Make no mistake about it, Galatasaray are a massive club. As the most successful and most supported team in the third most populated UEFA country, the Lions are a huge deal both home and abroad. So when Wesley Sneijder’s shock 2013 move to Istanbul is compared to Samuel Eto’o’s Anzhi Makhachkala switch or Ramires’ Jiangsu Suning adventure, there’s a need to remember that this was not all about the money. The gold and red of Galatasaray is recognised across Europe, symbolising a prestige that Lira cannot buy.
Having said all that, there’s no denying that it was still a major shock when the Dutch Champions League-winner left Inter Milan to move to the Turkish Süper Lig in the winter window of the 2012/13 season. Now, four and a half years later, the 33-year-old is moving on, his contract having been cancelled early by mutual consent. On the face of it, this may seem like a divorce. In truth, this is simply the inevitable expiry date on a summer fling, one of football’s unexpected romances. Even if it wasn’t purely about the money, few expected Sneijder and Galatasaray to fall quite as in love as they did.
The affection began on day one, just as he stepped out the door of Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. The club had announced on their website which exact flight he was on, such was the excitement over the deal – worth €7.5 million. As a result, thousands of fans were there waiting for him, with more gold and red flares than is probably legal just metres away from an airport’s front door. “I am happy to be here,” the midfielder said in response to the show of support, perhaps a little unenthusiastically at first. Over the coming years, he’d show just how thrilled he was to be at the Türk Telekom Stadı.
It didn’t take him at all long to live up to his billing, scoring his first goal for the club in his first month and then twisting Raphaël Varane 180 degrees before finding the back of the net as Gala recorded a memorable 3-2 victory over Sneijder’s former club Real Madrid. They may have still been heading out of the competition, having lost the first leg 3-0, but such victories against European giants don’t come along all that often and the stadium savoured this one. The following season, of 2013/14, there was another one to enjoy, as the Dutchman bagged an 85th minute goal in the ‘snow game’, dumping Juventus out of the Champions League with one of the last kicks of the group stages. The match had had to be abandoned after half an hour the night before due to the weather, before the midfielder scored the only goal of the game the following day, sending the fans who had braved the cold into delirium. The strongest bonds are often built in the harshest of conditions and all those who made the difficult journey over and around the Bosphorus to the European side of Istanbul that afternoon will never forget it.
By then, Sneijder was already becoming something of a club legend, something he’d promised to work towards from the outset when eulogising Gheorghe Hagi – although there was still a long way to go if was to ever dream of matching the great Romanian. More and more often, his No.10 shirt – or, at least the fake version of it – was the one being paraded at market stalls, a sign of his increasing standing. He rising popularity was not, however, just the result of a few special Champions League moments. He helped the team to sealing the league title in his first half of a season, scoring three times in the 12 games he played. Fenerbahçe may have wrestled the trophy away the following year, but he still managed 12 goals and seven assists, while his 10 goals and three assists in the 2014/15 season helped Galatasaray to retake control of Turkish football. The way the fans responded to him during the title celebrations was one of the great moments of the career, with the midfielder walking out onto the pitch with a club flag to the setting off of fireworks, to flashing lights and to chants of his name. “Wesley,” the stadium announcer roared. “Sneijder,” they roared back. He then led the whole ground in a chorus, gesturing wildly as if a demon was being exorcised from within, before bowing to all four stands in a mark of appreciation. This wasn’t staged. He was genuinely into this. And the fans genuinely considered him one of theirs.
The recent resurgence of Beşiktaş means that, two years on, he now leaves with no more league medals in his collection. Yet there was another Turkish Cup and Super Cup, meaning he checks out of Istanbul with a total of eight honours to his name, more than he’s won at any other club. In terms of appearances, his 175 outings in the Galatasaray colours mean that he has only played more games for his boyhood club Ajax – and just five more, at that. It is clear that this club will always hold a special place in his heart and the scene as he left the country this week could not have been more different to that January afternoon in 2013. With a tear or two just about peeking out, he said his goodbyes in a quick television interview. It had been quite a romance. A four-and-a-half-year summer love he’ll never forget.