Chronicle of a Disastrous Season Foretold

When Aziz Yıldırım announced he would run for re-election as the club chairman, a cloud of despair and exasperation engulfed the worldwide Fenerbahçe fanbase. Yıldırım had been running the club for over 20 years, and despite a period of success during the mid-2000s, he had who had been running the club for 20 years decided that he would run for the club presidency again. Despite being successful in the first few years and through the middle period of his reign, Yıldırım had garnered ire for his autocratic management of the club. No one could oppose his decisions, no one could question his authority. He was briefly imprisoned for match-fixing, and while his sentence was later reversed, the stains of his polemical past remained.

Yıldırım often bickered with fans who disputed his decisions; he even banned some from matches. It seemed hopeless, yet inevitable that the polemical chairman would continue for another term, until Ali Koç, a renowned businessman, a former member on the club’s board of directors, and a well-liked figure amongst the club’s supporters, announced he would contest Yıldırım in the forthcoming election. Suddenly, after 20 long and bleak years, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel. On June 3, 2018, Koç was elected as club president, winning 77.6% of the votes.

It was a breath of fresh air amidst an atmosphere of smoke, yet Koç still needed to clean up the rubble. Little did he know that he was about to inherit a trainwreck, a situation that was far more damaging and complex than expected. Yıldırım had been sweeping severe issues under the rug instead of fixing them. He had lied about financial reports, as it turned out that the club was drowning in €621 million worth of debt, not the €400 million that Yıldırım had previously declared. What’s more, over two-thirds of that debt is short term, and must be paid this year. In addition, mounting operational expenses rounded the debt to €717 million. It’s almost as if Koç opened the door to his presidential palace for the first time, and became buried in a sea of IOUs and default notices.

Joyous celebrations for the electoral triumph were cut short, and Fenerbahçe fans realized that while their savior had arrived, true salvation would take longer than expected. Koç immediately secured a low-interest loan of $50 million on the condition that the club would restructure his debt, and Koç has promised to continue using his financial muscle to carry the club out of financial ruin. But even if he does manage to fulfill his promises, it will take a long time to reverse two decades of mismanagement.

Fenerbahçe fans learned that the hard way. Hit by the disturbing revelation of their monumental debt problem, Fener shunned going for flashy, marquee signings, and instead took a “Moneyball” approach during the summer transfer window. There was no Robin van Persie or Roberto Soldado signing this time; instead of big-money transfers, there were big-money exits. Damien Comolli, an ex-Liverpool official who had brought in the likes of Luis Suárez and Jordan Henderson to the Merseyside club, was hired as Director of Football to handle the transfers. Between his work at Saint-Étienne and Liverpool as a sporting director, he had built up enough credibility for Koç to entrust him with rebuilding the club, even if it meant blowing it up first.

Comolli started off with offloading the club’s three Brazilians to Saudi clubs for profit: Josef de Souza, Giuliano and Fernandão were sold for a total of €25 million. Then, with the funds raised, he began to assemble a squad that would fit Koç’s long-term vision. Fenerbahçe signed the 18-year-old Ferdi Kadioglu, who had just racked up seven goals and 11 assists in Holland’s second division, as well as Turkish prospects Berke Özer and Barış Alici from Altınordu, a club renowned for its talent production.

After stocking the squad with exciting talents who could emerge as stars in the future, Comolli then went for talented, yet unsettled players who had not quite panned out at the top level, and who were looking for a new challenge that would offer them desperately needed playing time. Islam Slimani, Yassine Benzia, and Andre Ayew were brought in on loan, and Diego Reyes joined on a free transfer. Comolli finished the mercato by signing Brazilian midfielder Jailson and Swiss striker Michael Frey from Grêmio and Zürich, respectively. In total, Fener made a net gain of €9 million that summer.

Comolli had helped stabilize the club finances while also revamping the squad, but the biggest decision was yet to be made: a new manager. Aykut Kocaman was currently in charge for his second spell as manager, but his conservative tactics had exasperated fans, who begged for a change. Failing to win the title and the domestic cup at the end of the season was the final straw; Koç knew he had to make a change.

On June 22, Fenerbahçe appointed Phillip Cocu, who had guided PSV to the title in three of the last four seasons. Koç was not interested in short-term success; he did not expect Cocu to win a trophy in the first season. What he needed, on the other hand, was a tactician who, in the long run, could rally the team into domestic and international success. Cocu seemed like a perfect fit.

The first test of the season would come against Benfica in the Champions League playoffs. Fenerbahce had not advanced to the Champions League group stage since 2008; they have been eliminated in the preliminaries five times over the past seven seasons. Fans were desperate to see their team defeat a seemingly weak Benfica side, but instead, Benfica outplayed them, and won with a Franco Cervi goal. For the second leg, they would need to overturn a one-goal deficit. Zealous fans packed the stadium, generating an electric atmosphere in the stadium. However, that energy did not carry over to the pitch, and Benfica held on to a draw against a tepid Fenerbahçe to advance to the group stage.

With their Champions League dream quashed, the domestic league was now the priority. In his first few games, Cocu used a 4-2-3-1 formation, with one midfielder (Topal) holding his position and the other (Elmas or Souza) working in a box to box role. After failing to dominate against weaker teams, Cocu started tinkering. He tried 4-1-4-1 with Andre Ayew as an interior midfielder. It failed; they lost to Göztepe. He experimented with a 4-3-3, with ball-playing defender Diego Reyes as a makeshift DM. It failed; they lost to Kayserispor.

Over his stint in Istanbul, Cocu used six different formations with various line-ups, starting 26 different players. He tried every single thing; nothing worked. Fener lost five of their first 10 league games, marking their worst ever league start in club history. In contrast, under Kocaman, they only lost four out of their 34 league games the previous season.

Dubbed a master tactician during his time in Holland, the Dutchman simply couldn’t adapt to the Süper Lig. Things weren’t going well in the Europa League either. Fenerbahçe were expected to top their relatively weak group with ease. Instead, on September 20, Fener were demolished 1-4 by Dinamo Zagreb. They managed to beat Spartak Trnava, but they could only muster a draw against Anderlecht. The bleeding continued; on October 28, a newly promoted Ankaragücü side humbled Fener with a scoreline of 3-1. With only two wins in the league, and with the club hovering one point above the relegation zone at 15th, Cocu was sacked.

Rather than hiring a new manager, Comolli and Koç decided to appoint assistant manager Erwin Koeman as head coach. They were about to face one of their biggest rivals, Galatasaray, away from home. With the defending champions currently challenging for the title, and with Fener mired in one of the worst seasons in their 111-year history, it seemed like this derby would be a wash. However, the match ended in a 2-2 draw, and for the first time this season, the Yellow Canaries played some promising, exciting football. 2-0 wins against Anderlecht and Alanyaspor followed, and although it has only been three games, it seems the tide may be starting to turn for Fenerbahçe.

It is unclear yet what Comolli and Koç are planning for their next move. There are rumors that they will stick with Koeman for the rest of the season, but it is equally likely that they appoint an experienced manager like Jorge Sampaoli or Laurent Blanc. There’s plenty of work left for Koç’s fledgling project, but one thing’s for sure: such an idealistic businessman will not stop until he reaches his goal of revolutionizing Fenerbahçe and Turkish football as well. 

By: Aaron Armstrong

Photo: Perform Group