ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Sivasspor supporters are starting to dream that the club from Turkey’s freezing Anatolian heartland could break Istanbul’s 24-year stranglehold on the league title.
In a country where Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas have almost monopolized the title since the league was established in the 1950s, the sudden success of the “Brave Ones” is a major upset to the status quo.
In just their third season in the top-flight, Sivasspor sit atop the Super League on 43 points, ahead of Galatasaray on 42 and Fenerbahce on 41 with 19 matches played.
The Black Sea club of Trabzonspor, traditional fourth challengers for the title, are down in 11th.
Ahead of Sunday’s home match against champions Fenerbahce, the club’s rookie coach Bulent Uygun is under no illusions about the scale of the task facing Sivasspor.
“It is impossible for us to put Sivasspor in the same box as the Big Four. The 70 million people living in Turkey support one of the Big Four,” he said.
Uygun, 36, embodies the fighting spirit of the club. A former Fenerbahce captain and major goal scorer in the mid 1990s, he earned the nickname “Soldier Bulent” due to his habit of celebrating his goals with a military salute.
In a bid to motivate the team, he has been playing Ottoman military marches and nationalist anthems, drawing on the city’s importance in the establishment of the Turkish Republic. A local military commander visited the club this week to offer support.
Founded only in 1967 and supported by a city of just 300,000 people, Sivas have hammered out their success with a combination of strong team spirit, gritty determination and canny tactics based on a counter-attacking game.
Their meteoric progress has in part been down to the fortress mentality in their 15,000-capacity September 4 Stadium, where the home fans have cheered them on to win all 10 of their home games, conceding only three goals in the process.
The winning streak has unleashed feverish support which will be needed against Fenerbahce - a team preparing to face Sevilla in the last 16 of the Champions League next month and boasting stars such as Roberto Carlos, Alex de Souza and Stephen Appiah.
One of the home side’s assets on Sunday could be the icy weather conditions which have fuelled criticism of the pitch.
Bagis Erten, soccer columnist at the Radikal daily, attributed much of their success to strong team discipline.
“Sivas have achieved this thanks to strong discipline and a good relationship with the coach. They are very aggressive and there are no stars. This pulls them closer together, he said.
Sivas’ attacking threat is led by Mehmet Yildiz, top scorer with nine league goals this season. But his growing local renown has not translated to the national stage and he has only one international cap.
The club’s limited squad has been hit further by injuries to two of its foreign contingent - Australian goalkeeper Michael Petkovic and Israeli forward Pini Balili.
Guinean defender Mohamed Alimou Diallo is also absent, playing in the African Nations Cup.
But Fenerbahce are well aware of the unlikely challenge to the title which they now face.
“No team like this has come out of Anatolia for a long time. Sivasspor is the attractive face of football,” Fenerbahce’s international goalkeeper Volkan Demirel said on Friday.
“But we have learnt our lessons well and I believe we will show the difference between us in this match.”
Given the club’s limited resources, Uygun is under no illusions about Sivas’ ability to compete financially with the Big Three.
“It’s impossible for an Anatolian team to achieve the same budget as them. From shirt sales alone they earn each year three times your budget,” he said.
“This does not mean that everything can be measured with money. The Sivasspor family today is an indication that success can be achieved not just through money but through doing things properly.”
A win on Sunday would leave Sivas in a strong position, with the toughest-looking matches among the remaining 14 fixtures being both home games against Galatasaray and Besiktas.
But the club have good reason to be cautious. Trabzonspor are the only club outside the Big Three to win the league, earning the last of their six titles back in 1984.
Challenges from other clubs in recent years have petered out in the latter stages of the season as stress levels rise and the supporters’ expectations grow.
Vestel Manisaspor made a similarly impressive start to the season in 2006 before tailing off sharply and ending the season 12th. This season they are in the relegation zone.
Editing by Alan Baldwin