Erdoğan’s football project Başakşehir edge closer to winning first title

Istanbul Başakşehir took a step closer to winning their first Turkish Super League title with a 2-0 win away at Antalyaspor on Saturday night, extending their lead at the top of table to five points with just four matches left for them to play this season.

If their nearest challengers Trabzonspor fail to win at Galatasaray on Sunday night, Başakşehir - derided by many Turkish football fans as being a project team of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with very few real supporters - will be extremely hard to catch.

Başakşehir’s incredible rise to the brink of becoming only the sixth Turkish team ever to be crowned Super League champions says a lot about how the game in football-mad Turkey has become ever more deeply infused with politics under Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Based in the conservative, AKP stronghold of Başakşehir, a neighbourhood on the far edge of the European side of Istanbul, the club started in 1990 as İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor - the team of the city’s municipality - and rose through the leagues under the AKP.

In 2014, it officially separated from the municipality, adopted the name Istanbul Başakşehir, and became a private company - a rarity in Turkish football, where most clubs are member-owned associations - owned by shareholders, many of whom have ties to the AKP.

The club president is Göksel Gümüşdağ, an AKP member who is related to Erdoğan’s wife by marriage. Ahmet Kenetçi, another member of the board, also has ties to the Erdoğan family as his sister married one of Erdoğan’s sons.

Erdoğan, a passionate Fenerbahçe fan, now also has strong ties to Başakşehir. He has boasted of forming the club, and he sometimes attends matches and visits the team in the dressing room. He even played in the exhibition match in 2014 that opened the club’s new stadium, which was built quickly and efficiently by Kalyon, a company with close ties to the AKP.

Erdoğan wore the number 12 in that match as it took place just before the elections in which he would become the country’s 12th president, and Başakşehir retired the number in tribute to him. Some football clubs don’t assign the number 12 jersey to any player in tribute to the “12th man” - the fans - but Başakşehir attracts a few thousand at most to their matches and they are not known for the partisan, raucous fandom which characterises many other Turkish fan groups.

In fact, Erdoğan has upbraided club officials for not attracting more fans to Başakşehir matches. It seems clear that he sees the club not only in terms of challenging Turkish football’s traditional elite - the big three Istanbul clubs of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray, whose fans have sometimes been hostile towards him and played a major role in the 2013 anti-government Gezi protests - but also more broadly in cultural terms.

“We want Başakşehir to aim for the championship in the politics league just as in the football league,” he said in 2018. “For as long as we are not present in these fields, we will be weak in politics as well.”

Despite its low fan base, the club has attracted significant sponsorship - both from companies close to the AKP such as Medipol and Mall of Istanbul, and from international brands such as Burger King - which has enabled them to pay high salaries of stars such as Martin Skrtel, Gael Clichy, Mehmet Topal, Robinho, and Demba Ba.

The club itself argues that the government supports every team in Turkish football - which it does in investing huge amount of money, building stadiums, restructuring and writing off debts, and leaning on sponsors - and asks why Başakşehir, with a population of several hundred thousand people, shouldn’t have its own team. They point to their record of developing players such as Cengiz Ünder, İrfan Can Kahveci, and Edin Visca, and say they are a positive example for other Turkish teams with their low indebtedness and steady model that doesn’t fire coaches on a regular basis.

While Başakşehir has frequently challenged for the title over recent years, it has always fallen just short. But this has been a strange season - disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak, and with the traditional big clubs floundering as they are mired in debt, struggle with tensions over unpaid players, and labour with expensive, failed signings and a chronic inability to develop much younger talent.

Başakşehir’s nearest challenger this season is Trabzonspor, currently in second place. The Black Sea club is considered the fourth biggest team in Turkey, but won the last of its six championships in 1984.

Trabzonspor plays entertaining, attacking football and has a number of exciting younger players, but it has sometimes been let down by an inconsistent defence and has struggled since Turkish football resumed behind closed doors on June 12 after being suspended in March due to the coronavirus. Playing in empty stadiums may have less impact on little-supported Başakşehir.

But football talk in Turkey often spends less time focusing on players, tactics, or coaches and more on politics and issues of perceived unfairness and injustice.

Trabzonspor has also been criticised for its close ties to members of the government, notably to Erdoğan’s son-in-law, the Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is reportedly a diehard Trabzonspor fan.

Rival fans accuse the government of intervening to help the financially-ailing club find sponsors and say that the Turkuaz media outlets - owned by the Albayrak family - spread pro-Trabzonspor misinformation and propaganda.

Thousands of Fenerbahçe fans protested after a game in February, calling on Albayrak to quit as minister over controversial refereeing decisions and some of his comments on Trabzonspor. Thousands of fans also tweeted using the hashtag “#damatistifa,” translating as “the son-in-law should quit.”

A video circulating on social media and widely shared online showed the minister talking about his efforts to help Trabzonspor.

“Everyone knows how we’re trying hard for Trabzonspor behind the scenes,” Albayrak said. He also said there were five ministers in the government who support Trabzonspor.

For its part, Trabzonspor also sees itself as a victim of politics and bias. It says it was denied the title in 2010/11 due to Turkey’s biggest ever match fixing scandal, which implicated Fenerbahçe as a leading culprit, and says the government and the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) failed to deliver them justice after convictions were overturned and Trabzonspor was not awarded the title.

Fenerbahçe say the match-fixing allegations are false and part of a plot by prosecutors linked to the outlawed Gülen movement to oust its president and take over the club.

Meanwhile, last month a bar association in Trabzon filed a criminal complaint against Başakşehir’s president and members of the TFF for allegedly influencing referee decisions that have gone against Trabzonspor.

Turkish football has a long, colourful, and romantic history, but it is mired in bitterness and divisions that are often linked to the country’s wider political and social cleavages.

Başakşehir fans are surely the least inclined to complain about unfairness in Turkey. Perhaps because they have not developed a fanatical support base, and maybe because, even though they officially deny it, they know they have the backing of the big man in the palace.