Three matchdays left in the Turkish Süper Lig and things are winding down in dramatic fashion. The league that briefly caught the eye of many football fans around the world (the Süper Lig opened early relative to others) is on the verge of what will be a shocking ending no matter who wins it, with the rare result of all of the ‘big three’ clubs from Istanbul (Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray)  now definitely on the outside looking in—none of them still competitive for the title.

Only Istanbul Başakşehir, a relative newcomer to the Süper Lig, and Trabzonspor, a famed team from the black sea with a history of success but no titles to speak of since the late 70s/early 80s are in contention to be crowned champions. Sivasspor, currently in a state of freefall having not won in five matches now, remain in third place still, though Galatasaray,  Beşiktaş, and Fenerbahçe are within range – the latter two resurgent after unsteady 2019/20 campaigns up until the unexpected break. With all of that excitement going on currently, the surprising eventual winner belies a larger story of upheaval, disarray, and change in a league that has always straddled the line between a European success story and massive, systemic financial failure.

Why Istanbul Başakşehir? Why now?

It wasn’t long ago that Turkish football was known as a high-paying last refuge for aging (often former) stars to get ‘one last hurrah’ (much as the Chinese and Saudi leagues are viewed today). Perhaps occasionally one more chance in the big leagues could even be earned, as the likes of Nicolas Anelka, and more recently Ryan Babel could attest to. From Wesley Sneijder, Simao, Pierre Van Hooijdink, or Didier Drogba to Pepe, Robin Van Persie, or Mario Gomez, big names have in recent history made brief to long stays in Turkey and earned massive payouts in exchange for their time. Sometimes moderate success in Europe and a long string of good results produced ‘club legends’ that stuck around for the long haul, and those names have made decent livings off of their cult-like status in Turkish pop culture ever since. Still, times are changing in Turkey, and a new leaf is being turned—a new approach to football and player development. Perhaps not by choice, but sometimes, as the proverb goes, necessity can be the mother of invention.
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With piles of debt being owed by all of Turkey’s big (and small) clubs, financial security is only a reality for a select few clubs in the country, and none of the bigger, historical ones (Trabzonspor is currently banned from European competitions next season for an irregular transaction last season stemming from issues revolving around this ever-present debt problem). There are regular reports of players not being paid on time, or at all in some extreme cases emanating all season from the big clubs on down to most of the smaller sides as well (the recent stories of Max Kruse and Liverpool’s loanee Loris Karius come to mind). For banks and financial advisors, the Süper Lig looks like a sea of debt, with a few islands; teams without the history and baggage of historical mismanagement that had long become the norm throughout the country. This is the tide that has carried Istanbul Başakşehir to the verge of glory in the last few seasons, perhaps finally culminating in a first title this year (they’re currently four points up top and looking good to win it all). This success came with no small amount of controversy as is usually the case in Turkey; Istanbul Başakşehir was only founded in 1990 (in contrast, the ‘big three’ from Istanbul were all formed between 1903 and 1907), and was relegated out of the Süper Lig as recently as 2013. It was created and owned by Istanbul’s municipal water distribution company, a kind of quasi-private/state-run project that never yielded much in the way of funding or results on the pitch. Massive injections in funding in recent years have led to claims that the club is a pet project of the ruling party in Turkey, led by current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – something with a relatively bad precedent; leaders like Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain have done the same meddling in football affairs to ‘project power and wealth’ in previous eras. While such claims are viewed as the gospel by some, they are also often thought to be petty aspersions by envious fans of the ‘once-mighty’ Istanbul clubs, jealous of the newcomer’s financial stability and now success on the pitch as well. As in most things, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two entrenched camps.

Why Are Turkish Clubs In So Much Debt?

In all fairness, a failed coup and the ensuing large-scale clamping down by the ruling party on the (massive and sprawling) group that organized the coup would inevitably strain an economy. War on the border of Syria, a near trade war with the US (the country’s largest trading partner) that crushed the currency exchange rate, and now the coronavirus, devastating the global economy at large, is icing on the cake. Even still—not all of Turkey’s economy is in shambles, and certainly not to the extent that the football industry there is—what lead to that specific industry collapsing?

In short; mismanagement. Uniquely, clubs in Turkey are rarely privately owned—they have boards that vote in presidents, chairmen, and directors every few years, and depending on confidence in the job being done and everything that goes into one’s perception of whatever that means, the position is or isn’t challenged. The result can be a revolving door of presidents trying to make a large impact in a short time and failing spectacularly, especially as the clubs have gotten progressively backed against a wall financially. There are of course success stories as well—wealthy, ‘benevolent’ directors and managers who created championship cultures, long periods of success, and even in some cases trophies (Galatasaray famously won the UEFA Cup in 2000).  What has perhaps more often been the case has been club presidents coming in, overspending on aging talent, accruing large to massive amounts of debt, and getting replaced before their creation can even blossom into anything of consequence on the pitch. The result is the current debt-ridden but highly entertaining mess that is the Turkish Süper Lig.

Bad luck has certainly been provided in spades with geopolitical turmoil and currency fluctuations hurting every club in the country, but plenty of it was the fault of the clubs themselves. Furthermore, individuals were getting fabulously wealthy off these faulty processes so things were getting more and more entrenched. A solution to these issues may have never arrived if not for Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules and global standards finally coming into effect. Those regulations forced the hand of most Turkish sides, particularly the bigger clubs that hope to compete in Europe, and whose positions there could be at stake should their finances get the better of them—all of Turkey’s bigger sides have been excluded from Europe in recent years for various financial and corruption-related reasons, and all of them require the financial boost that comes with qualification into a European competition to succeed in the transfer market.

So What’s Next?

For now, Istanbul Başakşehir and other relative newcomers will hope to fill the void, but Istanbul Başakşehir this season overspent on multiple positions and is three or four deep at most positions now too—which suggests they could be going down the path of their predecessors. Only time will tell—for now, they’re hoping to seal a first title, and are enjoying their best-ever run in Europe (they are in the Europa League Round of 16 tentatively poised to resume in August, with a 1-0 lead over Denmark’s current champions F.C. Copenhagen after one leg).

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With Trabzonspor, all but guaranteed a first or second-placed finish, but currently slotted out of European competitions next season, Sivasspor, Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Alanyaspor are all in a dogfight for 3rd place, which now looks to be providing Trabzon’s ticket to the Champion’s League qualifiers. Any of the teams would benefit from the additional financial boost, but none more than Galatasaray, who is a final holdout among ‘the big 3’ in terms of spending big in order to lock down champion’s league money—having spent big on contracts to secure the likes of Ryan Babel, Falcao, and a number of loans who they hoped they could potentially buyout upon winning in the domestic league. The problem has been the winning part—decimated by injuries all year, talented Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera going down for the season just after the restart has created the biggest crisis yet, and just as the season winds down. Results have become harder for them to obtain just as they’re most needed.

Fenerbahçe has already in recent years ‘opted out of the rat race,’ taking a hit to short-term results for the sake of investing in younger talent and prospects they can develop. Making $ 17.6 million for Eljif Elmas (who was bought by Napoli last summer), their approach has already yielded financial rewards, and as their youngsters have established themselves in the rotation this season, they’ve steadily climbed up the table and now find themselves in prime position to jump back into contention for that coveted 3rd place in the Süper Lig. The next big-money player in the docket may well be 20-year-old Dutch-Turk Ferdi Kadioğlu, who has been a bright prospect in bleak times and is now starting to bring wins to Kadiköy just in time.

Beşiktaş has also resorted to playing and scouting young, academy players, foreign-born Turks, and cheaper ‘diamond in the rough’ free agents and prospects (like the USMNT’s Tyler Boyd), putting together a ragtag bunch that has struggled to find its footing all season. A coaching change, and the resurgence of Adem Ljajic and Burak Yilmaz, have seen them peak just in time to make a run for 3rd place, and after a solid post-break run thus far, they find themselves in 4th place, one point behind Sivas and breathing down their necks. Recent injuries may make winning out their final three matches difficult, particularly a massive derby at home against age-old rival Fenerbahçe on July 19th, who currently sit exactly three points behind them.
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All of the clubs are being linked less with expensive, past-their-prime talent, and more with, for example, young German-based Turks, or players succeeding in the lower divisions of Turkey currently. The scope for how much they’re willing to pay for talent seems to have narrowed considerably, whereas opportunities are aplenty for relative unknowns in Turkey or players in less heralded European destinations who want an upgrade. There’s no doubt the league is getting a facelift in this regard—a sense of parity is prevailing, and players might feel they have just as good odds of winning with one of the many emerging Anatolian-based clubs as they would with one of Turkey’s traditional Istanbul powerhouses—and now the money might be more forthcoming there as well. How well the ‘big three’ adapt to these changes, and how seamlessly they can improve and integrate their academies will play decisive factors in how the league will look in the coming years. It’s ripe for a well-run club, who with a few strokes of luck and good timing could run away with it all and perhaps forge a powerful dynasty who could contend for years to come. Or on the other hand, the league could just as likely descend into years of tumult with a real changing of the guard taking place. Whatever the outcome, it is looking likely to be a fascinating process to witness.

Turkish football is already an emotive brand, with late equalizers and competition between historical, well-backed clubs from top to bottom. Right now, four points separate 3rd place and 7th, and at the bottom of the table, 3 points separate 12th place from 17th in an 18-team league with three teams guaranteed relegation. The notion that for the next few seasons, these clubs will be battling for the identity and direction that could shape the league for the next decade-plus is thrilling to imagine (as a fan).

The effects of financial fair play have likely not been seen more starkly than in Turkey; in flipping the whole league upside down and uprooting historical powerhouses, reigning in years of mismanagement and corruption has been a much-needed but messy process. The struggle is far from over, however. Years of being viewed as a slumbering giant, with a massive, football-loving populace waiting to emerge as a success story still haven’t produced the desired results for Turkish football—still, perhaps this emphasis on youth development and responsible finances will ironically actually finally make that ‘potential’ blossom into a reality—even if the ‘powers that be’ there are dragged to the promised land against their will, kicking and screaming all the way.

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