The Turkish Süper Lig resumed this week following the winter break, with İstanbul Başakşehir restoring their six point lead over Galatasaray at the top of the table following a 2-0 victory over Kasımpaşa. The upstarts of Turkey’s top flight have garnered plenty of attention from the sports press in Northern Europe, thanks largely to their emergence as title challengers from nowhere and the smattering of familiar names throughout the squad, but behind the facade of unfancied underdogs lies a web of mystery surrounding their ability to challenge the so-called Big Three in a league that is financially on its knees. We spoke to anthropologist and author John McManus, and Turkish football writer Kaan Bayazit to find out why Turkey’s champions-elect are treated with so much suspicion.
The roar that greeted Eljero Elia’s goal six minutes from time at the Fatih Terim Stadium to seal Başakşehir’s twelfth win of the season was quickly drowned out by tribal drum music and a voice over the speaker system that bounced around the walls of the ground. For an attendance of 3,363, the noise in support of the team was striking, but its a far cry from the flares and ‘Welcome To Hell’ banners of Galatasaray’s erstwhile Ali Sami Yen Stadium which became the enduring image of Turkish football in the 1990s. To paraphrase the Wealdstone Raider, they’ve got no fans, but it hasn’t stopped Istanbul’s fifth team from gatecrashing the Süper Lig title race, much to the chagrin of every other team and their supporters.
“On and off the field, they cut an image of serenity and business as usual. The only question mark is whether they can keep it going until May. The last few seasons they’ve been in the title race until falling apart in the final weeks.”
Originally founded in 1990 as Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor, a municipal football club owned by the water distribution company, the team worked their way up from the Regional Amateur Football League to the Süper Lig over sixteen years, spending most of that period playing their home games at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, a ground with a capacity of 76,000. Thanks to their ties with the state, IBB were largely funded by Turkish taxpayers, and their continued use of the national team stadium was seen by most as a waste of money. Relegated in 2013, IBB bounced straight back into the Süper Lig, but ahead of the 2014/15 campaign it was announced that the club would be moved to the modern district of Başakşehir, taking residence at the newly built, 17,000 capacity Fatih Terim Stadium, and taking on a new moniker to reflect the move. The ownership of the club also changed hands to a private joint-stock company, removing the burden from taxpayers.
The change to a private ownership model was the first bone of contention. In Turkey, much like in Spain, the majority of clubs are publicly owned by members who elect a president to represent them. Given the lack of organic support available to a club in its infancy, based in a city that contains three footballing superpowers, it made sense to eschew the traditional ownership method. Indeed, for a long time Başakşehir’s core supporter group were students, who followed the club as a protest to the established sides and the culture of violence at Turkish football - in 2011 a five year ban was imposed on away fans at Istanbul derbies between the city’s Big Three to prevent crowd trouble.
A private owner gave Başakşehir an immediate advantage. Without the pressure of fan expectations, alongside the continuity of a permanent president, the club were able to plan for the future. This has allowed coach Abdullah Avcı the freedom to work on different aspects of the squad’s game, perfecting their defensive shape before turning his attention to their attack. A former coach of the Turkey Under-17 side, Avcı was first appointed by IBB in 2006, enjoying five years with the club before a two year stint with the national team. Since being named the inaugural manager of the newly christened Başakşehir, the 55-year-old coach has focussed on developing players, both in the club’s youth system and senior members of the squad. Goalkeeper Volkan Babacan was a Fenerbahce reject with a nomadic career when arrived at the Fatih Terim stadium in 2014. Four and a half seasons later, he’s Turkey’s #1, and considered one of the best stoppers in the country. Bosnian winger Edin Višća is another who’s seen his reputation soar under the tutelage of Avcı, with Turkish football fans identifying him as Başakşehir’s key man.
“Başakşehir are a well-run club and Avcı is one of Turkey’s top managers. Longevity in the job has allowed him to establish a pattern of play and recruit players willing to follow it. Beyond Avcı, the club’s transfer policy has been measured: spending more wisely than their competitors. They’re most well-known for the transfer of famous players at the end of their careers but they’ve also recruited a lot of good young talent.”
So far, so uplifting. But a closer look at those running Başakşehir poses questions around the club’s links to President Erdoğan, the populist leader previously alleged of running a dictatorship in the country, whose public perception has polarised Turkey. A former semi-professional footballer himself, Erdoğan was invited to take part in an exhibition match to officially open Başakşehir’s new stadium, in the district created when Erdoğan himself was mayor of Istanbul, and which blossomed thanks to major investment during his tenure as Prime Minister. Suspicions were aroused when, following the match, the club retired the #12 shirt that the President had worn - representing his standing at the 12th President of Turkey. Revelations that Başakşehir president Göksel Gümüşdağ is not only a member of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), but is also related to the President through marriage did nothing to assuage misgivings.
“Pretty much everyone resents Başakşehir, because they see them as an artificial club created by the government to flaunt the reach of their power in Turkish society. For a long time football was the only aspect of said society that wasn’t entirely stained by politics, but that has changed in recent years.”
Since his election in 2014, Erdoğan has faced stiff opposition from the terraces of Istanbul’s Big Three clubs. Anti-government protests from fans of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas have seen violence break out in the streets of Istanbul, while a referendum on the powers of the state were met with chants of secular anthem ‘Izmir March’. As a leader driven by religious and conservative values, the chance to infiltrate the world of Football, a major pastime in Turkey, would prove appealing to Erdoğan. It’s no coincidence that chants of ‘God is Great’ can be heard on the terraces at Başakşehir.
After an impressive first season under their new moniker, Başakşehir finished fourth in the Süper Lig and qualified for Europe. The following summer, Turkish international midfielder Emre Belözoğlu was snapped up on a free from Fenerbahce and immediately appointed as captain. Becoming the first marquee signing since the rebrand, Emre became a symbol of the club’s ambition. Coincidentally, he too is an alleged supporter of the AKP.
Since then, Başakşehir have gone on to sign Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Gokhan Inler, Robinho and, most recently, Demba Ba. All players that have graced Europe’s top five leagues in their prime, and all likely signed up on big wages. Whilst they haven’t exactly set the Süper Lig alight - Robinho, with eight goals, is the only Başakşehir player in the league’s top ten goalscorers - they’ve undoubtedly contributed to league finishes of fourth, second and third in the last three seasons, and have played their part in what looks like being the club’s first league title. Süper Lig clubs have, often unfairly, been maligned for the recruitment of ageing foreign players, but in recent years Turkish fans themselves have seen the influx of expensive imports as potentially ruinous for the future of the sport, particularly since the Turkish Football Federation removed limitations on foreign players in matchday squads in 2016.
“Turkey appeals to these players as a chance to boost their earnings before their career is through, thanks to generous wages and extremely low levels of income tax for foreign footballers. In 2016, 57.4% of Turkey’s top division were foreign players and generally there’s much grumbling around the number of foreign imports.”
But Başakşehir’s success isn’t purely down to a well-drilled team, a talented coach, and a sprinkling of stardust. Their main title competitors - Istanbul’s Big Three, who’ve won thirty-three of the last thirty-four league titles - have all suffered from an increasing financial crisis in Turkish football. In the summer transfer window, Turkish clubs spent just £22.8m, a far cry from the £38.5m spent by Galatasaray alone the previous year, thanks to growing debts at the biggest clubs, the looming shadow of UEFA Finacial Fair Play rules, and a dramatic weakening of the Turkish Lira that saw the currency drop 30% of its value against the Euro. Austerity has been enforced on the league, and thanks to the culture of overspending to meet the expectations of supporters, its the Big Three have been most affected.
Fenerbahce have been the biggest victims of crippling debt. President Ali Koc, elected ahead of this season and worth an estimated $1bn, arrived to find the club €621m in the red. Like Başakşehir, Fenerbahce had garnered a reputation for signing up ageing stars on big contracts, with Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie and Roberto Soldado all arriving at the Şükrü Saracoğlu past their peak. With revenue from television and European competition leveraged against these deals, the club’s finances became a house of cards. Now feeling the squeeze from FFP rules and facing a fight against relegation, the house has come tumbling down around them. Galatasaray have previously been banned from European competition for violating FFP, while Besiktas have been unable to adequately replace key members of the squad following an exodus. Cenk Tosun and Ryan Babel have been spirited away to the Premier League, while the club had to cancel Portugal defender Pepe’s contract. In just eighteen years, the combined debt across the league has risen from €60m to €2.3bn.
“The Big Three will soon be forced to drastically change how they do business. They’ll have to heavily invest in their own youth and cheap foreign players. Meanwhile Basaksehir can take the Champions League money and likely go on and dominate for several years. The future looks grim for the big clubs, including Trabzonspor.”
This financial crisis doesn’t seem to extend to Başakşehir, however. Kaan Bayazit crunched the numbers and concluded that the league leaders wage bill totals around €40m, while their net spend since 2014 comes in at €180,000. Given that the average income of Süper Lig clubs sits at €41m, and Başakşehir don’t appear to have any major sponsorship deals, nor have they accumulated major prize money over the past four seasons, serious questions marks hang over the funding of the club. It has long been suggested in some quarters that Başakşehir are little more than the footballing arm of the AKP - a government funded organisation used to infiltrate Turkey’s biggest sport in the hope of improving the President’s reputation. Though it might sound like a crazed conspiracy theory, truth can be stranger than fiction, and the evidence is compelling.
If Erdoğan was hell-bent on conquering the world of football however, he probably wouldn’t have sanctioned the restructuring of debt at the country’s three biggest clubs. In the short-term it may provide the President a little relief from his opposition, though longer term its likely to only exacerbate the financial problems.
The Big Three are ‘too big to fail’. No figure in Turkey would let them go to the wall for fear of incurring the wrath of millions. Consequently I don’t see their difficulties persisting indefinitely. They’ll be back challenging for the title – if not next season then soon.
On the pitch, this season’s Süper Lig title is Başakşehir’s to lose, but don’t expect a new era of dominance from Istanbul’s fifth club. Gümüşdağ and his fellow shareholders face an arduous challenge to convert supporters of Turkish football to become regulars at the Fatih Terim stadium. Over 80% of the country supports one of the big three teams, and club allegiance is passed down through generations. If they’re not able to build on the 2,000 or so that currently cheer on Avcı’s team, there’s little chance of Başakşehir achieving sustained success, backed by the government or not.
Thanks to John McManus and Kaan Bayazit for providing their expert knowledge of the Süper Lig and Turkish football for this piece. John’s book ‘Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football’ is available from Orion Books.