unique team spirit of the club. Having led the league for much of the season, Bursa were overtaken by giants Fenerbahce with a few games left and, going into the final matchday of the season, needed to rely on Trabzonspor causing an upset, while picking up a win against last season's champions Besiktas themselves.

When wild celebrations in the Fenerbahce stands (despite their side's 1-1 draw) were seen after the final whistle had been blown, it appeared that, yet again, the history books would see an Istanbul side walk away with the trophy. However, the celebrations were due to a stadium announcement (perhaps from a mischievous official) that had been misinformed. In fact, Bursa had beaten Besiktas 2-1, overtaking Fener by a single point.

Fener fans did not take the news well when all was revealed, setting fire to their own seats inside the Sukru Saracoglu stadium, clashing with riot police and going on the rampage in the city centre. Regrettably, the reporting of that news rather hogged the spotlight when it should have been trained fully on recognising Bursa's success, but nothing could take the moment of glory away from the coach.

''After taking pole position in the league during the course of the season, we believed in our hearts that we could win the title," said Ertugrul Saglam (who managed Besiktas two years ago). "Despite losing the lead to Fenerbahce we did not give up hope. We were always waiting to pounce if Fenerbahce dropped points.

"Following in Trabzonspor's footsteps [in 1984], we have brought success back to Anatolia. The whole of Bursa has made history. We put together a good team and that was the key to our title success."

Their success has had a knock-on effect for some of their star players as well, with strikers Turgay Bahadir and Sercan Yildirim and midfielders Volkan Sen and Ipek called up to Guus Hiddink's Turkey squad for a training camp in America following the season's end.

The worry, of course, is that a team who has had such a quick rise to prominence is soon auctioned off to the highest bidder. Sen, Yildirim and Ipek in particular could have their heads turned by the offers flooding in from clubs in larger European leagues, but the signs are that they are keen to stay and build on the platform they have set up. For many of the journeymen at the club, Bursa has been a turning point in their careers and certainly the lure of playing Champions League football next season will be enough to keep the squad together for another year at the very least.

They will be boosted by the fact that Bursa will go directly into the group stages thanks to the UEFA coefficient of Turkey. As the Turks are currently 11th in those terms, second-placed Fenerbahce will enter the Champions League qualifiers (potentially facing a tricky test against a side like Tottenham) and the champions will get a guaranteed six games in the groups.

Bursaspor's job is far from over, though, according to Saglam. "We have taken this honour. Now we have an even bigger responsibility on our shoulders; representing our country in the Champions League," he said. "We'll try not to let those who supported us down.''

In the long-term, Bursa will need to invest the money they get from their Champions League campaign wisely if they are to buck the trend of the over-achievers in Turkish game. They may never reach the same heights as they have done this season but, for now, this unique and passionate club can be allowed to enjoy their much-deserved success.

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