In north-east Turkey, over 1000km from Istanbul, a man with a Mohawk is thrust up into the night sky atop the shoulders of thousands of people clad in claret and blue, with tears in their eyes.
It is Trabzonspor’s Marek Hamsik, who, at the age of 34, has just become a league champion for the first time in his long, magnificent career.
He is not the only one who has had to wait a long time. In fact, almost everyone who has flooded the pitch at the Senol Gunes Sports Complex has never seen their beloved Trabzonspor win the league.
But now, almost four decades on from their last title in 1984, ‘The Black Sea Storm’ has engulfed Turkey once more. The long-craved title has been delivered by a rag-tag crew of journeymen, and the vanquishing of an ancient triforce that controlled Turkish football for decades.
Strap yourself in and get yourself a cup of (Turkish) coffee: this is how Trabzonspor ended their 38-year wait for a title.
Changes in Turkish Football
Only five clubs have ever won the Turkish title, and of those only two are from outside of Istanbul. Bursaspor, who are themselves located only about 150km south of the wealthiest city in Turkey, and Trabzonspor.
Indeed, of those clubs in Istanbul to have lifted the trophy, all but one of the titles have been won by Turkey’s three biggest clubs; Galatasary, Fenerbahce, and Besiktas.
Between them, they have topped the table in 57 of Turkey’s 66 seasons of senior football, a level of dominance only comparable to the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic in Scotland.
Yet the big three have fallen from grace; two of the last three titles have gone to other clubs, something completely unheard of in Turkish football.
Not Galatasaray, Not Fenerbahçe, Not Beşiktaş.
What happened this year in the Turkish Superlig is so rare. Trabzonspor was experiencing a 38-year league title drought and managed to take the title while the İstanbul clubs struggled pic.twitter.com/8muBeWIPGw
— Nico Cantor (@Nicocantor1) May 1, 2022
Galatasary, by far the biggest club in Turkey, have now failed to win the league since 2018-19 and for most of this season have languished near the relegation zone.
The 2021 champions Besiktas have also struggled, outside of even the European places, while Fenerbahce are without a league title since 2014.
What has caused this sudden change? Well, some speculate whether it is no coincidence that the fate of the big sides has changed since VAR was introduced in 2018, officials now less able to be both consciously and sub-consciously biased.
All three of the big teams are also in debt, with the Turkish federation stepping up its campaign to restrict reckless financial management and integrating spending caps on clubs.
There is also another factor: the other clubs have simply got better.
How 2020 champions Istanbul Basaksehir won their title is hardly mysterious. Backed by close supporters of President Erdogan, they spent big money on wages for well-known players like Demba Ba, Gael Clichy, and Martin Skrtel.
Trabzonspor’s return to the top, however, has been the much more anticipated rejuvenation of Turkey’s only non-Istanbul footballing power.
Lying on the south coast of the Black Sea, Trabzon exists in something of a dream, suspended between calm waters and the tree-clad hills that surround the city.
It is almost the total opposite to Istanbul. Trabzon is home to just over 800,000 while Istanbul has over 15million. Trabzon has its own Hagia Sophia that sits timidly compared to the scale of Istanbul’s, yet both are heralded as the peaks of different Byzantine architecture.
In a similar way, the city’s one major football team stands small compared to the three from Istanbul, with ‘just’ seven titles to its name.
Five of those titles came in succession between 1975 and 1980, most of which came under legendary manager Ahmet Suat Ozyazıcı who guided them to three Turkish Cups as well.
Such was his success he became known as ‘the Brazilian’ for his tactical ideas, and even led the side to victory over Liverpool in 1976 in the European Cup, just a year before the English side won their first.
Now running a hardware store in Trabzon, he even returned in 1984 to win them what was their most recent title until this year.
For years, then, Trabzon acted as the only counter-balance to the footballing power of the Istanbul three. Yet suddenly… it stopped.
The economic power of Istanbul simply became too much to compete with for Trabzonspor. The players in Istanbul were bigger, stronger, faster, and better paid.
Sure, there were six Turkish Cups to celebrate, but no title, and as time went on the dream looked further and further away.
Suddenly they were even leapfrogged by new powers. They were runners up in 1995, 1996, 2004, 2005, 2011, and, as if to rub salt into the wounds, even to Basaksehir in 2020. Hell, even Bursaspor won the league in 2010. So what could Trabzonspor do?
It seemed everything was against them. They lost the 2011 title in bitter circumstances, Fenerbahce taking it on goal difference after the Trabzon side bottled a lead.
Yet it was then revealed that the Istanbul club had been at the centre of a huge match-fixing scandal. Was the title handed to Trabzonspor instead? Of course not, the Istanbul-based Turkish Football Federation decided against it.
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Decades of pain looked certain to continue and, as the 2020-21 season commenced, the side were near the bottom of the table.
But then came manager Abdullah Avci in November 2020, and suddenly everything changed.
After helping Trabzonspor recover to a fifth-place finish in 2021, Avci set his sights on building a team capable of challenging for the title.
Let’s not beat around the bush here and pretend that Trabzonspor won the title with nothing more than team spirit. They have spent more than a little bit of money to prise the glory from Istanbul, so much so that in 2020 they were banned from European competitions for failing FFP.
But bloody hell, have the Istanbul clubs spent money between them as well, with deals such as the one that saw Galatasary splash out nearly £12million on flop striker Mbaye Diang.
It isn’t just the money, however. Trabzonspor’s recruitment has been spot on, combining new signings with the players already in the city to create a fluid, creative, attacking force.
Ahead of the 2021-22 season, Cardiff flop Andreas Cornelius signed from Parma for just over £4million. One season later, he has 15 league goals and has become the bullying, clinical striker any league-winning outfit needs.
Behind him is a creative team beyond description. Hamsik, the mohawked Napoli legend arrived on a free in 2021 to brighten up the Black Sea coast with delightful dinks and subtle brilliance.
GRANDE ! pic.twitter.com/GeabyWdXzd
— No Context Trabzon (@Nocontext_61) May 1, 2022
Then there’s Anthony Nwakaeme, a 33-year-old Nigerian winger who arrived in 2018 and has lit up the league year upon year. A cup champion in Romania and a league champion in Israel, he is now a Turkish league winner as well, in no small part thanks to his 10 goals and 11 assists.
What about Djaniny, Cornelius’ Cape Verdian strike partner? He has played in Portugal, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia but has found the peak of his achievements at the age of 31 in north-east Turkey.
Oh and don’t worry, there’s local talent too. Ugurcan Cakir, the goalkeeper that is a product of Trabzonspor’s youth system, has been a stalwart through all the ups and downs of the last four seasons and his efforts have him become Turkey’s No.1.
The team is embodied by the first goal of their 2-2 draw against Antalyaspor which saw them confirm the title.
THE FIRST!!! HAMSIK 🥵🥵 pic.twitter.com/R0luD3eMuA
— Otto (@__elgrandeotto) April 30, 2022
Look at how they move the ball so seamlessly, each player knowing where the other is and all focussing on Cornelius to tap it home in the middle within three minutes of the start of the match.
Oh, and Hamsik did some kick-ups in the middle of it all for no reason whatsoever. Guzel.
The final result sparked wild celebrations; they could now not be caught and the title was theirs. Fittingly, the runners-up are Fernerbache, the very team that cheated their way to the title ahead of Trabzonspor back in 2011.
The pitch was invaded before the match could even finish, and while it was cleared so the match could end, there was no hope of getting the crowd off the pitch after the final whistle.
Flares were everywhere, their claret and light blue smoke painting the black canvas of the night sky. Each player was lifted by the crowd, worshipped as victorious Byzantine warriors.
On this occasion, their spoils were a prize long sought after, finally claimed once more; the Super Lig trophy.
Modern history has not been kind to Turkish Champions. Last year’s champions Besiktas were way off the pace in this campaign, as were Basaksehir and Galatasary after their recent titles.
But Trabzonspor will not worry themselves with such things. They are champions finally, and could yet add the Turkish Cup to their league title and become only the fifth team to do the double in the 21st century.
So here’s to Trabzonspor, the city of Trabzon, and footballers winning leagues in random places.
Oh, and to flares. We mustn’t forget flares.
By Patrick Ryan