What an interesting revelation after 18 years of Galatasaray-Manchester United at the Ali Sam Yen Stadium; when former Turkish referee Ahmet Cakar allegedly witnessed referee of the night, Kurt Rothlisberger being offered bribe by a Galatasaray official. I was only 9 years old at that time and in those days not every Champions League matches was available for viewing on local Singapore TV. There was no cable television yet and we only had access to free-to-air channels and some channels from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia but none of them broadcasted the match “live”, well at least not that I know of. Therefore I have no recollection of watching the match but I do remember reading about it in the newspapers and finding out more when I read about it in Manchester United’s official magazine.
I do remember seeing in the newspapers United being greeted by a “Welcome to Hell” sign held by a fan of the Turkish club and pictures of a red, hot fiery atmosphere greeting United in Turkey and it really looked hellish for me. The game as we know it ended in a 0-0 draw which meant we were out of the Champions League on away goals rule in the second round itself. The Champions League was a very new concept in those days and in 1993-94, it had just been rebranded from the European Cup to the Champions League but in the early days, entry into the tournament was ONLY for champions of the respective leagues. United were not given a bye to the group stage as it is now for the top 3 in the Premiership and they had to play the first and second round like all the rest including eventual champions, AC Milan. If I do remember correctly, there was a rule which stated that all teams can only have 3 foreign players on the pitch at one time and there was no such thing as it applied only to players not from the European Union. It applied to all as long as you were not a citizen of the country of your club. Players from the United Kingdom like Scotland and Wales were also considered as foreigners as were the Irish and the Northern Irish. This ruling meant that United couldn’t quite field their best eleven and had to play a weakened eleven.
This was a time when United didn’t have a squad depth and quality in depth as they had in subsequent seasons or now. At the very most I remember United having at least 14-15 good quality players in the squad. United were all-conquering in England and had built on the success of winning the English Premier League in 1992-93, the first time after 26 years by being stronger than the previous season and being quite impossible to beat in England. However, they were knocked out in Europe in the second round itself which was a waste. With this latest revelation, I am not sure how much it would have altered the outcome of the match had the referee not been bribed because I don’t remember reading much about any controversial decisions that went against United during the game. Whatever controversy there was, it was after the game when “King” Cantona got sent off for supposedly making a gesture at the referee after the match and then as he was walking down the tunnel, he was hit on his head by a Turkish policeman and had to be restrained by his team-mates. It is known that it took the combined force of Bruce, Pallister and Robson to hold him from attacking the police officer.
This allegation just proves “King Eric” was right at the time when he said he believed the referee had been bribed. What this game did do was that it gave United a very important lesson in European football. Sir Alex learnt from it until eventually winning the Champions League in 1999 and further refining as times changed to win it again in ’08 and reaching the finals of ’09 and ‘11. Due to the ruling, the likes of Beckham, Butt, Gary Neville and Giggs travelled with the team to Turkey and gained in terms of experience and exposure although Giggs at that time had already broken into the first team and was more or less considered a first team player already. It was a night of learning curve for them too to play in such a hostile environment and coping with it and to play against pretty decent European opposition in Galatasaray. The rest as they say is history because United have gone on from 1993 to as we all know win the Champions League in 1998-99 and 2007-08, finishing as runners-up in 2008-09 and 2010-11 and losing semi-finalists in 1996-97 and 2001-02. Galatasaray, on the other hand, have not gone close at all to reaching the final or semi-finals, the closest they have come to is the quarter finals stage in 2000-01. With hindsight, I have to say it was a very good lesson for Manchester United in European football as we continued learning harsh lessons on the continent and in our development but on the night it didn’t feel great having been knocked out of Europe so early.
I always wonder what if United were allowed to have a real go at the competition in the early years. What would we have achieved? But then again if we had a real go at the competition in the early years, then perhaps the development of players like Beckham, Butt, Gary Neville and Scholes might have been stunted. What are your thoughts and memories of United’s early involvement of the Champions League in the early 90s before we won it in 1999 in Barcelona? You may take a look at this video to understand better the atmosphere the players faced in Turkey with comments from some of the players and the manager himself.