Unimagined heights : Gençlerbirliği’s 03/04 UEFA Cup campaign


It’s not daring to say that “a country’s most successful sports organizations, bloom from their capital.” For Turkey though, that statement doesn’t reflect reality at all. Regardless of the branch, the teams and individual athletes that achieved success are most likely to come out from İstanbul rather than the country’s capital, Ankara.

Gençlerbirliği, the Ankara-based club, was on the brink of creating history in the 2003/04 season’s UEFA Cup. It was the furthest that a team rooted in the capital had progressed in European competition, therefore the stakes had never been much higher.

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Currently, the club is fighting a relegation battle to keep out of the 3rd division of domestic football and the yearning for those good old days has never been more attractive. Let us travel 20 years back, to relive that glorious time.

The 02/03 season was one of Gençlerbirliği’s most successful seasons in their century long history. They finished the league in 3rd place, after Turkish football’s powerhouses Beşiktaş and Galatasaray, which earned them a place in Europe the next season. The “Lightnings” as their fans call them also managed to reach the final of the Turkish Cup. They finished runners-up as after 90 minutes, they were beaten by the 4th giant of Turkish football, Trabzonspor.

After they’ve earned their 4th chance to appear in a European competition, through some heartbreaks but mostly good memories, their first opposition seemed like a mismatch on paper. The Riversiders were the first challenge.

Souness’ Rovers

Blackburn Rovers traveled to Ankara after finishing the previous Premier League season in 6th. Their form leading up to that moment deemed them as the heavy hitters of not just this match-up, but for the whole tournament; it seemed like their stature as the favourites weighed heavily on their shoulders.

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25 thousand people, who filled every possible space in 19 Mayıs Stadium, roared when Josip Skoko sent the spoils of Brad Friedel’s clumsy clearance into the open net from 40 yards at the 42nd minute. Rovers were encouraged by Graeme Souness’ claps from the touchline, implying that the mistake by the veteran goalkeeper was not something that his players should dwell on for the rest of the game.

But his unfazed expression transformed into pure concern. Not more than 40 seconds after the restart of the game, Gençlerbirliği doubled their lead through a partnership between Deniz Barış and Souleymane Youla. That same roar from one minute ago felt all the more deafening. All Souness could do was scratch his head and pray for halftime to come.

The second half started with the only change coming from Souness, bringing on Andy Cole at the expense of Matt Jensen. His adjustment didn’t take long to bear fruit when Cole turned brilliantly inside the box to find Brett Emerton. The Australian fired the ball into the empty net, cutting the deficit back to one in the 57th minute.

But only three minutes later, Youla torched Rovers’ hopes for a comeback. After a long clearance from the Lightning’s defensive line, Youla chased, beating Souness’ centre-back duo in a foot race to fire the ball past Friedel into the Rovers’ net for the second time in the game.

The remaining minutes of the game didn’t conjure anything for Blackburn Rovers, other than the following reminder: “Games are decided on the pitch.” The first leg of the match-up ended with Gençlerbirliği’s advantage. 3-1.

Travel to Ewood Park

Souness’ man came into the second leg, with dreams of redemption and they applied immense pressure on the visiting side. The crossbar answered The Lightnings’ call for help on two separate occasions. The referee Eric Braamhaar didn’t think an obvious handball inside the visitors’ box was enough for a penalty call. The Turkish commentator was only able to describe Rovers’ offense’s performance with a local saying: “They would make you pluck your hair.”

But Gençlerbirliği’s luck only lasted 65 minutes, until Jensen was able to put the ball past Damir Botonjic’s net. This time, the roars were on their side, and it felt like a comeback was on. Only one more without conceding would do it.

But Ersun Yanal’s men had other plans. Another quickfire response from The Lightnings followed two minutes later, when their high press turned into a goal via Mustafa Özkan’s feet. Gençlerbirliği were able to see their advantage through to the end of the tie.

Santos’ Sporting

Despite The Lightnings’ “lucky” progression through the 1st round, fortune didn’t seem to favour Yanal’s side. Another match-up with a European powerhouse followed in the 2nd round, as Fernando Santos’ Sporting Lisbon travelled to Ankara for the 1st leg.

Gençlerbirliği swarmed Sporting with their high press and Custodio’s challenge on Serkan Balcı inside the box resulted in a penalty in the 16th minute. But Ricardo gave early signals of his upcoming heroic performance with Portugal at Euro 2004 and proceeded to save Mustafa Özkan’s low drilled penalty. The deadlock hung still as the first half came to an end.

Santos’ men were able to clinch an extremely important away goal in the 50th minute. Liedson’s shot from a tight angle was redirected into the home side’s goal via a deflection by Erkan Özbey. Yanal took off Özbey, a centre-back, just four minutes after his mistake for the services of Veysel Cihan, a striker, which presented a clear implication of the manager and his players’ mindset.

That mindset came to fruition just one minute later. Ali Tandoğan’s cross found its way straight to Ricardo’s victim Özkan. Though the post stopped his header, substitute Veysel Cihan was there to tap the ball past Ricardo to equalize.

Immense pressure by The Lightnings followed, but they weren’t able to make anything out of their chances and they felt hard done as they drew with Santos’ men 1-1.

Riot in José Alvalade

Thanks to the goal they managed to score in Ankara, Sporting held the advantage coming into the 2nd Leg. Both teams misfired their chances until the last minute of the first half. 15,000 people that came to witness their team thrash a team that they’d never heard of before found themselves unable to speak, cheer or react.

In the 44th minute, Ali Tandoğan scored one of the best goals of his career, through a 30 yard long free-kick, which bolted into the top corner. Even Ricardo couldn’t save that.

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Just one minute later, at the brink of halftime,  came the Gençlerbirliği’s second. Mario Sergio tried to clear the danger but accidentally tapped the ball to Özkan who gave the visitors a two goal lead.

Again another manager was seen shocked in his dugout in the presence of The Lightnings. Santos couldn’t wait for halftime to come. The Portuguese explained his plans in the locker room and took off Rodrigo Tello for Lourenço.

But Sporting’s attempts to conjure a comeback in the second half were burned to the ground very quickly. In the 48th minute, another one of Tandoğan’s crosses found Cihan’s head and Gençlerbirliği lead by three goals with 40 odd minutes to go. As the clock ticked and Sporting fans started to leave the ground, a handful of Gençlerbirliği supporters who traveled all the way from Ankara to Lisbon started to make their voices heard.

Yanal’s men won the game and progressed through the next round, with an aggregate score of 4-1.

Prandelli’s Crociati

Heavy snow welcomed Gençlerbirliği to A.C Parma’s ground Stadio Ennio Tardini. Conditions couldn’t have been better for The Lightnings. After all, as the capital’s locals would say, “Don’t try to play with Ankara’s frost.”

As the white coat on the pitch thickened, so did Gençlerbirliği’s pressure. Commentator described a save from Parma’s Sébastien Frey’s as “un autentico miracolo.” Which summed up the goalie’s stature throughout the game.

The same commentator let a genuine “Ai!” out when Gençlerbirliği finally made the pressure count, with a thunderbolt from outside the box. Josip Skoko in the 59th minute gave the Ankara side a valuable away goal and they were able to maintain a slight advantage for the return leg.

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Return to the 19 Mayıs Stadium

To put their swift rise into context, the Ankara side climbed a steep set of stairs with their historic performances. At the start of the season, Gençlerbirliği was the 77th best team in the world. They would rise all the way up to the 35th place in the world rankings of football, just three behind Terim’s UEFA Cup winners Galatasaray.

With little doubt of their side bottling their fragile lead, 25,000 people filled the stands to cheer for The Lightnings. Freezing cold weather didn’t offer any encouragement for the visitors. But surely, Prandelli had all the trust in his players to turn this around.

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A hard fought battle was in place up until the 32nd minute, where Youla stunned Parma’s defense with his blinding pace and forced Frey to come out to clear his lines from danger… at the expense of a red card. Tandoğan ran to Youla and they hugged on their knees.

Marco Amelia took the first leg’s heroic performer Frey’s place between the sticks. Filip Daems lined the ball up and proceeded to fire the spot-kick past Parma’s back-up goalkeeper. The door had cracked open.

Short handed, the visitors couldn’t offer any struggle to the home side and The Lightnings gave another thrashing to one of Europe’s premier sides. An own goal of Matteo Ferrari and another from Ali Tandoğan just sweetened up the deal for Yanal’s men, as they progressed past A.C Parma, to The Round of 16. It felt too good to be real.

Benitez’s Ches

Never mind being this close to the “finals” stage, Gençlerbirliği didn’t manage to progress further than the 1st round of any European competition previously. But a literal giant was on their doorsteps. Rafael Benitez’s Valencia was the only obstacle between The Lightnings and the Quarter-Finals.

But even giants could be overwhelmed by an enthusiastic group. “That” enthusiastic 25,000 strong pack managed to get in the head of even Roberto Ayala. The Argentinian made one of the most stupid challenges of his career on Özkan inside his own box, which awarded the home side a penalty out of the blue. Daems honoured that kindness from the Argentinian, beating Andrés Palop from the spot, firing his side into the lead.

Once again Yanal’s men were able to hold on to the slightest of the advantages and they traveled to Mestalla with a one goal cushion.

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That Night in Estadio Mestalla

As they say often for the knockout rounds; “there are no favourites here.” Gençlerbirliği was the tailor made example. But as the narrative around them started to change, they would learn that the term “underdog” had some perks to it.

Their journey to Valencia has brought many firsts, and having to play in a stadium that held a higher capacity than their home ground for the first time in that campaign was one of them. For the first time, The Lightnings were feeling the weight of the moment. 29,000 people gathered in Mestalla to see, who would progress to the Quarter-Finals.

Teams weren’t able to conjure something significant up in the first half. But as the second half kicked off, Benitez’s men started to pile up the pressure. Finally, The Lightnings cracked at the 64th minute. A long kick from Palop’s replacement Santiago Canizares was controlled and fired clinically into the bottom corner of Gençlerbirliği’s goal by the substitute Mista.

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After the goal, Valencia applied immense pressure on the visitors and it required several decent saves from Botonjic to keep The Lightnings in the contest. But then came the 89th minute, where Mustafa Özkan lunged into a tackle at the 89th minute with already a yellow card in hand. Referee René Timmink didn’t hesitate to dismiss the striker, and Gençlerbirliği was forced to continue fighting short-handed.

They managed to hold their ground for a few minutes and here the extra time came.

But the warning light, indicating that the fuel was low started blinking. It took only four minutes for Pablo Aimar to pick apart Yanal’s tired men. After a scramble, Vicente beautifully volleyed a cross past Botonjic in the 94th minute. With that goal, the Lightnings had lost their ability to flash and they consented to their wailful fate.

The silver goal rule suggested that the contest would come to an end after the first extra time period and Valencia managed to eliminate Gençlerbirliği by an aggregate score of 2-1.

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Currently, The Lightnings are currently fighting a huge battle. They’re at the bottom of the 2nd division, using every possible tool to prevent a further demotion into the 3rd. If you have foretold that to anybody who was present at any stage of their historic UEFA Cup run you would’ve been deemed as crazy. They’ve won three in a row, but it only brings them level with the other two in the bottom three. Can they keep this good form up and separate themselves from the “lower bunch”? “That” 25,000 people would suggest that they can.