Erdoğan’s project team Başakşehir wins Turkish football league, but not hearts

Istanbul Başakşehir has won this season's Turkish Super League, but as a football team close to Turkey’s ruling party it has failed to win the hearts of fans, the National reported on Sunday.

Başakşehir, characterised by many critics as a project team of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will play its final of the season on Sunday but already secured its first title last weekend - upsetting the regular order in which one of the so-called “Big Three” Istanbul teams of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray tend to become champions. 

Outside of the Big Three, only Trabzonspor and Bursaspor had previously won the Super League.

“It’s a historic season. I don’t remember any season when one of the Big Three didn’t come in the top two,” Başakşehir chief executive Mustafa Erogut told the National.

Since the club took its current form in 2014, Başakşehir has always finished in the top four, and Erogut says the club is well run, with a corporate structure and a long term vision - unlike most Turkish clubs. 

But many analysts and fans put the team’s success mostly down to its sponsorship from its ties to Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“I think people consider Başakşehir the football branch of the AKP,” said football journalist Alp Ulagay. “If the AKP loses an election and Erdoğan loses the presidency, Başakşehir will suffer.”

Başakşehir has failed to attract many fans, despite its success, with the lowest average attendance in the league at around 2,900.

Erogut told the National that the club is using community outreach programmes to draw in young fans. “I think in five to six years we will have a good fan base but it’s more difficult than winning the league,” he said.

Observers say they will find it hard to consolidate their success without a larger fan base, the National said. 

Dağhan Irak, a sociologist at the University of Huddersfield, said Başakşehir was developed by Erdoğan to form an alternative to the Big Three clubs, some of whose fans have been hostile to him in the past and played a prominent role in the 2013 anti-government Gezi protests. 

“Başakşehir is trying to replace a certain fandom culture but no matter how many titles they win, they are still a failed project because the project isn’t about winning championships but changing the culture,” he said.

Irak said that Başakşehir’s championship is, in a way, appropriate for a season overshadowed by the COVID-19 coronavirus that ended up hosting matches without fans in attendance. 

“Başakşehir is a champion that plays for empty stadiums. It’s the best time for them to win because nowadays every stadium is empty,” he said. “Nothing in Turkey is normal right now so it’s just another abnormality.”