The Madness of Turkey's Super Lig—the Title Race We Should All Be Watching
It is this season's most exciting title race: Four teams, separated by three points, are battling to become champions of Turkey.
Nowhere else on the continent could you match such drama.
This weekend, Galatasaray have the chance to take a stranglehold on top spot with a win over rivals Besiktas. If they fail to do so, there remains every chance the title will be decided on the final day of the season—on head-to-head records.
The Turkish Super Lig is the division every one of us should be watching.
It says everything about the chaos of this season's Super Lig that an incident in a kebab shop has played a major role in the title race.
In July, then-Turkey manager Fatih Terim made international news after a bizarre restaurant incident.
A partition that divided a steakhouse owned by Terim's son-in-law Ahmet Baran Cetin, and a kebab shop owned by Turkish Football Federation director Selahattin Aydogdu led to a major row.
According to a report from Marissa Payne in the Washington Post, the argument started over the phone with Terim located 200 miles away—but allegedly he travelled all the way to Alacati to settle the row with a fight.
On the back of the scandal, Terim was sacked from his post as Turkey manager and appointed at Gala five months later.
As he began a fourth spell at the helm, the team were on a run of three defeats in four games and sitting in third spot.
That night in the kebab shop changed Galatasaray's season.
They are now top of the table and have the chance to take a step closer to the title in a clash against Besiktas on Sunday evening.
"The kebab shop thing definitely started an uprising against Fatih Terim in the Turkish Football Federation and it only worked for Galatasaray," said Alperen Arslan, a season-ticket holder who will be heading to Sunday's title crunch.
"I don't love Terim that much, but I can admit that he is always the best solution for Galatasaray. Because our fans are so impatient, they can boo any manager in the world, maybe even Pep Guardiola! But Terim is untouchable. So, I can say that it was definitely a blessing for us."
Galatasaray last won the league in 2015 and were falling away once again before Terim took the reins from Igor Tudor in December.
"The sacking of Igor Tudor was my favourite moment of the season," said Halit Agam, another Gala season-ticket holder. "Until then we were playing very badly and sometimes being outplayed by opponents who were mid-table. But then the board woke up and brought back Terim, and it all changed."
Terim is known as "the Emperor" by those who idolise him. He has led Gala to six Turkish titles in the past, so there is good reason to believe he can do it again.
Besiktas lead the chase—one point behind Galatasaray—and have a third successive title in sight, an achievement that would rocket boss Senol Gunes to legendary status.
But the joy of this latest amazing season has been brought to a halt, with the club reeling after the 65-year-old boss was struck by objects thrown from the stands by Fenerbahce fans last week.
While a Gala-Besiktas clash is always a mouthwatering prospect, the rivalry has been overshadowed by the tension between Besiktas and Fenerbahce of late.
To get an idea of the chaos that usually ensues, the previous five clashes had seen 11 red cards as the teams headed into a Turkish Cup semi-final second-leg clash on April 19.
The game began with the score at 2-2 from the first leg, but on 59 minutes a decision was made to abandon the return match following the ugly scenes. It will now have to be finished in front of an empty stadium.
Cagdas Sevinc of Futbol Arena was at the controversial match and told B/R: "The tension was not higher than usual to be honest, there was the usual abuse and swearing that is to be expected at derby games, but it was terrible to see such a well-respected figure in Turkish football go through what he did."
Such passion spilling over is shocking and brings increased focus on the upcoming derby clash at the weekend.
However, Efe Ercelik, a Besiktas supporter from Istanbul, told B/R he does not think the emotions of the occasion will roll over: "Besiktas may be affected mentally but other than that, I don't think it will make the game against Galatasaray more significant."
The football needs to shine through on this occasion, and Aaron Armstrong of Besiktas Talk believes the rivalry between the two bosses adds even more significance to the occasion.
"Both Senol Gunes and Fatih Terim are hoping to win this league to prove that they're the best," he said. "The pressure is on Besiktas. They will play in a hostile environment and Galatasaray are looking invincible at home."
League of Life
Behind Besiktas sit Istanbul Basaksehir, also on 62 points, and then Fenerbahce on 60.
The storylines of a tumultuous campaign are summed up by the fact both sides have been driven towards glory by men who had otherwise been written off.
Basaksehir are a new club in comparison to their trio of historic rivals, and this season they have been inspired by former Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur forward Emmanuel Adebayor, now 34, with Gael Clichy and Arda Turan part of the supporting cast.
Over at Fenerbahce, they took a somewhat surprising decision to find places in their squad for Roberto Soldado and Vincent Janssen, men who had struggled in front of goal at Spurs. Injury has hampered the latter, but the Spaniard is the side's second-top scorer.
Meanwhile, Besiktas have players of their own enjoying a renaissance, with former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel rolling back the years with some vintage displays, while Ricardo Quaresma has also impressive.
"Perhaps Senol Gunes is the footballing Leonardo Di Vinci?," said Emre Sarigul, co-founder of Turkish-Football.com and Super Lig specialist.
"If I were to start drawing up a shortlist for player of the season, I would include both Quaresma and Babel among the names. Adebayor, too."
Cauldron of Noise
An intimidating atmosphere is par for the course in Turkish football. Galatasaray used to hold up "Welcome to Hell" banners to opposing teams for good reason.
Sarigul believes Sunday's clash between the Lions and Besiktas could become significant.
"I would not be surprised if it breaks the record for being the loudest game recorded," he said. "I expect Terim to milk the 12th man for everything they have. He'll get the crowd involved, he'll be pumping his fist on his chest on the sidelines getting everyone involved. It will be a raucous atmosphere."
A season ticket behind the goal at Galatasaray's Turk Telekom Stadium costs 600 Turkish lira—roughly converting to £105—and Alperen will take his place in among the fanatics as usual, alongside his fiancee.
"You always look forward to going to the derby matches, and you must expect a great atmosphere, largely due to the great choreography of the guy controlling things," he said.
He described a well-known tifo expert, who can be found on Twitter at @ultrAslanUNI.
"For big matches, they make different tifos and I think Gala-Besiktas is the most important match in this season for the title race, so we can expect great things again," he says. "But they are doing it secretly, so only the guys who are painting the tifos know what is all about.
"Games like this are great—you can find yourself on someone else's seat after a goal celebration!"
Super Lig Sub-Plots
Away from the battle between the league's big guns, there are other bizarre stories and huge names—one of the most interesting centring around legendary striker Samuel Eto'o, who is now 37.
He joined Konyaspor at the start of the season and had fake dollar bills thrown at him last weekend, after being targeted by fans of his former club, Antalyaspor.
"Eto'o's former team Antalyaspor are in a bad way, and when he joined Konyaspor, the fans accused the experienced striker of selling them out," Sarigul said.
"When Konyaspor came to town, they turned up with huge dollar bills to hurl at him. One group even brought a coffin outside the stadium as a metaphor to show the club is dead. Eto'o, meanwhile, has been doing what he always does, score goals. He has 10 this term."
Brazilian star Robinho is also kicking about in Turkey, playing for Sivasspor.
Going to the Wire
Sadly for UK football fanatics, watching the Turkish league is not easy. No major broadcaster holds rights to the games, so betting-site streams are often the best place to try to view the action unless you have access to Digiturk Web TV, a subscription service.
The U.S. version of beIN Sports does show games, though; and if the past 30 matches in this division are anything to go by, we should all find a way to get involved in the action.
Each of the teams have four games left to play with the final day on May 20 looking like it could become one of the most thrilling days of football the country has seen.
"The season has been mental," Besiktas fan Armstrong said. "I have never seen such an exciting title race, but four teams are in it, and I think it will definitely go down to the wire. Anyone can win it still, the league is so unpredictable.
"It would come down to head-to-head records if the teams are level at the end of the season—and Basaksehir would topple both Galatasaray and Besiktas in such a situation."
In the fashion of this chaotic Turkish season, there could still be one more major plot twist.