ISTANBUL, Turkey — There were 30 minutes to kickoff when Fenerbahce’s floodlights were switched off. The 500 Manchester United fans who had travelled for a 1996 Champions League game thought it was a power cut. It wasn’t.
Instead, the darkness allowed burning, rolled-up newspapers, held aloft by home fans, to have a greater impact. With seconds, the stadium was engulfed in a brilliant orange hue that gave the impression it was on fire. It was frightening and awe inspiring. United players and fans had never seen anything like it, nor had they witnessed what was to follow when the game kicked off.
Fenerbahce’s public address announcer continued to shout as the game was played, hollering encouragement to his team until Sir Bobby Charlton complained to a UEFA official and the monologue ceased.
United eventually won 2-0 through goals by David Beckham and Eric Cantona but the victory was avenged two weeks later when Fenerbahce became the first away team to win a European game at Old Trafford.
Twenty years on, Fenerbahce will hope more success at the Sukru Saracoglu, now a modern, 50,000-seater stadium that has been rebuilt on the same site as their old home. Though the Turkish side lost 4-1 at Old Trafford two weeks ago, they will be encouraged by United’s indifferent form since then.
Moreover, their own improved league form has improved and Robin van Persie is scoring once again. Fenerbahce beat Feyenoord, themselves victors over United earlier this season, in their previous home match and a win on Thursday will see them move ahead of Jose Mourinho’s team with two games to play.
The Europa League divides United fans. Long mocked as a small-time sideshow that Liverpool played in on Thursday nights, United are now no strangers to the tournament, having featured in it in 2011-12, as well as last season in addition to this one; gone are the days when they reached the latter stages of the Champions League on a regular basis.
Manager Jose Mourinho appeared very relaxed after United lost their opening game in Rotterdam, but his side have won only one of their seven league matches since then and are currently seven points behind Chelsea in fourth. The season is still young, but the uncomfortable prospect of another finish outside the Champions League places is a reality.
All of which makes the Europa League more important. United should go all out to win it, not just because it offers a direct route into the Champions League, as Mourinho admitted himself in his pre-match press conference, but because it’s the only competition the club has never won.
The lack of respect only comes after decades of competing in the European Cup and, for many United fans, Europe’s lesser competitions hold treasured memories. The European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph over Barcelona in 1991 is one; another, from the same competition, is a 3-0 win seven years earlier against a Barca side featuring Diego Maradona, which overturned a two-goal deficit from the quarterfinal first leg.
Granted, these days the Europa League is unquestionably Europe’s second competition but the likes of Feyenoord and Fenerbahce are massively popular clubs in football-mad countries. Feyenoord, for example, could have sold over 10,000 tickets for the game at Old Trafford later this month. Indeed, some of their fans argue that they already have after they bought seats in home sections of the ground.
Every club would prefer to be in the Champions League, but European football is still a reward and home crowds for games against Zorya Luhansk (58,179) and Fenerbahce (71,000) were impressive. Further, that neither sold out also allowed local school kids to attend games they otherwise might not have been able to.
The Europa League offers opportunities to a big squad in need of playing time and allows Mourinho to learn more about his players. Paul Pogba was energised after scoring two against Fenerbahce, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah was delighted with his performance as a substitute.
Having midweek games is also far more interesting than in the 2014-15 season, when United played just 44 games in total and barely any that were not on weekends.
The UEFA Cup provided Mourinho with an opportunity to rise to international prominence when his Porto team defeated Celtic in the 2003 final and its successor the Europa League offers the prospect for more adventure on the road to May’s final in Solna, near Stockholm.
Great clubs from fine cities where United have previous could lie in wait, including Roma, Olympiakos, Athletic Bilbao, St Etienne, Ajax, Fiorentina, Inter Milan and Zenit St Petersburg. There could also be trips to Israel, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan or the Republic of Ireland. Or maybe Nice, the current Ligue 1 leaders, which would be nice, especially in spring.
If the Premier League is to disappoint in Mourinho’s first season, winning one of three cup competitions would give him a boost. But first, there’s the fire of Istanbul to overcome as United seek to finish in the top two of their group and qualify for the Europa League knockout rounds.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.