A month on from Sami Nasri’s signing, Antalyaspor have yet to win as Galatasaray and Besiktas set early pace in Turkish Super Lig.
Ego clashes and infighting threaten to derail Antalyaspor's bid to break stranglehold of Istanbul's football clubs
Between them, they have well more than 250 international caps. They have a full spread of experience across the most prestigious leagues of Europe, and a hoard of medals. So how come this band of footballers, brought together amid great fanfare over the summer, are in the relegation zone of Turkey’s top division?
One strong whisper is that internal division has something to do with the struggles of Antalyaspor, the club from the coast whose activity in the last transfer window helped confirm the impression that the Turkish Super Lig has become not only an El Dorado for footballers of a certain fame and maturity, but that its attractions for those players are not limited to the city of Istanbul.
A procession of seasoned, but by no means veteran, players touched down in Antalya in peak tourist season to proclaim how emboldened they were by the vision of ambitious Antalyaspor president Ali Safak Ozturk.
Among them Samir Nasri, fresh from Sevilla, where he had thrived. He said he was ready to put his Premier League career, with Manchester City and Arsenal, behind him. Enjoying the smothering attentions of enthusiastic supporters the moment he arrived at Antalya airport, Nasri declared: “I want to make history. I had offers to play in Istanbul, but this city deserves to have the best club in Turkey.”
And Nasri was not deluding himself to believe Antalyaspor had the put together the spine of a team capable of living up to that.
New additions included Johan Djourou, the 30-year-old defender, once Nasri’s colleague at Arsenal, owner of 65 caps for Switzerland, brought in from Hamburg; Sandro, the industrious Brazil international midfielder, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur; Jeremy Menez, Nasri’s French compatriot and contemporary and once bracketed with Nasri as standard-bearers for France’s celebrated ‘Class of 87’, the gifted cadre born 30 years ago.
But a month on from Nasri’s signing, Antalyaspor have yet to win. After five Super Lig fixtures, they sit two places off the very foot of the table, and would slip to the very foot of it they were to lose to Osmanlispor - currently rock bottom - on Monday. Last week, the manager Riza Calimbay was dismissed and on his way out delivered some thinly veiled criticisms towards his playing staff: “It has been crisis management all the time,” Calimbay said.
Tensions were certainly apparent at the end of last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Kayserispor. Nasri was booked for dissent eight minutes from time and the show unravelled in a mass confrontation of players and match officials at the end, with yellow cards issued to Antalyaspor’s Brazilian striker Maicon and to captain Samuel Eto’o. Eto’o had earlier had a penalty saved.
Eto’o, three times a Uefa Champions League winner, is in his third season with Antalyaspor. He has reached the grand old age of 36 and is in the 20th season of a long European club career that began at Real Madrid and took in Barcelona, Internazionale, Chelsea and numerous others. But he is still a formidable goalscorer. The Cameroonian struck 36 Super Lig goals in his first two campaigns for Antalyaspor.
But, as some of his many previous coaches would testify, the strong-willed, fiercely competitive Eto’o is not always the easiest man to manage. Nor is Nasri, as Didier Deschamps, the France manager who has fallen out with the player, or Pep Guardiola - who invited Nasri to leave City, first for Sevilla on loan and now to Antalyaspor - would bear witness.
So who dares take on the mix of mavericks and mercurials trying to break the Istanbul powerbase in a league where there is money and plenty of talent? Some famous names have been linked with the vacancy on the bench following Calimbay’s exit, from Fabio Capello to Roberto Carlos.
In the meantime, the likes of Nasri, Eto’o, and a Menez who has been prevented from making any impact so far by injury must sit through a weekend in which, as usual, the Super Lig’s main attraction is in the country’s principal city.
It is the first of the season’s big Istanbul derbies.
Champions Besiktas, reinforced this summer by the warriors Pepe, from Real Madrid, and Gary Medel, from Inter, travel on Saturday to Fenerbahce, where the home team - a sluggish eighth in the table - have their own concerns about keeping up with the heavyweights, with Galatsaray and Besiktas setting the early pace.