July 2014. A large crowd has gathered to witness the grand opening of the Fatih Terim Stadium, the new home of the Turkish Süper Lig’s newest club, Istanbul Başakşehir. For all the pomp and circumstance and despite the presence of the stadium’s eponym (national team manager, Fatih Terim) all eyes are drawn to the home side’s centre-forward.

He lacks a bit of mobility but Başakşehir’s vastly-experienced number 12 helps himself to a hat-trick as they run out 9-4 victors; his performance eulogised in the Turkish press with the Daily Sabah comparing him to a mixture of Franz Beckenbauer and Lionel Messi.

High praise indeed, but nothing that came as a surprise to those familiar with Daily Sabah’s pro-government stance and their resultant adoration of the Turkish ruler. The player taking home the match ball that night? The incumbent Prime Minister, and soon to be twelfth President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Football had always been a part of Erdoğan’s identity, from his playing days for local team Kasımpaşa (who now play at the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium) to his political career. In a country with such a fanatical obsession with the sport his footballing background allowed him to cultivate a ‘man of the people’ persona.

His road to power began with the staunchly Islamic ‘Welfare Party’ in the 1980s, climbing their ranks before being elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. In 2001, after a brief stint in prison for “incitement to violence and religious or racial hatred”, Erdoğan returned to the political fray to form the ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP).

Positioning themselves as the choice for the pro-business, religiously conservative who felt underrepresented in secular society, Erdoğan’s party were victorious in the 2003 general election and as Prime Minister, he set about reimagining Turkey. The nation’s favourite sport was a big part of that.

Erdogan hat-trick

He oversaw the commercialisation of Turkish football, introducing electronic advertising hoardings; increasing the merchandising of their biggest clubs; and investing heavily in facilities. Turkey became UEFA’s leading builder of new stadia as 18 elite stadiums were built between 2007 and 2015, part of the country’s construction boom.

One such project was the Fatih Terim Stadium, the contract for which was awarded to the Kalyon Group; owned by Cemal Kalyoncu, a close personal friend of Erdoğan’s. It was built in the Başakşehir district of Istanbul, a newly-built satellite town that was created during Erdoğan’s time as mayor. Its population of just over 400,000 is a hotbed of AKP support, a result of the area’s economic growth and Islamic way of life.

After initially enjoying the popularity that it brought, Erdoğan’s relationship with the game began to sour during his third term as Prime Minister with Turkey’s influential supporter groups turning against him. In 2011 he faced his first large-scale public booing at the opening of Galatasaray’s new stadium.

Two years later came a greater challenge to Erdoğan’s rule as the 2013 Gezi Park protests shone a light on his authoritarian policies. Prominent amongst the protesters were Beşiktaş’ Carsi ultras group who rejected Erdoğan’s clampdown on civil liberty, and who formed a historic alliance with supporters of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe in the face of police brutality. Erdoğan’s heartland of the Istanbul football scene was turning against him.

Fortunately for the then-Prime Minister, an opportunity arose to regain his stake in Turkish football while realigning himself with his political supporters. İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor were formed in 1990 as a municipal multi-sports club with a football team that generally flitted around the second tier of Turkish football without garnering much success or support.

In a city home to the Big Three (Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe) who account for around 80% of the country’s supportership, it was decided that İBB were little more than a drain on the city’s budget and the decision was made to disband the team in 2014.

However the club had just been promoted to the Süper Lig, Turkey’s top flight, and the Turkish Football Federation were reluctant to see İBB’s place go unused. Recognising it as a chance to regain some influence on Turkish society, a deal was struck for the Ministry of Youth and Sport to take over ownership of the club for just £4.6million.

If £4.6million sounds pretty cheap for a top-flight club in a capital city; that’s because it is, and suspicions of Erdoğan’s involvement quickly grew amongst rival fans. The club was relocated to the predominantly AKP-supporting Başakşehir district, where it could be comfortably housed in the Erdoğan-built Fatih Terim Stadium.

It was there that the President bagged a hat-trick on the opening night, wearing the newly-enshrined club colours of orange, blue and white that bare remarkable resemblance to the AKP’s own colours. Continuing the theme, the club was to be run by Göksel Gümüşdağ, a member of the AKP and husband of Erdoğan’s niece.

Just months after the new club was established, Erdoğan was elected President of Turkey and allegations of presidential influence began to surround the club’s sponsorship arrangements. Critics of the regime and the club suggested that a particularly generous donation to the Başakşehir piggy bank could help keep corporations in Erdoğan’s good books.

Turkish Airlines and Vodafone were particularly visible early sponsors and the club was renamed Medipol Başakşehir FK, due to a sponsorship deal with the Medipol health company. Their founder, Fahrettin Koca, happens to have been President Erdoğan’s personal doctor and in 2018 became Turkey’s Minister for Health.

With funding secured, Başakşehir went on a spending spree that usurped even the Big Three’s predilection for aging global stars. Emmanuel Adebayor, Gaël Clichy, Robinho, Demba Ba, Gökhan Inler, Martin Škrtel, Emre Belözoğlu and former national team captain Arda Turan have all appeared in the club’s five years lifespan.

This may seem like par for the course for the Süper Lig, which is generally fairly cluttered with yesterday’s superstars looking to pick up a healthy tan and an even healthier paycheck, but things have changed. We are now in a post-Financial Fair Play world and even Turkey’s most successful clubs are struggling to stay in the black.

Beşiktaş and Bursaspor were denied a UEFA license for the 2012-13 European season due to their failure to comply with FFP. In 2015, Turkish champions Galatasaray faced a similar punishment with a year-long ban from European competition and were ordered to reduce their wage bill. Fenerbahçe, too, have had to make cutbacks with Dirk Kuyt, Nani and Robin van Persie offloaded to ensure that the club stayed afloat.

Fatih Terim Stadium

Başakşehir have had no such issues and while the signings of Arda Turan and Emre Belözoğlu were aided by their own close relationships with Erdoğan (the president was a witness for Turan’s marriage), some question how this young club with an average attendance of around 4,000 funds its spending.

Club President, Göksel Gümüşdağ, took offence to such questioning and in January 2019 gave a pie chart-backed presentation of the clubs finances, claiming that the majority of the clubs income comes from TV rights and transfer profit. “Başakşehir’s success isn’t covered up or hidden”, he stated. “We are a model club in Turkey.”

Aside from their murky financial dealings, it should be said that Başakşehir have found innovative new ways to make their money go further than their competitors; central to which is their uniquely pragmatic structure.

Turkey’s traditional footballing powers rely on a ‘foundation club’ model in which thousands of members, mostly just regular fans, own the club and elect the president. While refreshingly democratic it is also alarmingly volatile with immediate success and marque signings demanded. When presidential terms are typically only three years, why invest in youth when you could just sign an ageing Didier Drogba?

Başakşehir are different and need to make no concessions to immediacy. In the first few seasons their ambitious young coach, Abdullah Avcı, was able to build his team unaffected by supporters’ expectations. He signed relatively cheap, home-grown players like Alexandru Epureanu, Edin Višća, Mahmut Tekdemir, and Volkan Babacan, who all became regular starters and help to offset the enormous wages of their big-money signings. Much like Real Madrid’s Zidanes y Pavones policy from their first Galactico era, it has allowed a balance to be kept; vital with FFP peering over the books.

With a talented coach and a playing staff that mixed experience and promise, the infant club’s first season in the Turkish top flight ended with a highly commendable fourth-placed finish. Subsequent finishes of fourth, second and third were followed by a real title challenge in 2018/19 as they lead for much of the season before being pipped to the league by Galatasaray.

Despite their current lack of silverware, Turkish sports columnist, Begis Erten, believes that the project is working: “For the first time, with Başakşehir the government has managed to create a football success story”. In a country so football-obsessed, success for Istanbul Başakşehir offers validation for the Erdoğan and his supporters.

It’s a case of Us against Them; defeating the opposition whether in the streets or on the pitch. Berk Ensen, assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, sees it as a method of control for politicians like Erdoğan: “Populist leaders are always interested in following, influencing, and, if they can, controlling any sector that resonates with the masses… Since football is the most popular sport in Turkey, it is not surprising that the AKP and Erdoğan want to get involved.”

But despite their impressive results, Istanbul Başakşehir have yet to acquire the support that Erdoğan would have wanted. Their crowds remain that of an English League Two side; the second-lowest in the league and a paltry 23 percent of their stadium’s capacity. Elbowing their way past the dominant triumvirate was never going to be easy, but, even with commendable performances on the pitch, Başakşehir are still little more than a dot on the horizon in the sprawling landscape of Turkish football fandom.

For now, they are falling slightly short of truly representing Başakşehir; of representing its people and its traditions. But they are getting there. The management of their resources has been excellent and should serve as a wake-up call to the Big Three that their dominance is not guaranteed. Başakşehir may not have reached to top just yet, but they have got pretty far in five years.

Arda Turan

“It’s happened a bit more quickly than we expected,” Başakşehir board member, Mustafa Erogut told the Observer. “But when we have this momentum, we just want to keep it up… expectations have changed and, from being underdogs, we’re now one of the four title favourites.” With such an impressive start to life, a maiden title isn’t far away, a victory that could cement their stake in Turkish football for good.

While Erdoğan’s involvement in this nascent club seems distasteful from the outside, governmental involvement is now a part of football. Whether that be through Qatar’s politicised hosting of the 2022 World Cup, the UAE’s ownership of Manchester City or Russia-owned Gazprom’s sponsorship of Schalke; the game is riddled with ulterior motives.

Istanbul Başakşehir may have started as a calculated ploy to rebuild Erdoğan’s base but there’s no reason to think that is all they are or all they can be. They have shown the Big Three that there is another way to do things and their fanbase is growing. Their exciting imports have combined with home-grown talent to build a very good team that overachieves as much as it is underappreciated.

Maybe that should be the aim for Istanbul Başakşehir, to earn the right to be appreciated as a football club. Because for all the political maneuvering, dubious book-keeping and aspirational purchasing, that’s all they are: a football team for people who didn’t have one.