Galatasaray vs. Fenerbahce: Previewing one of the world's premier derbies

Laurence Griffiths

In a weekend where Europe's big four fail to produce marquee fixtures, the Turkish Super Lig will steal some of the world football spotlight.

It takes a whole awful lot to make a city of 14 million (official) to go silent. But on Saturday evening, all of Istanbul outside of the 52,652 packed onto Aslantepe - Lion's Hill - will be quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

Galatasaray comes into Saturday's massive derby match on a league-leading 29 points through 15 games, and Fenerbahçe is only two points behind them (upstart Antalyaspor sits on 26 points with a game in hand). And although this their first match this year, Fenerbahçe leads the historical series with 141 wins to 118 losses and 113 draws. One can safely say they are familiar with each other, and the rest of the country is familiar with them. Since the 1992-93 Süper Lig season, one of the two teams has ended the season as champion in 15 of the 19 seasons. They are the two favorites to do a similar sort of thing this time around.

After all, the more things change, the more things stay the same. That's been Istanbul's motto since, well, since there's been anything that resembled Istanbul. The intercontinental derby has survived the ur-Bond and the blurgh-Bond, it will surely survive the Ehrmergerd its Derniel Cerg-Bond. These sides (and the holding companies that control them) have moved from playing in disused military barracks to Five-Star-UEFA-Certified-Super-Duper pitches, and one imagines they won't go anywhere even if the barracks return. Fener and GS have outlasted the Caliphate and the Arabic alphabet, They should have no problems thriving in times of massive corruption scandals and more massive assumptions of geomorphology. There are those that say that the Great Flood memorialized by the good book served not to wipe out evil but to finally separate Galatasaray on the left bank of the Bosporus from Fenerbahçe on the right. Perhaps Leander was the first big-ticket transfer.

But all of that is ancient history. Even the match fixing scandal, I am assured by an angry Fenerbahçe supporter wielding his cigarette like a lightsaber, is from a different period. The age of Heroes -- from Leander's sweetheart to a sweet-footed islander -- ended with the latter's death in 2011. Now is the age of pragmatism. The age of a scramble for the top of the league and a prayer to whichever God or Platini will provide them with a good European draw.

But if God won't do, an Emperor might. Fatıh Terim third run with his side is coming in to this weekend on a run of terrific form. Galatasaray recently beat Manchester United and Braga in consecutive Champions League matches to finish second in their group and pass into the knockout round for their first time since 2000-2001, which was so long ago that Leeds United was in the semi-finals. They have been led in large part by their forwards; Umut Bulut leads the Süper Lig with 11 goals, Burak Yılmaz is tied for second with three others at nine and Johan Elmander has provided terrific hold-up play in the rotation. New acquisition Hamit Altıntop has provided tremendous presence in the midfield while young wingers Aydın Yılmaz (no relation) and Dutch-Moroccan Noureddine Amrabat are growing up. The Lions' goaltender, Uruguayan Fernando Muslera, is a rising star in Turkey.

Or perhaps the times of Gods and Emperors is over and the labors of man now rule. The canaries of Kadıkoy are managed by their former star striker, Aykut Kocaman. Fener is captained by longtime keeper Volkan Demirel of peculiar facial hair fame, and the squad has performed well despite many changes. Moussa Sow and Dirk Kuyt were brought in from Lille and Liverpool respectively to play up front, and have largely succeeded. Joseph Yobo has been able to marshal Hasan Ali Kaldırım and Egemen Korkmaz into a cohesive unit in front of Volkan, but their only marquee performance so far has been a 3-0 victory over Beşiktaş. Former Chelsea youth academy product Miroslav Stoch is fast becoming one of the most dangerous creative-types in the Süper Lig.

It is rare for even the Istanbul derbies to feature teams doing so well in Europe. Galatasaray's presence in the Champions League knockout round has been related, and Fenerbahçe won their group to enter the Europa League round of 32. Success in Europe is the only real hurdle left for these two teams depending on how heavy of a weight you put on a 2000 UEFA Super Cup Galatasaray took with an extra-time goal beyond the reach of a teenage Iker Casillas. It is for this European dream that the greying Hamit and Kuyt were brought in, steady hands from Bayern and Liverpool respectively ready to lead the young legs.

But that's for Europe. For weekday games on Monsanto-modified pitches in Europe's capitals and also Manchester. Not for a December night when tricked-out trucks cruise down the shore road blasting rap songs loosely themed on apocryphal American boxers. Not for serious scholars of Islamic Law (who happen to be Fenerbahçe supporters) trying to find ways deem sacrificing a lions (who happen to be Galatasaray's mascot) for Kurban Bayram halal.

The intercontinental derby is where Istanbul lets itself get weird. No pleasing tourists with Turanopop/Oriental beats blasting out of Chinese-made speakers in a hookah shop selling Iranian tobacco. No stultifying rounds of talks about The Future Of The Region, East Meets West, and Hey Oh And By The Way Did You Know We Have Bridges And Also Metaphors? No empty words, at least not once the yellow/red and yellow/navy clash (and I do mean clash, in a way even Kodachrome couldn't save) enter the pitch. Then all of the noise in all of the city gets sucked up onto the expensive stadium on Lion's Hill.

Then, the rest of the city will enjoy their vices as they rely on their devices. If you could tear your eyes from the TV or radio to let them rest on the soccer supporters in your locality, you'll realize what an oral fixation we have as a community. The transmitters of those vices: cigarettes of smuggled tobacco, mugs of formaldehyde-ridden beer, glasses of hirsutifying raki, fingers with nails that must be mowed to the nub, all enter one's mouth that mustn't scream.

At least not until the first foul.

With a win across the Bosporus in the Lions' den, Fenerbahçe would give themselves a serious leg up on their rivals in league play. You can be sure that Galatasaray is not looking forward to their return leg across the water in Fenerbahçe's colloquially-determined "Hell," where they have not won since 1999.

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