Tide turns for fiery Terim at Fiorentina

 

"Of course, we can qualify for the Champions League. Why not, if we continue to play like this?" The speaker is Fiorentina's Turkish coach Fatih Terim minutes after his side had beaten Udinese 3-1 away on Sunday to see the Florence club go joint sixth in Serie A. Sunday's win, coming a week after Fiorentina had beaten hapless Inter Milan 2-0 at home, would seem to definitively underline a turnaround in the thus far disappointing Italian fortunes of the remarkable Terim.

Fatih Terim is indeed a man who defies conventional footballing wisdom. Born in Adana, Turkey, 47 years ago, he grew up in an era when Turkish clubs and national sides were considered nothing more than a necessary first-round obstacle along the way to a World Cup qualification or to a UEFA Cup final. A player with Istanbul side Galatasaray for 12 seasons and a Turkish international, Terim and his mates consistently featured among the international `also-rans'.

As a coach, however, Terim has arguably done more than anyone to change the face of Turkish soccer, establishing its credibility far beyond the Bosphorus. As Turkish national team coach, he was the first person to take Turkey to the finals of a major tournament when qualifying for the Euro '96 finals in England. More recently, as coach to Galatasaray, Terim crowned four seasons during which he won four consecutive league titles by coaching the side to win the UEFA Cup last May, thus becoming the first Turkish side to win a major European club trophy.

That impressive track record, however, was not enough to silence the cynics this summer when Fiorentina announced that Terim would take over from current Italian national team coach Giovanni Trapattoni. Terim's nationality, the difficult nature of the of times heated Fiorentina piazza, the fact that Fiorentina had just sold their standard-bearer of the last nine seasons - Gabriel Batistuta - and the poor recent records of foreign coaches in Italian soccer (England manager-elect, Swede Sven Eriksson excepted) all prompted many commentators to predict that Terim would be on his bike.

In recent seasons, internationally acclaimed coaches such as Romanian Mircea Lucescu, Argentinian Carlos Bianchi, Uruguayan Oscar Washington Tabarez and Argentinian Cesar Menotti have all been shown the door within a matter of months at Inter Milan, AS Roma, AC Milan and Sampdoria respectively. Nor has Fiorentina been especially kind to coaches, having gone through Brazilian Sebastiao Lazaroni as well as Italians Gigi Radice, Aldo Agroppi, Claudio Ranieri, Alberto Malesani and Trapattoni in the last decade.

When Terim's first important outing saw his Fiorentina dumped out of the UEFA Cup in the first round by modest Austrian side, Tirol Innsbruck, last September, the cynics were already saying `I told you so'. But when Terim followed that by writing an open letter of protest to Fiorentina owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori looking for various reinforcements, it seemed that the Turkish coach was looking for a fast ride back to Galatasaray.

Worse still, not long after his newspaper criticism of his boss, Terim's Fiorentina crashed 3-4 in Serie A, beaten at home by little Perugia. After six weeks of the Serie A championship, Terim's attacking football philosophy had earned him just one win and four draws.

Curiously, however, despite his poor start, Terim had managed to communicate something of himself to both his players and to the club's demanding fans. Even as Vittorio Cecchi Gori was beginning to count the cost of sacking the Turk, the fans made it clear that they were on the side of `fiery' little Terim, a coach whose passionate touch-line behaviour tends to mirror their own often exaggerated enthusiasm.

The tide began to turn, just as soon as Terim listened to the advice of senior players such as Angelo Di Livio and brought in an extra defender. With new boys Brazilian Leandro and Portugal's Nuno Gomes doing well up front, with a steadier defence and with Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa blossoming under Terim's constant praise and encouragement Fiorentina are finally on their way. The league wins against Inter and Udinese came in a fortnight when the Florence club cruised into the semi-finals of the Italian Cup, defeating Brescia.

So, then, what does the future hold for Fiorentina and Terim? The coach himself has no doubts: "I'm a winner. I didn't come here for money, I earned more at Galatasaray and I took a 25 per cent drop in salary to come here. I came here to win . . ."