The Emperor on the rise of Turkish football and breaking the glass ceiling with Galatasaray
Waiting for Fatih Terim in the palatial gardens of Galatasaray’s Florya training complex, you look around, you look at everything, for clues to how the coach thinks. Everything here is decided by him, they say; from the menu in the canteen to the colour of the gazebo on the main lawn that borders the players’ quarters. Now 59, Terim lives the job to the extent that the club are building living quarters here for him — he often sleeps in his office after working late into the night.
He meets us here on the afternoon before Galatasaray’s final game of the season, at home to Trabzonspor (“the first time I’ve ever done an interview before a match,” he says), an occasion which should have been one of joyous celebration but has been scaled down to a more low-key affair, after the terrorist attacks in Reyhanlı and the murder of teenage Fenerbahçe fan Burak Yıldırım in the aftermath of the previous weekend’s derby.
The man they call İmparator (‘The Emperor’) in Turkey has that on his mind and more as he looks back on how far he’s taken Galatasaray — with whom he’s now in a third spell as coach — and Turkey, as well as his career’s English roots.
Tell us a bit about how you first discovered football. What are your first memories of the game as a child and how did you first begin to get involved in the game?
I almost don’t remember anything else from when I was a child apart from football. I was just focused on playing in the streets with my friends. Football was my priority ahead of anything else.
When you joined Galatasaray in 1974, you were a forward, weren’t you?
I was an attacking player, but I was generally in midfield. By the time I quit playing, I was a libero. One of my coaches was Big Mal — Malcolm Allison, you remember? He made a change to the way I played, though it was Don Howe who first made me play as a libero, in a European Cup game against Rapid Vienna. When I was a player, I was always working with English coaches at Galatasaray… Arthur Cox [Allison’s assistant at the club] was another one.
How long did it take to adapt when you moved back to defence?
Right away. I was quick, I had good technique and I was adaptable so it was OK. I started playing as a defender when I was at Galatasaray, but I started to play in that position for the national team as well and continued doing that for Turkey after I left Galatasaray.
Galatasaray have the TT Arena now, but when you were a player, they played in a few different places. What sort of a difference does it make to have a dedicated home stadium?
It’s a big advantage and it’s a source of great happiness for us too. You are saying that “It’s mine.” Before, we were sometimes sharing with other teams and the capacity wasn’t that big. It’s about the facilities off the pitch as well, the other stuff. The teams that want to be in the top 20 or the top 10 in the world have to have stadiums like this. It’s important economically, financially, socially… Of course the stadium has an effect on us [the staff], but the most important aspect is the economic one. It’s like in London, the difference between Craven Cottage and the Emirates. The fans are different, the pressure in the stadiums is different. We respect the memories we have [of the old Ali Sami Yen], but we have to adapt to the modern structure of football.
If we’re talking about adapting over time, let’s briefly go back to when you were a player for Turkey. When you played for Turkey it was still far from established as a world or European power. It’s a very different situation to yours now, where you’re used to winning all the time. How did the difficult times as a player shape your outlook when you took charge of Turkey?
It was drastically different. My mentality was very simple when I became a coach; I was only 32. In ’93, when I became national team coach for the first time, my philosophy… I saw that in the past 70 years, we had done nothing. In my first press conference, the very first thing that I said was, “There’s only one word that I won’t say — patience. This country already had too much patience. If I do badly, you won’t let me continue anyway, so I’m not going to tell you ‘patience’.” I told my players — don’t be scared to lose, as you already lost plenty. The Turkey team was set out in a 9-0-1, with nine in defence. We were already losing playing in a defensive way. I said, why not lose in an attacking way? And then, one by one, we started to beat teams that we hadn’t been able to beat for 40 years, 50 years. Being a coach and being a player for Turkey is very different, even if I used my experiences, as I was a leader on the pitch anyway.
So you always planned to be a coach?
When I was playing, I always said to myself: when I stop playing, that’s it for me and football. I’m done with it. My first daughter had just been born… Jupp Derwall asked me not to quit football, but I told him, “The path is too long. I won’t be able to see my daughter. I’m going to quit.” And I did. In the six months that followed, with my wife, I found other things to do with my life. I wasn’t interested in football at all. I was offered good money to write for newspapers, to go on television as a pundit and I always said, “It’s not my business.” Then I was invited to go Mexico and watch the World Cup in ’86. I went… and then I decided to go back to football. I couldn’t escape anymore. Everybody wanted me to go back to football and that’s how my journey as a coach started.
Derwall, after arriving at Galatasaray in 1984, was obviously a big influence on you, along with Sepp Piontek (who made Terim Turkey’s Under-21 coach in 1991). How did he change Turkish football and Galatasaray in terms of professionalism?
The main thing was our training pitch. It was soil before. He did so much for Turkish football. He brought modern ideas and had a professional understanding of how to apply them. Piontek, as well, is a very honest guy. Very fair, very direct. I’ve been lucky to know them both and Piontek… I see him as family.
You yourself took the Turkish game to another level, getting the national team to their first major finals — Euro 96. After a tough start to the qualifiers, was it the win over Sweden that really kicked it off for you and made you believe it was possible?
100%, because if we’d lost against Sweden, it would have been all over. We did something else though — beating Switzerland away. That was the moment we took leadership of the group, and we went on from there. It was a very tough group. Sweden were semi-finalists in America in ’94 and Switzerland, coached by Roy Hodgson, a very good friend of mine — please say hello — were in the last 16. Putting Sweden out of contention was very important. I made a declaration at the start of the press conference, before the game. “We, the Turkish national team, aren’t going alone. All of us — the players, you the journalists, the Turkish people — if we go to the Euros, we all go together.” I didn’t just coach, I motivated the public. After league games, the Turkish media were harsh, absolutely killing the players, and I put a stop to it.
That’s the key to international management, in your opinion, then — getting the whole country behind the national team? It’s something that Luiz Felipe Scolari, for example, did really well with Brazil and Portugal….
Of course. It’s incredibly important. You have to bring everyone together. It’s inside the team as well. If the players from the different clubs continue their rivalry within the national team, you can’t be successful. If, for example, Manchester United say, “Why aren’t you taking this player from my team?” or Chelsea say, “Take this player from my team,” it’s very dangerous. You can’t have a homogenised national team then. This is why you need a group of fans who really support that national team. It’s like Ireland — all green. Holland — all orange. Behind the team all the time: win, lose, whatever. It’s something very powerful.
What did the finals of Euro 96 mean to you, emotionally, and how much did it tell you that Turkey still had a way to go to be competitive?
I said in my press conference at the start of the tournament that “because it’s the first time, it’s a magnificent achievement for us to be there. We’re not expecting anything from it. That doesn’t mean we’re giving up.” In terms of the championships to come in the years following, it was very important. The country’s belief and the players’ belief increased. They started to think, “The coach was right — we can do it.” It was like a dream [he breaks into English] — “we’re in England! Nottingham, Liverpool…” and we started against a very good team in Croatia. I just told my players — play your game and enjoy being here. And we could have beaten Croatia and Portugal. I knew that after ’96 the success would come; the third place in 2002 [at the World Cup], the Euro 2008 semi-final, as well as the successes for our club sides. England was like a starting point.
Next, you joined Galatasaray as coach for the first time. Having won the cup three times as a player but never the Süper Lig, did you always have an idea about how you wanted to mould the team — and the club?
As a footballer, I won a good variety of cups without ever winning the league. I don’t pay as much attention to this as other people do. It’s like in my coaching career — I have lots of trophies, but not the Champions League. I don’t get hung up on that. I’ll give you an important example. When I was at Fiorentina, we got to the Coppa Italia final, beating Milan after we beat Brescia. We got there undefeated but before the final, because my principles are more important to me [than anything], I resigned. They offered me a three-year deal, and if I’d have thought, “a Turkish coach is going to play this major final,” I wouldn’t have gone. As my conscience was clear, I felt in my heart — I knew — God would give me the opportunity to win more as a coach.
Between 1996 and 2000 at Galatasaray, we won everything. Was it is a risk? Yes. [In English again] “Life is a risk.” Making progress is the most important thing. In 1996, we were mediocre. In 1997, we were better. In ’98 we were much better, in ’99 very good and in 2000 we crowned our success by winning the Uefa Cup. I always used 22, 23 players, with three goalkeepers, and made sure everyone played, and got the maximum performance out of all of them.
Some key players joined in 1996. Ümit Davala, Gheorghe Hagi. How important were these two, and others, in getting Galatasaray playing the sort of football that you wanted to?
First of all, I laid down a football philosophy. Anywhere around the world where we play — Milan, Leeds, Mallorca, Dortmund, wherever — we play high pressure, and in the other team’s half. I took Ümit Davala from the second division. When I was coaching Turkey’s under-21s, I took him into the team from the third division. Earlier in ’96, there was Vedat İnceefe, whom I took from Karabükspor in the second division into the Turkish national team. Before us, Hagi hadn’t been as good as he was for us, but we brought them together and became a family.
We were playing with three, maximum four foreign players at the time. When we played Arsenal [in the 2000 Uefa Cup final], they had 17. Because we had this continuous philosophy, we made fewer transfers after the second year — just occasional important ones like [Gheorghe] Popescu, Taffarel, a few domestically.
In the first game against Leeds (in the 2000 Uefa Cup semi-final), when we won 2-0 in Istanbul, we played with three forwards; Arif [Erdem], Hakan (Şükür) and Hagi. At Elland Road we played with the same confidence, the same emphasis on pressure, the same possession. The only thing I feel sad about, 13 years later, is something that was said to me when we recently had a lunch here at Florya, with the team that won the cup in 2000. What Popescu said to me that day is still ringing in my ears. He told me, “If you hadn’t gone to Fiorentina, this team would have won the Champions League.” Other players have told me that too. We became very strong together, in every way. When you don’t call a closed training camp before the game, there’s always a lot of criticism in the press here. For the whole year, in 99-00, I didn’t call a camp. We’d all meet an hour and a half before the game, in Ali Semi Yen. I wrote the team on the board in the dressing room, and they got on with it.
Because everyone knew absolutely what they were doing?
Yes. Automatic. The training, the game… they knew me. And I knew who they were.
The start of your European adventures with the club had been tough, though, hadn’t it? In 1997, you had your first go at the Champions League and were drawn in a group with Borussia Dortmund, the holders. Did it eventually prove an advantage to come in at such a high level?
It took us time to get used to the level. What’s interesting for me is the qualifiers [for the group stage]. You can’t sleep before them. You have to play these two games and you can [brushes hands against one another] lose everything. It’s too much stress. I played in them four times — eight games — and qualified all four times for the Champions League. You play Grasshoppers, or a team from Bulgaria, and all of a sudden you’re in the groups with Dortmund or Parma. It’s not easy.
In Istanbul, we matched all of them. Away from home, we suffered because of our inexperience. That’s normal. When our players see players like [Matthias] Sammer, [Andreas] Möller that they’re used to seeing on TV and then they’re actually playing them, it’s tough, but very important for getting on the path that took us to where we went in the following years. We did video analyses and shared them with the players. There are very few faults in my teaching system and they did far more right than they did wrong. Every year, we improved, made fewer mistakes and we kept showing them how they improved, until ’99, when we got to the peak.
Since then , I have had a principle. In every team that I’ve managed, after the training camp, I always want to play big teams in friendly games. The year that we won the Uefa Cup, we played Barcelona and Málaga in a [pre-season] tournament at the Giants Stadium in New York. I tried to make them get rid of any complex they had about these big teams and show them, “You are no less than them.” I made every player an individual video cassette, of their good moments, their mistakes, everything. Self-analysis is very important.
And by the time we get to 1999-2000, when you won the Uefa Cup, you played Dortmund in the 4th round….
We finished it out there, at the Westfalen. We were always an offensive side, dominating, but we played a little more tactically here in Istanbul in the second leg. Going on from the Milan game, that we won 3-2 in the Champions League group stages, against Bologna, Dortmund, Mallorca, Leeds and Arsenal, we were undefeated in 13 games. We were coming from a strong Champions League group, with Hertha Berlin, Chelsea… Hertha were unbeaten at home and we went to Berlin and beat them 4-1. No tight margins — we were always trying to score.
And it was only really the home game against Chelsea, the 5-0 loss, that had stopped you going through that group.
In the first game in London, we had a ball go 80cm over the line and the referee didn’t give it – Glenn Hoddle said it was a goal on the commentary, actually — and then we got a red card [for Taffarel]. After, we played an hour with ten players but we were hammering them. I have the video of the 5-0 game in my office here. 5-0! If you watch it, it’s unbelievable. When I was going to the press conference, I bumped into [the Chelsea manager Gianluca] Vialli in the hall. He just shrugged and said, “It’s football. What can I say?” I called my players here [to Florya] after the game. We got on the bus. I made a speech to them.
Next up, we had a really difficult game at Bursa — a hard pitch, and I took the decision to leave nine of them out. [Animatedly breaking into English] Everybody was against me after the game — radio, television, everybody. After all these criticisms from the media, members of the board and all, we went to Berlin. We were one down at half-time, we made a few little changes and came out with the 4-1 win and, from that point, nobody could stop us. But all of these experiences — the good, the bad — improved us, and added to our European culture. Then, we started to talk louder. In January, I said, “Champions League is tough, but we can win the Uefa Cup.” People said, “He’s crazy, he’s dreaming,” but… they all apologised at the end.
Then there was the semi-final with a strong Leeds team. Of course, there were some tragic incidents in Istanbul before the game — how difficult was it to focus on the match, knowing everything that was going on outside?
Even though it’s been a long time now, I still feel a lot of sadness about that. After the game, even though we won, it was a very strange atmosphere. Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I’d rather have been knocked out of the competition and that these two English fans were not murdered. With what happened, Uefa banned fans from travelling and said that we could only take a party of 80 to Leeds [for the return leg]. It was tense.
Even though we won the first game 2-0, I went to see the game before the second leg, when Leeds played Arsenal, by myself. There were 41,000 there. I didn’t know the people I was sitting with, but three people around me in my box stood up when Arsenal scored. They were Arsenal directors. The people around looked at us and started shouting, “Fuck off! Fuck you!” I went there to give my players a message. To say that there’s nothing to be scared of at Elland Road. I know English people very well, from way back in my career. At an English ground, you can easily give up four or five goals. 2-0 isn’t a big lead [switches into English for emphasis] — especially if you are scared. With the crowd, you’re always in the game.
There is a cinema room in our youth academy. I made my players watch a recording of a [Leeds] game in there before we left, with the volume turned right up high, like we were in the stadium. In 18 hours, we prepared an all-black strip — just for the warm-up, as Uefa wouldn’t let us wear it in the game — and laid flowers [at the stadium]. We scored twice in the first twenty minutes and that sewed it up. In my opinion, that Leeds team… very good. Harry Kewell, (Michael) Bridges, (Nigel) Martyn, (Ian) Harte, Lee Bowyer. Young, very good players. But it was more a case of managing the tension.
You then faced another English team in the final. Both Galatasaray and Arsenal are known for pretty football, but that game was a battle, wasn’t it?
Like a war. A tactical war. In my opinion, that was one of the best Arsenal teams, one of the best teams of the last 20 years. A few weeks after we knocked out Leeds, Arsenal were playing Chelsea. I took my wife to London and we went to Highbury watch the game. It was a lovely, sunny day. While we were watching the game, she didn’t say a word to me. After, she asked me, “Fatih, what are you thinking about?” I said, “They are too good! How are we going to do it? How are we going to mark them? Everyone needs marking.”
We only had one choice. Play the game. I came to Florya, I made my tactical plan and I decided on ten of the players to start. A day before the game, I was undecided. On the morning of the game, I was still undecided. Either I could play a flat 4-4-2 with Hasan Şaş, or the classic three forwards — Hagi, Arif and Hakan Şükür. We had a training pitch next to the hotel in Copenhagen and I set up a tactical training session at 2pm on the day of the game, so 11 versus 11, where we said to our other set of players [pointing], “OK, you’re Henry, you’re Bergkamp.” Believe me, I was still undecided. Then, I called the forwards and I thought, “I’m going to play my game. Let’s call Arif up as a third forward.” Realistically, they were stronger than us. But football is something else and you have to do it on the pitch.
The first 90 minutes was a very balanced game. Arif had a one-on-one and if he’d scored that or Arsenal had scored, I think there would have been a lot of goals in the game. In my opinion, Hagi shouldn’t have been sent off on his own, [Tony] Adams should have gone with him. But, OK, we kept playing offensively. It was when Taffarel made that unbelievable save from Henry that I thought we were really going to win. The list of penalty-takers — I made it in thirty seconds. It was something amazing for Turkish football.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that your current coaching staff contains some important personalities from that side that won the 2000 Uefa Cup — Hasan Şaş, Ümit Davala, Taffarel ...what did that side have that made it so special and that you still want to have around you today?
Before I became coach of Galatasaray [again] officially, I called 10 of the players [from that side] to my house. Hakan said, “I’m going into politics,” a few said other things, and at the end, I chose these three. Well, Taffarel wanted to come straight from Brazil, but I told him, “Check with your wife first! That’s very important!” I trust the three of them completely. I believe in them and I’m trying to give them some of my experience, so in the coming years, they will become great coaches.
I chose them because they know Galatasaray very well, they know Turkish football very well, they are young, they still have the desire and they have the aim of becoming something big in coaching. The most important thing is I don’t have to explain everything to them — they already know me very well.
You decided to make the leap to Serie A after Copenhagen and to Fiorentina. When you arrived there, it’s said that you took your first training session with your shirt off, in the rain, smoking a cigar... is this right? What was the idea behind this?
No. [Looks a bit perplexed]. I was smoking… I quit five years ago though and feel much better for it! I took off my coat, because I was sweating, but… anyway, it’s a very special place for me, Florence. The place, the people. If you ever go there, just say “Terim” and see what people say. In Adana, the city where I was born, I wouldn’t say the same.
We beat all the big teams and, most importantly, we played unbelievable football. I wrote the system down for the players on the first day and said, “Right, we’re going to play like this.” Intense, attacking. And the players [mimes aghast faces and raised eyebrows]… the Italian mentality, you know. After the meeting, [Moreno] Torricelli and [Angelo] Di Livio, as the experienced players in the team, came to see me and said, “Mister, don’t worry. We’ll do it in one month.” After one month, we were playing unbelievably.
They [the media] criticised me for never concentrating on defence. Generally, when you go 1-0 up, you take a forward off and put a defender on. Nuno Gomes, Rui Costa, [Enrico] Chiesa and Leandro. With these players, we had to play 4-3-1-2, with the full-backs always [starts to wave both arms forward insistently]. And people started to love this game. They were 10,000 coming to the Artemio Franchi at first, then 20, 30 and eventually 40,000.
I didn’t live there like a Turk, but as an Italian, my whole lifestyle, me and my family. My daughter went everywhere on a Vespa. We’re still great friends with all the Italian families we used to eat with and live with there. In the eight, nine months I was there, I was so happy there. And, of course, I was given the second highest state honour there [Commendatore, an Italian knighthood]. I never met or negotiated with Milan while I was at Fiorentina. I only left because I couldn’t get along with [the president] Vittorio Cecchi Gori.
You built your side around Rui Costa, who talked recently about how much you did for his career, and took him with you. Given that you made profound changes to the way Milan played, was it a surprise they didn’t give you longer to make it work? Or is that just part of Italy’s football culture that you accept?
He was an incredible player. I gave him the captaincy and so much responsibility. I put all my trust in him. There were a few options for that position at Milan — Gaizka Mendieta was one — but we chose him and he did some very good things there. He was tough, intelligent, a great personality and of course very technically gifted. At Fiorentina he was out on his own as a leader but, at Milan, there were other leaders.
And the frustration of leaving, without having the chance to finish a job you started?
It happens. I would have changed many more things in time if I’d had the chance. I still have very good friends there and it’s one of the greatest clubs in the world. I’m proud I was their coach, even for a short time, and I know that in that time, I found a place in the fans’ hearts.
It’s said that after Euro 2008, Sir Bobby Robson recommended you to be the manager of Newcastle United. Did you know about this at the time? Could you have seen yourself in England?
No, I didn’t. Sir Bobby? A legend. That makes me feel very proud. England is a place where… you play the game for the whole 90 minutes. There’s a genuine struggle. It’s undoubtedly the number one league in the world. The excitement, the feeling, is always there. It would have made me very proud to go there.
If we talk about passion, we should talk about the derby here in Istanbul, between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. Away fans are banned at the moment and there’s a lot of violence around these matches. How has the atmosphere of the derby changed since you were a player?
It [the trouble] is not just between these two football teams. It’s everywhere — between the basketball teams, for example. In my time, the fans were watching the games together. After the games, we used to go to dinner together. In the national teams, we were mixed, no divisions, sharing rooms. We urgently need to go back to those times. I believe Turkey will go back to that.
You had a great first season back at Galatasaray, so how did you keep the spirit from that while adding players like Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder, to raise the team’s profile and level?
It would be a bit megalomaniac of me if I were to explain that… maybe you should tell me. It’s a work-in-progress. Next season, we will be even tougher. Sneijder arrived having not played for six months, Drogba had been in China. But each day, we know each other a little better. By the time they finish pre-season with us, I believe both of them will be more ready.
How was reacquainting yourself with the Champions League?
Against Real Madrid [in the quarter-finals], my team didn’t do what they were supposed to do until after the first game, when we got them back to Istanbul. We could have had a couple of penalties out there, but I don’t believe in luck. You should be able to self-criticise when you need to and not make excuses. They were a better team than us. I am happy that we went out in this kind of way, but we’ll strive to do better next season.
People seem cowed by the best teams these days — Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid — but you always went into Champions League games to attack. Will you ever change?
Wouldn’t you lose against these teams anyway if you put ten men behind the ball? If you’re going to lose, lose playing the game. At Old Trafford, we played three forwards. At the Veltins-Arena, three forwards. Bernabéu, three forwards. After that first game Sir Alex Ferguson told me, “Yes, absolutely, you should have had a penalty,” in the first minute of that game. If we keep getting into the Champions League, these sort of mistakes won’t happen as much. The referees will subconsciously start to respect us more. This year, we put the seeds in the ground for the years to come.
Many thanks to Emre Utkucan for his help and translation.