The 2020/21 campaign is the first time that none of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray have played in Europe for 38 years. That is all that needs to be said. It is nothing short of a national scandal.
This season the only Turkish clubs in Europe are İstanbul Başakşehir and Sivasspor. A club owned by a government ministry and another who were only promoted three years ago are not the standard images of Turkish football. Instead, one thinks of deafening atmospheres. Football in Turkey is flares and smoke. It is hostile airports, ‘Welcome to Hell’, and flags in centre circles. In short, it is Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray.
Eighty percent of Turkey’s 83 million population support one of them. Over the past 62 seasons of Süper Lig, they have been champions on 54 occasions. To the wider world, the big three are Turkish football. So, what has happened?
Things start in the boardroom. At Beşiktaş, the protagonist is Fikret Orman, who became president in March 2012. Taking over a club in crisis, he initially brought success. Orman oversaw the completion of Vodafone Park in 2016, when it had previously been in doubt. Beşiktaş won back-to-back Süper Lig titles in 2016 and 2017, with players such as Anderson Talisca, Pepe and Ricardo Quaresma on their books.
Under Orman, Beşiktaş also succeeded in Europe. They got past the Champions League group stage for the first time ever in 2017. The year before they were a penalty shootout away from a Europa League semi-final. However, this success ultimately led to Orman’s downfall. By the time he resigned in September 2019, Beşiktaş’ debt had risen to €280m.
“Orman overspent on salaries for players like Álvaro Negredo and Pepe,” Beşiktaş fan Jens Raitanen tells me. “This eventually hurt the club financially when we failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2017/18. How can a club like Beşiktaş afford to pay Pepe €8m a season? Even with league success and Champions League money, that’s not financially sustainable.”
A similar tale of complacency is found elsewhere, as Fenerbahçe fan Atilla Arman Parlar outlines: “By the 2017/18 season we would be best classified as terminally ill. We were on top of Turkish football in 2008, with a market value seeing us enter the top 20 most valuable clubs in the world. To have a squad so strong, winning the league in 2010/11 with arch-rivals Galatasaray finishing eighth, Fenerbahçe were expected to dominate for many years.
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“Fast forward to 2017, the club had utilised all avenues of credit and had all revenue streams tied to paying debts. It simply became a paper-over-the-crack job. Seven years of trying to keep the club alive under match-fixing charges, lost revenue, brand decline, bad signings, flash big money transfers like Diego Ribas, Nani and Robin van Persie and a tired [president] Aziz Yıldırım who would not let go of the club.”
Yıldırım finally relinquished power in June 2018. He was replaced by Ali Koç, a board member of the multinational Koç Holding who had previously sat on Yıldırım’s board. Quickly Koç set about modernising Fenerbahçe.
Damien Comolli – formerly of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham – was appointed sporting director, while Phillip Cocu became coach. The revolution even extended to replacing the club’s chef. There was just one problem: it didn’t work. Fenerbahçe were second bottom halfway through the season, eventually finishing in sixth, their lowest position for three decades.
“Change was needed, the club was at a dead end and up to its eyeballs with debt,” Atilla says. “When Koç took over, he had an ideology of planning for the next ten years, but with such limited resources it was going to prove to be difficult. After a club is run a certain way for 20 years, nothing is going to improve overnight.”
Sixteen kilometres north of the Şükrü Saracoğlu, it is a similar story at Galatasaray. Like Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, the financial situation there is currently dire, with debts estimated to be over €190m. Club president Mustafa Cengiz is also in poor health and has called for elections at the end of this year.
After ending last season in poor form to finish sixth, the club still had to opportunity to progress to the Europa League group stage. However, they lost 2-1 at Ibrox to Rangers, a match which, according to Galatasaray supporter Özer Dindjer, exposed all their faults.
“After a promising few qualifiers, we were up against a superior side which brought us crashing down to earth. Not just faults in our gameplay, but the entire top-down structure of the club was brought under the spotlight – from the quality of our squad to our coach, and far beyond.
“It seems pretty clear that Fatih Terim has little idea of the kind of football he wants this team to play, trying the same things again and again but expecting different results. After the catastrophic exit from Europe, fans were expecting a shift in the squad, but this never came around.”
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The make-up of these teams is another big issue. It is a lazy stereotype, but the Süper Lig is home to lots of old players. Of the big three, Beşiktaş have the youngest line-up, but that still has an average age of over 27. Galatasaray’s main striker is a 34-year-old Radamel Falcao. At Fenerbahçe goalkeeper Altay Bayındır is the only starter under 25.
Experience in football is obviously huge, but this formula isn’t bringing the big three the success in Europe it used to. Instead, the general consensus is turning to young, homegrown players is the way forward, especially with the Turkish lira at its lowest ever level of ₺9 to €1.
“Beşiktaş need to look to the future by investing in promising footballers rather than bringing in semi-experienced foreign players who may not even be good enough,” Jens believes. “What I would like to see from the management is bringing in more youth to the club. Invest in young and promising players for the future and give the manager time to work with them. Now would be the ideal time considering where the club is financially.”
Fellow Beşiktaş fan İdil Tosuncuk adds, “Sometimes we do give our youngsters a chance, but not all the time. Ersin Destanoğlu, our goalkeeper, is in the starting XI almost every game; Ajdin Hasić and Francisco Montero sometimes. But Atakan Üner, Erdoğan Kaya, Güven Yalçın, Kartal Yılmaz and Rıdvan Yılmaz barely play, mostly in the last 20-30 minutes of a game.”
It’s a similar story at Gala, as Özer tells me: “Terim often praises himself for giving chances to youth, but this has certainly not been the case this season. Why sign Oğulcan Çağlayan if there is no intention to play him? Why allow promising academy products to disappear into the Turkish lower tiers with no prospect of return? And would the likes of Ali Yavuz Kol, Emin Bayram or Kerem Aktürkoğlu perform any worse than the current crop of overpaid prima donnas?”
Whilst there is always a tendency for fans anywhere to turn to youth in terms of crisis, it is not hyperbole to term this generation one of Turkey’s most exciting ever. Eighteen-year-old Ali Akman of Bursaspor is currently the second tier’s second top scorer. His club boast a starting line-up with an average age of 22, including other exciting talents such as Batuhan Kör and Burak Kapacak. Current Leicester duo Çağlar Söyüncü and Cengiz Ünder were both produced by the forward-thinking academy of Altınordu.
Clearly the talent is there. The issue is it is not at big three clubs. Historically, playing for Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray was the highest honour for a young player. Now they know they are simply not going to play. Take current Juventus centre-back Merih Demiral, who quit Fenerbahçe for Portugal a few years back for exactly this reason.
As evidenced by Başakşehir, a youth-centric development strategy is the way forward. Whilst in Demba Ba, Martin Škrtel and Rafael da Silva they too possess old imports, there is far more to their success. Key players Alexandru Epureanu, Edin Višća, Irfan Can Kahveci and Mahmut Tekdemir have all been with the club several years. Alongside Cengiz, before his move to Roma, they were coached into better players by Abdullah Avcı. His successor, Okan Buruk, has continued this trend by signing promising defender Ravil Tagir from Altınordu.
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For all their critics, Başakşehir have a clear direction. They are debt-free and have strong faith in developing talent. You could argue it is easier without as much fan pressure, but the hard reality is Başakşehir are run with a level of professionalism the big three could only dream of.
In terms of bridging this gap, Fenerbahçe are probably closest. After finishing seventh last season, Koç knew this campaign was his final chance. Central to his vision is following the transfer strategy of Benfica. Recent sales of Vedat Muriqi and Elif Elmas to Lazio and Napoli have brought in close to €40m. In further effort to clear estimated debts of €300m, Koç has signed the highest number of sponsorship deals in club history and injected almost €100m.
Moving onto the coach, this summer Koç brought in 45-year-old Erol Bulut. He served as assistant to Avcı at Başakşehir for several years, also taking Alanyaspor to the Türkiye Kupası final last season. Alongside him, club legend Emre Belözoğlu is now sporting director and has brought in 18 new players. The result sees Fener currently off top spot on goal difference.
This strategy contrasts with what has occurred at Beşiktaş. They lost in qualifiers for both the Champions League and Europa League to PAOK and Rio Ave, and are inconsistent domestically. “I can see that [new president] Ahmet Nur Çebi has the best interests of the club at heart, however, it seems the club is still being quite poorly run,” Jens says.
A further problem is Başakşehir who, with their incoming European revenue, are in a strong position to abolish the premise of a big three, despite an underwhelming start to this campaign. As Özer explains, “Almost all foreign player wages are in Euros, and without Champions League money, Gala only have a Lira income stream. It is going to hurt a lot as the TRY/EUR rate hits a new record low almost daily.”
This current trend is particularly concerning when factoring in Turkey’s UEFA co-efficient. In 2017, the Süper Lig was ranked as the seventh most competitive league in Europe; now it has fallen to 13th. With the absence of the big three from Europe, it will only worsen. This season Turkey has only received 3,100 points – less than Bulgaria, Cyprus and Israel.
Ironically, fans should celebrate Başakşehir’s victory over Manchester United, and pray for more. If they lose their remaining game, Turkey is in danger of losing its two Champions League spots. Relying so much on European revenue, take this funding away and debts – not just at the big clubs – would spiral even further out of control.
After years of mismanagement, the concept of sustainability is now starting to reach the big three. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Speed is of the essence. Otherwise, seeing Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray outside Europe could become the norm.