Whilst returning to Switzerland after having concluded an official mission to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, I had the opportunity of benefitting from a brief, but fruitful layover at Istanbul Airport. The descent to Istanbul Airport, an architectural masterpiece, is spectacular, offering passengers the chance to view both the turquoise Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea which has now become an area of confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, precisely between Moscow and NATO. Wisely enough, Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention of 1936 to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to warships. Anything to prevent further escalation of a war that should never have started.
Comprising both European and Asian territories, Istanbul lies at the crossroads of history, a natural bridge between cultures and peoples. Because of its beauty, it continues to charm travelers from across the world and will continue to remain a world metropole and meeting point with historical significance to peoples from both continents.
After landing, I explored the airport with my colleague and observed that we had not only arrived at Istanbul Airport but in the village of Arnavutköy - where the airport is located – and which literally means the ‘Albanian village.’ Albanians, like many communities and peoples from the Balkans, have for centuries had an influential presence in Istanbul and have contributed to the city’s remarkable growth and development and its emergence as a melting pot of diverse cultures, religions, and communities. Today, the Albanian community forms an integral part of Istanbul and the city’s ‘Albanian identity’ is still vibrant and present.
As we both enjoy watching football, I explained to him that Istanbul has many famous football clubs, the most prominent being Fenerbahce, Beşiktaş, and Galatasaray. ‘Which team do you support,’ he enthusiastically asked. ‘Galatasaray,’ I replied in a heartbeat. ‘I assume the club has an Albanian chairman or so,’ he laughed. ‘Well, my friend, you are almost right,’ I remarked with a teasing smile.
Thus started our conversation over sports in Turkey, and I informed him that the founder of Galatasaray football club was Ali Sami Frashëri, the son of Sami Frashëri one of Albania’s most famous writers and philosophers. In 1905, while Ali was a student, he decided with a group of his buddies – many of them from the Balkans – at Galatasaray High School to found a football club with one mission: “Our goal is to play in a collective way like English, to signify a certain color and a name and to beat non-Turkish teams,” he is reported to have said.
Frashëri would become the first President (1905-1918, 1925) of the newborn football club and the club’s football stadium would eventually bear his name Ali Sami Yen -- for 36 years! From 1964 until 2010, it was replaced by a more modern stadium known today as Türk Telekom Arena. In 1934, following the adoption of the Turkish law on surnames, Frashëri took the name Yen, which means to win in Turkish. His determination and resolve to make Galatasaray a domestic and influential force in Turkish football may have encouraged Frashëri to take a surname that would attest to his future aspirations for his beloved football club.
Besides his role in launching Galatasaray, Frashëri would make numerous important contributions to Turkish football and sports. From 1926 until 1931, he was President of the Turkish Olympic Committee, and he would coach 1923 the Turkish national football team in their first international match against Romania.
Since then, Galatasaray has established itself as a leading Turkish and European football club. With players such as Gheorghe Hagi, Cláudio Taffarel, Hakan Şükür, and Didier Drogba, to name but a few, Galatasaray would eventually win the UEFA Cup in the year 2000 and participate on several occasions in the prestigious UEFA Champions League that brings together the best European football clubs. The club is also the most successful football club in Turkey, having won the nationwide Süper Lig, the Turkish Cup, and the Turkish Super Cup on 22, 18, and 16 occasions respectively.
A remarkable achievement for a football club that was created by an Albanian student whose only ambition was to play like the Englishmen. The club’s numerous achievements have truly enabled Galatasaray to give honor to his family name, Yen, and gradually become one of the most decorated football clubs in Turkish sports history.
I ended my conversation with my colleague with a promise: whenever we have the occasion to visit again Istanbul, I will take the initiative to organize a visit to Galatasaray Sports Club and learn more about this fascinating club that has enabled Albanians in Turkey and the country of Turkey to develop an enduring bond with Albanians, Albania and Albanian-inhabited territories in the Balkans.
I believe that football has a great potential to bring people together and my upcoming visit to Istanbul will certainly serve as a timely opportunity to convert this promise into reality and thus sensitize more people about the Albanian contribution to the successes of Turkish football.