Selamun Aleykum Karagümrük Geldi: How Karagumruk Secured and Extruded Andrea Pirlo

It all seemed to good to be true for Fatih Karagumruk. With an already strong Italian contingent at the club with the veteran, Emiliano Viviano, as goalkeeper and Andrea Bertolacci and Fabio Borini both making the move to Kara Kirmizi in recent memory, it seemed an Italian manager would make the move to the club due to the links the club had. Vincenzo Montella – who has since excelled with Adana Demirspor – was linked, but it was Andrea Pirlo who made the shock move to a Turkish side still relatively new to Super Lig after a 36-year absence. 


The history of Karagumruk is as long and steeped in history. It doesn’t even take very long to find examples that illustrate this; the reason that Karagumruk have been going sans-stadium for the last three seasons since their promotion to the Super Lig is that their actual stadium, the ‘Vefa Stadi’ (familiarly referred to as the ‘Karagumruk Stadi’ by fans of the club), is built on an ancient cistern from the Byzantine period of Turkish history. 


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Due to the existence of this ancient cistern, named as the ‘Aetius Cistern’, the walls of the stadium have been protected fervently by both the Turkish government and the Turkish football federation (TFF) particularly since the club was promoted back to the top flight in 2020. 


What Separates Karagumruk From the Rest?


For many living in Turkey, you have a provincial club and a big three club. While this dichotomy does not appertain to everyone, it is a very relevant phenomenon that exists and is crucial to understanding the magnitude of Turkish football’s big three – Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas – and the polarity between them and all outsiders in Turkish football. 


Even while being a big club in their peak, finishing second to Fenerbahce in 1947, Karagumruk struggled to sustain their success during the advent of increased professionalization of the sport in Turkey and eventually ran into serious financial troubles which saw them suffer relegation to the second tier in 1963 despite what was still a very strong squad 


With eight Super Lig clubs hailing from the famous city of Istanbul, it has proved vital to Karagumruk that conveying a strong ambition to improve the squad and eventually compete for big trophies in Turkey has been vital.


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An example of this ambition is seen in the overall imagery used by fans of the club about securing European football for the club. The idea of the Karagumrukluler in Europe and all of the imagery around this concept has been key to the club establishing unity within the fanbase, with a goal to work towards that all parties seem fully devoted to.


Who is Responsible for this Rise?


Critical to establishing this unification of the Kara Kirmizi is Suleyman Hurma, the chairman and owner of Fatih Karagumruk. To say that he is adored by Karagumruk fans would be an understatement. He is a messianic figure for a club that was once floundering in the amateur leagues of Turkish football a little over a decade ago, who has fully ingratiated himself to the fans of the club and set out a clear plan for growth and progression for the club. 


Hurma was renowned during his time at Kayserispor in the 2000s and 2010s for his shrewdness in the transfer market, making huge profits from the sales of Gokhan Unal, Mehmet Topuz, and Nordin Amrabat. It is this cunning and strategic approach that has helped enable Karagumruk to continue to reinvest in the squad despite losing big names like Lucas Biglia, Aleksandar Pesic, Alassane Ndao, Emre Mor and Andrea Bertolacci in the last two years. 


His ability to exhibit future-proof ideas and to exude his overarching ambitions for the club have been vital to bringing excellent coaches with great reputations to Karagumruk. The club were promoted with Senol Can, whom Hurma had insisted he was eager to give time to when the club did get promoted to the Super Lig, was sacked just halfway through Karagumruk’s first season back in the Super Lig. 


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Subsequent to Can’s dismissal, the club looked to Alanyaspor’s assistant manager– and disciple of Roberto De Zerbi at Sassuolo – Francesco Farioli in order to establish an attractive playing style that could individualise Karagumruk as a legitimate, competitive side capable of competing for European football. 


While the experiment was short-lived and Farioli didn’t last a full season during his reign, he displayed signs that he will later become an excellent coach. This was clear through his ability to convey complex tactical instructions that his team was able to follow through with very quickly. He very quickly transformed Karagumruk into the most possession-oriented side in the league with clear, De-Zerbi-esque patterns of play. 


Many fans of the club revolted at the decision for the club to part ways with Farioli. Despite poor results plaguing the club in the last few months of his reign, it seemed like it would be a tall order to find a replacement that could hold up the same values and principles of playing style that Farioli had established. 


Therein, came the appointment of Volkan Demiral. The legendary former goalkeeper for Fenerbahce was appointed Karagumruk manager in a controversial move amongst fans of the club. This was Demiral’s first senior role in management and it seemed like a hastily prepared move by the club. Despite some good results in the league and the spike in form for Emre Mor and Aleksandar Pesic, Demiral was swiftly replaced in the summer. 


The Pirlo Appointment


All of this background takes us to the appointment of Andrea Pirlo, possibly the biggest moment in the history of the club. A two-time Champions League winner and World Cup winner joined a club that was competing in amateur football when he was on a run of five Serie A titles in a row. 


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Reflecting upon the move now, the appointment captured the imagination and attention of Karagumruk supporters – and more widely, European football fans – but possibly wasn’t the appointment the club truly needed. The Italian coach entered the job with only one year of actual coaching experience – albeit with Juventus – where he displayed a mixed bag of results in winning the Coppa Italia but only mustering up a meagre fourth-place finish in the league. 


Pirlo insisted he had “no regrets in taking the job at all” upon his dismissal from the club. He also added that he felt the experience had made it clearer what he wants his future in management to be. During his reign at Karagumruk though, Pirlo did not show much signs that he was capable of enacting and establishing the playing style that he claims he wants to profess, onto the team. Karagumruk did not play a particularly attractive brand of football under Pirlo. One would even hesitate to call it an “attacking brand of football”. 


While Karagumruk didn’t get dragged into a relegation fight last season, the goal set by the club’s hierarchy is to attain a European qualification spot and Pirlo was eventually dismissed with the club 30 points adrift of that target. The issues in coaching were apparent from the beginning. Pirlo tried – in the beginning at least – to instill a man-marking, intense pressing system off the ball. Far too many times in the first half of the season, Karagumruk were being cut open through the middle of the pitch. The aggressive man-marking system left them exposed to third-man runs and players were losing the individual battles often. 


With one win in their opening nine, things were not going to plan for Pirlo and he was failing to revive Karagumruk’s season. Only at the turn of the year, where Pirlo cobbled together a more cautious playing style with less possession and more of a reliance on Mbaye Diagne to get the team out of trouble through individual moments, did Karagumruk actually see an upturn in form.


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It was during this spell that they went on a run of eleven league games unbeaten, an incredibly impressive feat only matched by the winners of the Super Lig, Galatasaray, that season. It also marked a new unbeaten league record for the club, beating the previous record from the 1959/60 season which was marked under the guidance of coach Bulent Eken. 


Despite the upturn in results, it was clear that Pirlo’s enthusiasm at Karagumruk was waning. Many reports began to surface that Pirlo was not taking training seriously. Upon speaking with Karagurmuk supporters, this became very clear. “Pirlo would often be seen standing and smoking cigarettes with players,” Mehmet, a lifelong Karagumruk fan, tells BTL. 


It seemed in the end it felt like a more mutual apathy, more so than gross incompetence, that killed the Pirlo-Karagumruk project. It felt like the desire to further the project started to diminish almost instantaneously. Moreover, Karagumruk could be in real danger this coming season.


First, they lost out on the services of Fabio Borini, Mbaye Diagne and Andrea Bertolacci for the coming season, and to succeed Pirlo, they have placed their faith in a former player, Alparslan Erdem, who has not coached a senior professional side before. As for Pirlo, he has taken up a job at Sampdoria, who will be playing in Italy’s second tier this season for the first time in 12 years.


Perhaps Andrea Pirlo will be the fortunate one in this case. Perhaps, even he was holding a club together while it meandered in quiet disarray. Time will tell. 


By: Louis Young / @FrontPostPod

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Simone Arveda / Getty Images


By: Simone Arveda / Getty Images