I have to admit, my knowledge of Turkish football is severely limited; perhaps solely to the exploits of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Trabzonspor, especially on the European stage, the perpetually underachieving national team and, by no means least, the notoriously hostile scenes amongst the transcontinental nation’s ferociously loyal supporters. So when I witnessed anchor Jacqui Oatley and pundit Ian Wright stumbling around the name, let alone the pedigree of Istanbul’s bright young things in a post-Atletico Madrid pre-season loss discussion of Liverpool’s potential Champions League Qualifying Play-Off Round opponents on ITV4 earlier this month – eventually plumping for a tentative ‘Istanbul’ –, I was compelled to unveil the truth of the club, for sponsorship reasons, referred to as Medipol Başakşehir, and expose UEFA’s potential latest large source of intrigue to a wider audience following a record 2016-17 Süper Lig performance in its (admittedly brief) history. How did they arrive on such a competitive inner-city footballing scene, what exactly have they achieved to date, how do they intend to persevere at such a competitive level following such a rapid rise to prominence, and are they run in a sustainable manner for comparative minnows amongst their closest rivals? Despite being portrayed through the naïve spectrum of an uninitiated Englishman, capturing the essence of an overwhelmingly ambitious organisation blossoming in the wake of a splinter from its traditional community-focused roots is a task we challenge ourselves with in order to reflect the sporting, political and cultural realities, rather than the parodies we may receive from the little exposure granted by a Western media so preoccupied in comparative menial domestic strife, in modern Turkey, and Istanbul as its historically dynamic heart.
Few high-profile records exist presently on Başakşehir – the football club representative of only Istanbul’s 20th largest district by population, and the 13th largest of districts on the European side of the Bosphorus – at least, that is, if you’re an aimless foreigner to the delights of the Turkish dialect. More famous, historically, under its previous moniker of Azatlık – at which time of reference it was respected as a leading gunpowder-producing district for the Ottoman Empire – and for its later ownership; flattened to create a farm bestowed upon Ahmed Niyazi Bey, a nationalist hero of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, Başakşehir is today a microcosm of Istanbul and Turkey as wider entities; part-modernist, well-manicured suburban housing solution, part-crumbling Eastern European concrete industrial estate and part-fertile Mediterranean olive refuge in its undulating Sazlıdere Dam-bordering hamlets. Football, however, is a cultural factor that has usurped the identity, ironically, of what, to those outside of the 311,000 or so inhabitants it boasts, is a relative non-entity of a district – a convenient, insignificant stop-gap between more tourist-inclined districts in Fatih, Beşiktaş and Eyüp and the rural city peripheries of Arnavutköy and industrial foci of Büyükçekmece. Traverse various search engine results for Başakşehir, and primarily, you will be struck by the Netherlands-esque orange Nike templates İstanbul Başakşehir Futbol Kulübü, to give them their full title, sport at matches hosted at the Fatih Terim Stadium; a two-tiered 17,800-capacity oval that, despite being opened only in 2014 after a 16-month construction effort to the tune of 178 million Turkish Lira, only hosted an average crowd of 3,208 at Süper Lig matches last term.
Opened in a ceremonial match in which authoritarian, oppressive President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a former footballer himself, for fellow Istanbul Süper Lig club Kasımpaşa – took part, the Fatih Terim (named, perplexingly, after the İmparator, or Emperor, a three-time Turkey and Galatasaray boss, without any involvement in the club it was purpose-built for) may yet to have welcomed maintained sell-out crowds, but it has acted as the catalyst for an astounding establishment-defying three seasons of Süper Lig football for Başakşehir. Having only evolved into its current guise – İstanbul Başakşehir – in June 2014, at which time Istanbul-born businessman Göksel Gümüşdağ was elected Club President and Abdullah Avcı, manager of the club under its previous İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor (İBB) moniker between 2006 and 2011, and an unsuccessful Turkey boss replaced, strangely, by Terim, was re-appointed to his club role, the side undertook such a radical rebranding in response to the season (2013-14) spent in Turkey’s second division – the TFF First League –, in spite of their immediate reinstatement by virtue of finishing league champions. Certainly a brave business decision to overhaul the entirety of the club from board officials to manager, stadium to badge and ownership to name, with Gümüşdağ joined by many business aides on the board of directors in a definitive severing of ties with the İBB (İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Sports Club), but in order to change the direction of the club – unsustainably, some would argue given the financial suffocation of aforementioned attendance figures – and to compete with inner-city rivals, it has proven an undeniable triumph for those that bought into the project. Perhaps even beyond prior belief, considering after successive fourth-place finishes in 2014-15 and ‘15-16 – in which they only trailed firstly a star-studded Istanbul triumvirate in Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş, then the latter duo in reverse order and a defensively resolute inspired late-season run by Konyaspor – their run to second place last season, boasting the best defensive record (28 conceded in 34 matches) and unbeaten run (17 matches) in the division was only denied a title by four points in a fortunate Beşiktaş escape.
It is not solely the immediate investment of a vast conglomerate of Istanbul entrepreneurs – dubbed Istanbul Football Investments Inc. by chairman of the abandoned İBB and Başakşehir Mayor Mevlüt Uysal – that has facilitated such a rapid rise to national and continental relevance. In allowing the club to engineer its highest ever series of finishes and point hauls – not difficult, historically, when the İBB was only formed in 1990, and it took the footballing arm of the community organisation 27 years to improve from a formative year as an amateur club and successive years at first fluctuating between the TFF Second League and First League, before consolidating at the latter – bettering the sixth-placed 2009-10 result, and last season equalling the cup feats of 2010-11 in finishing runners-up, there has been installed a culture of mutual trust and clear vision. Visibly, the fact that Avcı is the only remnant, in managerial respects, of the 2014-15 season’s instigation – with 68 sackings, resignations, contract expirations and mutual agreements having been filed across the Super Lig in the three successive seasons at an average of 22.66 departures every season, 1.88 every month, or one every 18.63 days – is testament to the contingency the BOD have instilled, and with it belief in the ability of all footballing staff to achieve ludicrous ambitions on the pitch, amongst an otherwise volatile and distrust-spawning managerial merry-go-round.
Vitally, the approach rarely attributable to the likes of Gümüşdağ – millionaires, and the visibly inherent products of a social elite through their economic degrees, for whom personal ambitions take precedence over the concerns of local parishioners – has forged a veritable refuge for Western Europe’s aged remnants of momentarily trophy-laden sides. For Gaël Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gökhan İnler and Eljero Elia – each former Premier League players, to varying degrees of success, and former three-time English champions, Champions League runners-up, Swiss, English and Turkish league victors and World Cup silver medallists, respectively – to have all made the trip to the Fatih Terim in the past eight months, while departing clubs in the highly respected calibre of Manchester City, Crystal Palace, neighbours Beşiktaş and Feyenoord respectively on free transfers, is a significant statement of club intent. At this stage of their steadily declining careers, where they could be derided as becoming journeymen, to make the move to a Turkish side that effectively guarantees competitive domestic and continental football is one that could easily have the appearance of a desperate money-grab in the exploitation of fame carved out in England, Spain and Italy, for example. Demba Ba, Wesley Sneijder, Nani, Robin van Persie, Ricardo Quaresma, Samuel Eto'o and Mario Gómez are immediate past and present examples of this 30-something’s exodus; mostly successful in the national steamroller institutions of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. If advised to resort to a Turkish departure, however, by an agent, why would players in the ilk of the aforementioned quartet opt for Başakşehir, rather than the ingrained trifecta of Istanbul dominance?
There is, of course, the idle response that Clichy, İnler, Adebayor and Elia aren’t of the obvious quality of the national heroes stated above. That may be an appropriate excuse of the latter duo, whose reputations have declined rather drastically from bygone eras with pivotal roles in mid-2000’s Arsenal and 2010 Netherlands World Cup sides, but Clichy, as a 31-year-old who could’ve easily been replaced by the extensively-resourced Pep Guardiola last season, still made 16 Premier League appearances, and İnler – a rotation option at the club who eventually ousted Başakşehir for the title – surely remain respected assets in continental competition, with their pick of global destination in the event of a contract expiration. Certainly, there is a financial incentive tied to the deal Başakşehir, as a club entirely reliant on ownership financial injections, present, but whether that alone is sufficient to turn the heads, irretrievably, of such a high quality of player appears unlikely. In order to fully comprehend such a decision, then, we must first understand the psychology of Clichy and İnler. As a homely individual who has only represented three senior clubs – Cannes, Arsenal and Manchester City –, Clichy, presumably, wouldn’t be the type for a lifestyle overhaul this dramatic. Represented by Darren Dein, an agent shared with Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song – players with extensive histories in Spain and England –, and someone whose skills haven’t been tested in Turkish environs prior to this deal, we are led only to believe that his move is the product of a close friendship forged while at Arsenal and City with Adebayor, a notorious free spirit, apparently devoid of representatives, who had signed six months earlier. Contrastingly, for Inler it may have been the simple matter of pursuing more playing time at the immediate domestic competitors of Beşiktaş, without being forced to relocate from recently-purchased Istanbul settings.
Signed by any other rapidly-expanding, heartless husk of an entrepreneurial-backed club, however, these players would typically fail to last more than two seasons, or in extreme cases, a single season. Having delved into the committed operation Gümüşdağ and Avcı endorse and embrace, it is extremely challenging to fathom these prestigious names experience this pre-empted exercise of exasperation – venting the frustrations of a career nose-dive at teammates, managers and chairmen alike –, egotism – weighing personal objectives above the ambition of the team – and general disillusionment – losing faith in the model they bought into as a profitable career twilight destination – that has been witnessed in countless past examples.
For fans in nations heralded for their trailblazing footballing division standards, it has become an unfortunate and undermining fallacy of Turkish football, in addition to leagues representative of the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Greece and China – less so Russia than when Zenit St Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala invested irresponsibly five years ago – that the Süper Lig acts solely as a production line for starlets destined for London, Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid, Turin, Munich and Milan and a retirement home, both for the talent that first fled and the decelerating foreign steeds of yesteryear. To an extent, this representation captures the attractive drama of the league; transfer fees, wages and names we should all be familiar with after a five minute YouTube highlights reel, although, conversely, it ignores the menial reality of enduring action, ensuring in the event of the accomplishment of a club like Başakşehir, or the goalscoring exploits of a national team representative who doesn’t ply their trade beyond their homeland’s borders, we as an audience are left uneducated and alienated from the tale’s romanticism, regardless of our intrigue in the truth of either example.
This is where Başakşehir, as a club currently lacking titles but having excelled beyond their preordained capabilities to achieve current status, are shackled in the uncertain region between national pre-eminence and continental recognition. Improving every season with exposure to UEFA competition, in 2015-16 they were ousted in the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League by AZ Alkmaar, before going a step further in 2016-17 in defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk at the Play-Off stage. This term, having earned a place in the elite environs of Champions League football and impressively eliminated Club Brugge 5-3 on aggregate, they prepare for a Play-Off second-leg at Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium at a 2-1 disadvantage from their home tie. It is wholly unlikely that, with the nigh-on seven hour flight the Istanbul side will endure solely to reach their opponents, not to mention the gulf in squad depth and quality or the disparity between the capabilities of La Liga and the Süper Lig, a Başakşehir upset is on the cards, but to reach an unprecedented platform on the verge of group stage Champions League football against the highest calibre of global clubs, and to be able to compete against five-time Europa League victors despite operating on probably a quarter, or even less, of the budget, is an achievement defying of all superlatives. At the very least, transforming Emmanuel Adebayor into a competent Champions League-level marksman after a dismal Crystal Palace spell should be lauded as a minor miracle.
It should, however, come as no surprise to those whose opinion of Turkish football has been altered by Başakşehir’s emergence that, with such personnel at the helm, the unmistakable ambition woven into the club’s identity has been brought to fruition. Gümüşdağ, aside from building a profile as a lucrative electronics capitalist, is, quite vitally to this entire tale, a member of the Justice and Development Party’s Municipal Assembly – that is, a regional representative of President Erdoğan’s party – and a former Vice Chairman of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF), where he was embroiled in the 2011 corruption exposé; detained and questioned by a state prosecutor after 31 agents, former managers and players were indicted for match-fixing at the very highest level. This is without referring to his further history as Head of the Turkish Union of Clubs, and his marriage to Müge Gülbaran, a former secretary of Erdoğan’s and the niece of the President’s own wife and Turkish First Lady – Emine Erdoğan. Not short of priceless connections, then, in the event of seizing a rather aspirational club from the original sustainable model of the İBB, a municipal organisation it has callously brushed aside, considering all the financial overheads and paperwork a club of that stature is duty-bound of fulfilling.
Far more integral, arguably, to the success of Başakşehir is, rather than the business aides, the political influence or the PR of having the President open your stadium in an effective entire public unveiling of the İstanbul Başakşehir identity, the experience afforded to Gümüşdağ within the confines of TFF offices; where, as Vice Chairman, he acted as an active delegate to the national prerogative, working in far closer proximity to national team managers Guus Hiddink, Abdullah Avcı and Fatih Terim than he would if Chairman. Despite resigning after 21 months as the least successful of this managerial trio, Avcı clearly made a lasting impression on his future Club President, and after nine years involved in national and local Başakşehir football – as Turkish under-17, İBB and senior national team helmsman – forging a rapport with Gümüşdağ, the two embarked on their club enterprise firmly in tandem, with equal responsibilities in the realisation of one another’s ambition. This trust and weight of determination to prove their efforts worthwhile has been the driving force, and in rapidly developing to encapsulate a Süper Lig establishment-upsetting side of continentally-recognised talent, a range of strategies have proven fundamental.
Firstly, building a tactically competent side worthy of premier division football in the event of starting completely afresh from their 2013-14 TTF First League victory has relied upon the ability of Avcı to establish extremely high standards and capitalise on market inequalities. Notably, signing then-Turkey under-19 international Cengiz Ünder from First League side Altınordu for €4.7 million, developing the diminutive forward during the 2016-17 season and capitalising on the interest of Roma this summer – selling the now-full international for €13.4 million – has allowed for funds to be reinvested elsewhere, in former Fulham, Cardiff and Birmingham winger Kerim Frei and Brazilian full-back Júnior Caiçara from Schalke for a combined €4.5 million, for example. Complementing this outlay, a savvy approach to exploit player unrest elsewhere – employing Volkan Babacan, an Avcı-trained remnant of the 2005 U-17 World Championship third-place Turkish squad, upon release by Manisaspor, who has since become national number one, in addition to centre-backs Aurélien Chedjou and Manuel da Costa on free transfers from Galatasaray and Olympiacos – has exemplified a sustainable transfer ethos. Meanwhile, a focus on developing existing assets to their full potential has borne tangible fruit in the elevation of Turkish trio Mevlüt Erdinç, Mehmet Batdal and Mahmut Tekdemir, belying their maturity at 30, 31 and 29 years of age, to the national squad alongside Babacan, laying testament to the labours of those involved at the forefront of Başakşehir motivations.
At other clubs, in other cities, and certainly in other nations, such an exclusive, institutionalised form of club stewardship – in both financial and footballing respects – simply wouldn’t function positively, as in the competitive realms of largely de-politicised football in Western Europe, there is so little scope for the contingency of a distant ambition that those who fail to adapt to turning tides, and cut their losses with a trusted but unproductive manager, will, brutally, be swallowed up. In nations where economic prosperity may be lacking, but political rhetoric, social inequality and frothing public furore is in bountiful reserve, an individual club represents far more than the district or city it hails from, the historic achievement of its senior team or its supporters’ social status – a factor that in Western Europe that has practically been forgotten today, with the working-class priced out of premier division sport. Political allegiances, an undermined factor in the apathetic climate especially of English sport, are at the forefront of Eastern European football’s notoriety for fan violence, abundant corruption and perpetual club liquidation, with the Partizan Belgrade vs Red Star Belgrade typifying this most notably in the instantaneously tempestuous Yugoslav partition era, but still with an unfathomable degree of angst today, and Turkey is no different in this regard. Liable to the flare-wielding, projectile-exchanging, stadium-pillaging behaviour that only accedes the expletive-laden barbs hurled mutually by both clusters of thick-set thugs long before kick-off, in the eyes of UEFA, you would argue Turkish football has an image problem. To rid it, as an institution, of its socio-economic debate, far more often practiced around the football pitch than on social media and in broadsheet columns, would be a travesty worthy only of an autocratic government considerate solely of personal ideology, as opposed to embracing of the romanticism of its diverse operational scope.
While there may be considerably less motive for violent disarray at the Fatih Terim, with its average attendance over the past three Süper Lig seasons of 2,868, than at the three-piece Istanbul furniture set it aims to displace with a modernist architectural slant – Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe welcoming respective averages of 30,448, 21,351 and 16,485 in 2016-17 – what Başakşehir represent is undeniable; suspiciously close links to the TFF elite, and AK Parti ties so active that, behind fellow Constantinople’s Kasımpaşa S.K., whose stadium is named after the President, they act as the effective second club of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Perhaps they reflect the new dawn of 2014 Erdoğan wished possible for Turkish society, having been established as a club little more than a month prior to the AK Parti candidate’s victory in the Turkish Presidential Election, and having, in 2015, attracted the wide-ranging sponsorship of the Medipol Education and Health Group, Turkey’s largest private health investment entity, to the extent that the club name was merged with their investors’, alongside the achievement of just three seasons to date, there is little argument against the triumph of their ambition. As Erdoğan has failed to unite an easily fragmented Turkish society, however, with his authoritarian approach having an adverse effect in sparking the ongoing 2016-17 purges on army officials, civil servants, journalists, private businesses, Kurdish teachers, mayors and politicians and other groups suspected to be involved in the attempted 15 July 2016 coup d’état, the achievements of a football club effectively founded in his honour are rendered irrelevant in comparison.
Imagine such a situation; effectively superfluous, both domestically and continentally, despite the accession to a national and inner-city elite within just three seasons of canny political, commercial and footballing manoeuvre. It may not be the most romantically-tinted of sporting tales, but the bittersweet nature of its present circumstance is difficult not to empathise with, even if the morals of those involved could be called into question on many an occasion. Young pretenders they may be, but rooted in the historically-forged cultural reality of Turkish and Eastern European society is their fable, to the extent that they can be registered as a firm fixture of the volatile nation’s footballing establishment, even if they are devoid of a defining incident that could, potentially, elevate them to the deserved exposure that befalls such sporting revelations. Though it may not arrive in Seville this Tuesday, such a watershed moment isn’t, I dare say, far around the corner for İstanbul Başakşehir. Remember the name…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!