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Goodbye to Hell

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Phil Minshull | 10:04 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

Hell has not frozen over in Istanbul - the temperature still rarely drops below five degrees centigrade at night in January by the Bosphorus - but the bulldozers are moving in.

Very soon the famous - and many fans of western Europe clubs would say infamous - Ali Sami Yen Stadium will be nothing more than rubble and a memory, soon to become a shopping centre.

No longer will the Galatasaray fans unfurl their legendary banners, which greeted foreign opponents and local rivals alike, with the announcement 'Welcome to Hell'. No more flaming torches will be lit - emblematic of Galatasaray's yellow and red colours that the club's founder Ali Sami Yen chose because they looked like fire - and the deafening drums have been silenced.

"I've never experienced anything like Galatasaray," reflected Ryan Giggs after one of several visits to the Ali Sami Yen by Manchester United during the mid-90s.

"Two hours before kick-off, we went out to have a look at the pitch and the stadium was packed! The chanting was brilliant. One side starts, then the other, then quiet, then all of them chanting. The players really enjoyed it. Before it was good, after it wasn't!"

asy595.jpgThe Ali Sami Yen Stadium was an intimidating place. Photo: Getty Images

In recent years, Galatasaray fans have been less successful at unnerving their opponents from abroad as, since 2002, the club has been playing its big European matches at the nearby Ataturk Olympic Stadium.

However, the Ali Sami Yen will still go down in European Cup and Champions League folklore as the scene of many famous European victories by the Turkish giants, often upsetting the odds against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The final game in the stadium, which took place last week, was a low-key affair considering its history, a Turkish Cup match which saw the hosts make hard work of beating third division side Beypazarı Sekerspor 3-1

Former Sheffield United striker Colin Kazim-Richards, known in Istanbul as Kazim-Kazim, scored the final goal, opening his account on his Galatasaray debut after moving from bitter rivals Fenerbahce earlier this month.

Once the football was over, many on the pitch and in the stands had tears in their eyes as they said farewell in their various ways.

The Galatasaray players gathered in the centre circle to applaud their fans and listen to them sing songs late into the night; a famous Turkish news presenter Ali Kırca read a long poem eulogising the stadium; and current Galatasaray coach Gheorghe Hagi was joined by colleagues from the team that won the Uefa Cup and Uefa Super Cup in 2000.

The Uefa Cup triumph, which came via a penalty shoot-out against Arsenal following an ill-tempered 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, still remains the only occasion a Turkish club has won a European competition.

Despite the nostalgia that always accompanies such occasions - think about Arsenal leaving Highbury and Manchester City departing Maine Road - perhaps the time had come for a change of scenery.

The new Turk Telecom Arena, which has quickly become also known as the Aslantepe - or "Lion Hill" - after the district in which it is located, has a capacity of 52,695, more than double the number of spectators that the Ali Sami Yen could hold after it became an all-seater arena in 1996.

"The new stadium is beautiful. It opens a new page and I hope we can begin to re-write history here," said Hagi last week. "Now we have to get used to it, although that may take a few matches. However, I still believe that in one or two years this club can return to being one of the top teams in Europe."

The Turk telecom ArenaGalatasaray will be playing their football at the Turk Telecom Arena

Things have not gone well for Galatasaray at their old ground in the last couple of seasons, with maybe some of its old mystique ebbing away ever since preparations to move were finalised in 2007 and construction started on the new stadium.

Last year, they finished third in Turkey's Super Lig but were 11 points adrift of Bursaspor, who claimed their debut title to become the first team from outside of Istanbul to win since Trabzonspor in 1984.

The season before, Galatasaray had finished back in fifth, a dismal outcome for a club that had won the league in 2005/6 and then 2007/8 to c;aim their 17th title since the Super Lig started in 1959 and draw level with Fenerbahce.

Galatasaray did qualify for this season's Europa League but their campaign was over almost before it started. They crashed out of the competition in the third qualifying round, losing on away goals to the Ukrainian minnows FC Karpaty Lviv.

The defeat, especially with Galatasaray's previous European success being prized so highly, as good as signalled the end for Frank Rijkaard, in his first coaching job since leaving Barcelona, although he hung on until mid-October.

Fortunes have not improved much for Galatasaray icon Hagi, who is in his second stint as coach of the club. His team are languishing 10th in the table, with Trabzonspor holding a five-point lead over Bursaspor at the halfway point in the season after losing only one game all season in the league.

Hagi, who also starred as a player for Romania and Barcelona, has lost four of his nine league games since taking charge. One of those losses came at the hands of Besiktas in the last Istanbul derby at the Ali Sami Yen. That 2-1 defeat at the end of November was followed by a 2-0 loss to lowly Ankara side Genclerbirligi in the last league match at the historic venue on 11 December.

The second half of the Turkish season, after a month-long winter break, kicks off this weekend. Galatasaray play host to Sivasspor, runners-up two seasons ago but who are also going through a difficult time, hovering only one place above the relegation zone.

Hagi must be hoping that a change of home brings about a change of fortune.

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