Turkish football’s foreigners limit avoids tackling the league's basic dysfunction

For the ninth time since 2005, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) has announced a change in the rules limiting foreign players.

On Wednesday, the TFF announced that in the 2020/21 season Turkish Super League clubs will only be allowed to sign contracts with up to 14 foreign players - and field a maximum of eight in the starting 11 on the pitch. 

In 2021/22 season they will be allowed to register 12 foreign players and field a maximum of seven, and in 2022/23 they will be allowed to register a maximum of 10 foreign players and field a maximum of six at any one time.

There are also other new regulations obliging clubs to name players developed from their academies in their teams and squads, and putting age limits on some foreign players which vary by season.  

The idea is to give more opportunities to young Turkish players, and to encourage Turkish clubs to prioritise developing their own young players.

But the news was greeted with much criticism and derision, and some say the rule changes fail to tackle to the real issues behind Turkey’s lacklustre record in developing homegrown young players and the Turkish game’s general dysfunction. 

Emre Sarıgül, co-founder of the Turkish Football website, took to Twitter to express his frustration with the new rules, which he says will do nothing to develop local players and will only inflate the value of mediocre Turkish players.

“New foreign player rules in Turkey... absolute disaster. Didn't work last time, won't work this time... shambles,” he wrote.

The most recent restrictions on foreign players in the Turkish Super League were scrapped as unworkable in 2015.

Yakup Marufoğlu, a podcaster on Turkish football, said that a better solution would be to "pump subsidised money into youth development across the board and encourage it country wide".

The coach of Istanbul-based club Beşiktaş, Sergen Yalçın, criticised the new rulings as unreasonable and ill-thought out this week, and said that the academy facilities were insufficient at Turkish clubs and needed greater investment. 

"They think that young players will catch up by bringing this rule in. But you need the facilities for this first," he said. "First go and visit the facilities of Ajax [a Dutch team famous for developing talent], then come and visit the facilities of the 18 [Super League] clubs. See if they look alike." 

He asked what will happen when clubs are obliged to field two players from their academy if such players are not available or ready by that point, and whether that means clubs would have to take to the pitch with nine players. "This is an incredibly unreasonable decision. Whoever decided it should sit down and think again," he said.

Hamza Hamzaoğlu, the technical director of Ankara-based Super League club Gençlerbirliği, also criticised the new rules and said he was against limitations. "We do something every year. We don't like to think first and then act," he said on Saturday.

"The problem here is that both the administrations and the technical staff use the club facilities very badly, it is not about foreign restrictions," he added.

Despite the development of some excellent Turkish players over the past few seasons and a relatively strong national side at the moment, it is true that Turkey has long grossly underperformed in developing talented footballers for a football-mad country of over 80 million people.

Rory Smith, writing in the New York Times this week, painted a bleak picture of the Turkish Super League as being in decline, hobbled by debt, and mired in angry conspiracy theories. The piece reveals some of the dysfunctional structural issues that could explain why major Turkish teams fail to invest in their youth academies and develop young players in sufficiently high numbers.

As Smith notes, even before the COVID-19 coronavirus struck, Super League teams were already in some $2.6 billion in debt. The financial situation is unsustainable, and the league would be bankrupt without the support of the government to restructure and defer debts, and leverage reluctant sponsorship into the game. 

Much of this debt has been racked up over many years on the transfer fees and salaries of ageing, over-paid foreign players. The Super League has the oldest average age out of 31 European leagues, according to the CIES Football Observatory.

The overwhelming majority of Turkish clubs are member-based associations where club presidents have to win elections every two to three years. Smith said that this system is democratic in theory, but “the election model - combined with the possible political capital to be made out of running a successful team - has another impact. Presidents are encouraged to think short-term, the only way of keeping their post for another few years, to maintain the powerful position they have acquired”.

There is no personal risk or little accountability that stops them spending and taking on debts in the club’s name, and the system incentivises them buying big stars for short-term success at the expense of the longer-term, patient, strategic planning and attention that youth infrastructures require. 

This suggests that promoting youth development is less about imposing arbitrary limits on foreigners and more about tapping into the potential in Turkey over the medium-to long term through developing a coherent strategy, changing the structure of the Turkish football, and removing its incentives towards short-termism.  

Hamit Altıntop, the former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid star who now works for the TFF, told Smith that the long-term planning required for youth development also includes training a new breed of coaches and paying them properly, as many Turkish youth coaches are paid little more than the minimum wage.

“Clubs have to understand that if you don’t have money, you have to work, and you have to take your time,” he said. “The way to change it is the right education for youth coaches, and then to trust in our own boys," he told Smith.