A year after being sacked by Juventus in the wake of a disappointing first season in charge, Italy great Andrea Pirlo is aiming to relaunch his coaching career on the banks of the Bosphorus with unfashionable Istanbul club Fatih Karagumruk.
“I have an idea of how I want to play football and I hope it will be a successful season,” insisted Pirlo at his unveiling in mid-June, dressed in an immaculate blue suit as he met Turkey’s sports press at a chic Istanbul hotel.
Pirlo, now 43, had no prior top-level coaching experience when he was named Juventus coach in August 2020.
He led the Turin club to victory in the Italian Cup but Juve went out of the Champions League in the last 16 and finished fourth in Serie A, ending a run of nine consecutive titles.
Pirlo was duly sacked, but he is now back in business at Karagumruk, who play their first game of the new Turkish Super Lig season on Sunday after finishing eighth in the last campaign.
Fate has dictated that his first game will be against another Italian coach in Francesco Farioli, who was in charge of Karagumruk last year and is now at Sunday’s opponents Alanyaspor.
Pirlo’s new club hail from the working-class neighbourhood of Karagumruk, on the European side of the Bosphorus, in a city where the footballing scene is dominated by the giants of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas.
In Turkey, the man who helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup has been given the nickname “Basbakan”, or prime minister, in a nod to the way he controlled the ball during his playing days.
“Not every good player goes on to become a good coach, but it is amazing that he is here. If one of the big three had appointed him then it would be the only thing the newspapers would talk about,” Tarik Odman, a lifelong Karagumruk supporter now in his 60s, tells AFP.
Promoted back to the Turkish top flight in 2020 after an absence of 26 years, Karagumruk are a small neighbourhood club who struggle to attract crowds, a world away from the glamour of Juventus where Pirlo starred as a player before starting out as a coach.
The club’s traditional home – with stands on three sides and a row of apartment buildings on the other – does not meet the standards of the Super Lig, so Karagumruk have been forced to play home matches 20 kilometres away at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium.
It is here that Pirlo’s AC Milan side lost the 2005 Champions League final on penalties to Liverpool having been 3-0 up at half-time.
“The fact that we don’t have our own stadium, training ground or even a bus in our name made the negotiations difficult,” acknowledged the club’s vice-president, Serkan Hurma, the day Pirlo was unveiled.
Indeed Karagumruk president Suleyman Hurma threatened to resign just four days before the start of the campaign if Turkish authorities did not allow his club to build a new stadium and training centre worthy of the highest level.
He called the lack of a proper training facility “sad and humiliating for our club”.
The supporter Tarik Odman, who spoke to AFP while sipping tea at the club bar and whose grandfather was once Karagumruk president, said he missed the days when spectators could stand just a few metres away from the players on the pitch.
“If the team were able to play games at home, we would need to close off the streets,” he said.
It will be a big ask for Karagumruk to compete against the big three or champions Trabzonspor at the top of the table, but sports journalist Alp Ulugay believes Turkey offers Pirlo – a two-time Champions League winner and six-time Serie A champion – the chance to revive his career.
“Fatih Karagumruk are an artificial club. The window display, financed by the club president, is well-stocked and now they have added Andrea Pirlo,” he said.
“But behind that there is nothing.”