October 22, 2020

In Turkey’s Soccer League, the Super Lig’s Giants Face a Reckoning

ISTANBUL — The fury drew them in their hundreds to the doors of the Ulker Stadium. They pressed up against the barricades, climbed onto each other’s shoulders and chanted for change: for the manager to be fired, for the owner to step aside, for the players to be chased out of town.

Fenerbahce had lost, and someone, anyone, had to pay.

It had not, after all, lost just any game. For the first time this century, Fenerbahce had lost the game known as the Intercontinental Derby on home turf. Galatasaray, its bitter rival from the European side of Istanbul, had come to a simmering Ulker — in the Asian half of the city — and won.

For the fans, it proved one humiliation too far. Dreams of the title had long since disappeared. Now defeat had all but ended Fenerbahce’s dwindling hopes of landing a place in next season’s Champions League. Now their club was drifting into mediocrity. Their fury was rooted not just in disappointment, but fear.

That Fenerbahce was not the only team suffering provided scant solace. Istanbul has three totemic clubs: Galatasaray and Besiktas in Europe, Fenerbahce in Asia. Between them, they account for all but one Turkish championship since 1984. Their fans number in the millions, not just in Istanbul but deep into the country’s interior, too. They are less sports clubs and more vast, unwieldy empires.

But this season, with three games to play, all three Goliaths have fallen by the wayside; most likely, none will even feature in next year’s Champions League. The championship will be won by a David: most likely Istanbul Basaksehir, a team from one of the city’s package-fresh suburbs that has barely a decade of top-flight experience, which could see off its final challenger Trabzonspor — the biggest club from outside Istanbul — as early as Monday.

Fenerbahce was the first to fall away, long before the rage filled the streets outside the Ulker. Besiktas lasted a little longer, until a late equalizer at home to Trabzonspor — the night before the Intercontinental Derby — saw its title challenge fizzle out. Even Galatasaray found that victory in the Intercontinental derby was illusory: It lost ground soon after the Super Lig restarted in June.

On both sides of the Bosporus, the gilded palaces that have held sway over Turkish soccer for a century are falling. Their foundations, though, have been crumbling for some time.

ImageFor Fenerbahce’s fans, a February defeat to Galatasaray was an intolerable indignity in a season full of them.
Credit…Umit Bektas/Reuters

Almost every other league in Europe had stopped, frozen by the coronavirus pandemic, by the time a team of cleaners entered the Turk Telecom Stadium — home of Galatasaray — and started the laborious process of disinfecting every seat, every surface.

Turkey, as late as the middle of March, was planning to play on. The country had started to record its first cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and many players were confiding how uncomfortable they were with the idea of the league’s continuing. No matter, the country’s sports minister declared. The games, that weekend, would go ahead, albeit without fans.

For the richest leagues in Europe, the economic consequences of the pandemic, and the subsequent hiatus and even the games without fans, would be unwelcome. In Turkey, they sat somewhere between unfathomable and existential.

Even before the coronavirus struck, the teams of the Super Lig were already operating with some $2.6 billion in debt. They, and by extension Turkish soccer, could not afford a shutdown.

Most of that debt belongs to Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, as well as Trabzonspor. Much of it relates to unpaid taxes, though the collapse of the lira, the country’s currency, has not helped. All four teams have breached UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations in recent years.

But largely, it is the consequence of years of financial mismanagement, in which Turkey’s major teams bought high and sold low, paying vast salaries in euros to veteran, imported stars. The Super Lig has the oldest average age of 31 European leagues, according to the CIES Football Observatory.

By January, it had become clear that the situation was no longer “sustainable,” as Yildirim Demiroren, the head of the Turkish soccer federation, put it. “The big clubs are, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt,” said Caner Eler, the editor of the sports magazine Socrates.

Credit…Erdem Sahin/EPA, via Shutterstock

Turkey’s banks, though, offered a lifeline: a debt-restructuring deal, in which the country’s banking association would manage each team’s debts, and club finances would be regulated by the federation.

The rescue staved off collapse, but Ali Ozturk, president of Antalyaspor, a mid-table Super Lig club, said it was not a long-term solution. “The system is not healthy,” he said. “Clubs are earning less, and the expenses are more and more. I am not optimistic for the next few years.”

To some extent, the dire financial circumstances of the old aristocrats has served to level the playing field in Turkey, allowing the likes of Basaksehir to thrive. “There are no big and small clubs any more,” said Fatih Terim, the Galatasaray coach and, for the last three decades, the dominant figure in Turkish soccer. “While the gap between European and Turkish clubs has grown bigger, on the contrary side, the Super Lig is getting more balanced.”

But in trying to solve one problem, the intervention of the banks — and by extension, the Turkish state — exacerbated another. “Each financial arrangement for each club is different,” Ozturk explained. “The system is not clear enough, and that creates space for people to be suspicious.”

The thing with conspiracy theories is that it does not always matter if they are true; what matters is if people believe them. There is no shortage of them in Turkish soccer: a million dark whispers of some subtle hand at work, of favorable treatment for a rival, of an outcome foretold.

Some of the ideas are more grounded than others. The theory that Basaksehir — an overnight success, backed by figures with strong links to the A.K.P., the governing party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — has enjoyed some political support in its meteoric rise is hardly far-fetched.

The belief that Trabzonspor winning the championship this year would be expedient for the government sounds more paranoid. It makes little political sense: alienating the millions across the country who identify with one of Istanbul’s big three would seem foolhardy for a politician as calculating, and as keen to harness soccer to his own ends, as Erdogan.

Accuracy does not diminish the effect: The whispers create and sustain an atmosphere of suspicion and outrage in which everyone believes the field has been arranged against them.

It is a climate instinctively stoked by club presidents, always eager to mollify their fans, to guarantee re-election, to explain away their own shortcomings. “You can probably say that is the problem,” said Eler, the magazine editor. “They talk so much that we know all the names of the club presidents.”

Credit…Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Turkey’s clubs are member organizations, electing a president every few years. It is, in theory, a model of democracy that protects the institution from the influence of private interests. Increasingly, though, there is a sense that it no longer works in Turkish soccer’s new reality.

“It would be much easier if individuals or companies could invest,” said Ozturk, a hotelier in the resort town of Antalya who said that he runs the local team to try to “give something back.”

“As it is,” he said, “we cannot get private investors.”

Without that infusion of income, clubs have limited options to pay off mounting debts: cost-cutting, really, is the only choice, one that leads to what Ozturk calls a “negative spiral of quality of play, and then the value of the teams, dropping.”

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.

It is not only an expensive approach, but a deeply flawed one, prioritizing statement signings of older players at vast expense. Eler sees it as a “vicious circle,” in which clubs build teams of loan players and aging stars for this year, and are then saddled with their wages when they are no longer of use.

“Presidents think they have to give gifts to the fans,” said Hamit Altintop, the former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid player who now works for the Turkish soccer federation.

Perhaps more damaging, though, is that the approach discourages long-term planning. “When there is a failure as a soccer team, as a first step, the clubs give up their coach,” Terim said. “That is the easiest way to show them as the cause of failure.”

Emre Utkucan’s journey, he admits, has been unusual. Eight years ago, he was working as a television commentator; his role was, largely, covering games from the rest of the world, particularly Italy and Spain.

One night — as it was explained to Utkucan — Terim was watching a game, and listening to his commentary. Terim admired the way Utkucan saw the game, the way he analyzed players, his depth of knowledge. So he invited him to the club’s training facility.

Not long after, Terim asked Utkucan — a lifelong club member — to join his staff, assigning him to overhaul the way Galatasaray operated in the transfer market. “It was a big move,” Utkucan said. “Inviting a TV commentator, someone in a wheelchair, to be in charge of recruitment and analysis.” Terim got away with it because he is Terim.

Since he joined, Utkucan has worked with seven managers and four presidents. He has stayed, though, building up his team of international scouts, expanding his personal network, hiring his own team of analysts — his “nerds,” as he calls them.

In a country, and a league, where “everything changes” all of the time, Utkucan is an outlier. He describes himself as Galatasaray’s “black box,” a kind of repository of institutional knowledge. He is almost one of a kind in Turkey, a team executive impervious to the buffeting political tides that roil the rest of the clubs.

Credit…Tolga Bozoglu/EPA, via Shutterstock

It is no surprise, he said, that in his eight years at Galatasaray, it has won four league titles and four Turkish cups. He does not believe it is down to any special talent; it is just hard work and consistency. “Organizational stability is a huge luxury,” he said.

It is that trait that has been sorely lacking across Turkish soccer, and it is the one thing that all of those who want it to recover and to improve cite as the key absence. Terim is adamant that a “healthy solution” to the country’s problems can only be found with “consistent, long-term planning.” Altintop wants clubs to be “more constant, more disciplined.”

Such an approach is especially crucial in the field of youth development. For a country with a population of 80 million, Turkey lags alarmingly behind other European nations in terms of producing its own stars: a surprisingly large percentage of the national team has long come, like Altintop, from Germany’s second- and third-generation Turkish community.

“We have great potential,” Altintop said. “But we don’t have the right system. The concentration is on first teams and results. We forget to give youth teams and players the details they need.”

The priority, he said, must be not only in training a new breed of coaches, but paying them properly: many Turkish youth coaches are paid little more than minimum wage. Even Altintop, tasked by the federation with transforming a whole soccer culture, does it on a voluntary basis.

“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.”

Like Altintop, Terim hopes that Turkey’s clubs will see the current financial crisis as a chance to reset. He sees no other option; the days of lavishing money on veterans and mercenaries, of thinking only of next week, of hoping to win elections through largess, must end. “This situation will continue, unless there are correct, and permanent, solutions,” Terim said.

Outside the Ulker Stadium, hours after the Galatasaray defeat and long after most fans have left, a solitary Fenerbahce fan stood on the street, still screaming into the night, still demanding a different sort of change. Two days later, he got his wish. Fenerbahce fired its coach.