BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Every year in Turkey the Super Lig is won by one of a small select of the country’s main football institutions, namely the Istanbul giants Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray.
Indeed, aside from a rare break from the norm in 2010 when provincial outfit Bursaspor broke the trio’s stranglehold on the title, it has always been about the so-called Big Three, with Galatasaray – formed in 1905 and the country’s first ever winners on the continental stage (winning the UEFA Cup in 1999/00) – currently leading the all-time Roll of Honour with 20 domestic titles, the first of which they won in the national league’s inaugural season, 1959 (before then regional leagues were played off throughout the country).
Fenerbahce, who are Gala’s greatest and most despised eternal rivals, are hot on the so-called CimBom’s coat-tails with 19 titles while Besiktas, the reigning champions, can boast of 14 league triumphs.
Otherwise, the only other club to upset the apple cart in Turkey has been Trabzonspor, which is a much younger club than the Istanbul Big Three; formed only in the late sixties on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey. They managed to win the title in their inaugural year in the Super Lig (1975) and since then a further five titles. But in more recent years, Trabzonspor’s status as a genuine threat to the Big Three has subsided and it’s certainly the Istanbul giants that are most able to spend large sums in the transfer market to attract high-profile international players and managers, even though in recent years a burning desire to stay on top domestically and competitive in Europe has thrown doubt and suspicion on the way in which they operate financially.
Galatasaray, for example, have spent huge sums of money to employ the services of former English Premier League stars like Didier Drogba, Nigel de Jong and Lukas Podolski, as well as the Dutch maestro Wesley Sneijder, while in the not-too-distant past their fans – some of the most vociferous in Europe – have been treated to the playing talents of the great Romanians, Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe ‘Gica’ Popescu, both deemed good enough to play for Barcelona before venturing to Istanbul.
As for Fenerbahce, players like Portuguese winger Nani, striker Robin van Persie and the rugged former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel have joined the ranks, while Besiktas, as well as bringing in plenty of foreign talent, have also been managed by the Croatian Slaven Bilic (now of West Ham United).
Okay, people can argue that many of these players arrive to Istanbul when passed their best days. And they would have a fair point in some cases. Nonetheless, they all made a fairly positive impression in Turkey by helping their respective teams to, at the very least, sustain their high level of prestige and aura of near invincibility in their homeland. Because generally, most Turkish people see the Big Three in this way, as utterly invincible.
And yet, a massive shock could occur in the current season.
For, as in England last season when Leicester City heroically upset the natural order to lift a first ever top-flight title, little known Basaksehir (who like Kasimpasa are the real underdogs in Istanbul) are ahead of the posse in the 2016/17 Super Lig and being talked about as serious candidates to take the title.
Having finished in fourth place in the last two seasons, after promotion in 2013/14, Basaksehir have already beaten both Fenerbahce and Galatasaray this season (and drawn against Besiktas), leading many European observers to compare their wonderful season to date with Leicester’s remarkable story in 2015/16.
Indeed, there are quite a few similarities between the two dark horses – apart from the fact that neither Leicester or Basaksehir have any previous for winning major domestic honours.
Because as much as Leicester’s surprise success was built on a tight defence and deadliness on the counter-attack, Basaksehir’s ongoing title tilt is seen in very much the same light – although their manager Abdullah Avci can get somewhat irked by accusations that his side play in a defensive way. Instead, he argues that Basaksehir’s cohesion and incisiveness in transition sets them apart from others and leads to at least a handful of scoring chances in each game. He is correct in his analysis, particularly when you see the likes of bargain-basement signing Cengiz Under – a cheap £600,000 acquisition from lowly Altinordu – blazing an unstoppable trail down the wing, as Basaksehir lull their opponents in to coming on to them before breaking upfield in unison at the appropriate times.
There can be little arguing that the major strengths in the team are organisation, team work and the type of ruthlessness on the break that epitomised the Leicester champions from last season.
And indeed, despite being twelve years younger than Leicester’s wily Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, Avci had to show Ranieri-style resilience relatively early in a managerial career that’s been attracting plenty of attention lately.
For having led Basaksehir to promotion back in 2007 – after first gaining a reputation as an outstanding youth coach with Galatasaray and the Turkish Under-17 team, whom he led to European glory in 2015 and a fourth place finish at the Under-17 World Cup – Avci was given the opportunity to manage the Turkish senior national team, in 2011.
But it never worked out. And after Turkey failed to qualify for World Cup in 2014, Avci was out of a job.
And having taken a brief sabbatical, a bit like Pep Guardiola once did to recharge his batteries, there was only one place where Avci wanted to return to the fold.
There is no doubt, he has come back an even better manager, dispelling the oft-pedalled notion that you should never go back to a former club, particularly when there’s a chance that you could ruin a previously hard-earned legacy. And, for sure, there is always a chance of that happening.
Yet, it has seemed like Avci was never away, as they now sit proudly at the top of the table with 16 games played; a scenario that nobody could have predicted in pre-season.
That Basaksehir are anywhere near the top of the league is a great story in itself. But the fact that their rise occurs in front of such paltry home attendances, in comparison to the mighty Big Three, makes the feat even more remarkable.
For little Basaksehir, formed in 1990, only have a small and rather un-Turkish like fanbase. For when the 2,000 or so supporters turn-up to the Fatih Terim Stadium, they present as an extremely welcoming and almost self-effacing bunch; sometimes displaying banners that poke fun at themselves for being so few in number, and also wishing more well-known opponents the best of luck for upcoming European matches.
It is, indeed, a far cry from the ‘Welcome to Hell’ approach taken by the Ultras of their title challengers, who often go above and beyond the call of duty to make their stadiums ashostile and unwelcoming as possible.
The positive side to having very few fans, however, is that the club hierarchy and the manager are never under serious pressure.
They get time to carefully build the team – a rarity in the game – and that means they can take their time in the transfer market, for example, and not rush in to deals in a way that the bigger clubs might sometimes feel compelled to do.
It also means that the players can play with a certain amount of freedom, which of course makes them more relaxed to express themselves. Whereas sometimes, the players from Galatasaray and Fenerbahce might feel that their very existence could be under threat with the wrong result.
It all makes for the type of feel-good, almost familial atmosphere that Turkish football usually lacks, which could actually be a key advantage for Basaksehir once they continue their unlikely quest for the title when the second half of the season begins on January 14 (at home against relegation candidates Kayserispor).
Perhaps too, having played the rest of his lengthy career in the spotlight, thoughts of performing without great pressure could have been a reason for the former Turkey, Galatasaray, Inter Milan and Newcastle United midfielder Emre Belozoglu to wind-down his career with Basaksehir – although ‘winding-down’ might not be the appropriate term given Emre’s huge influence in the way the team has performed this season.
Capable still of moments of technical class, Emre has progressed to the position of elder statesman in the side, capable of steering the younger troops through rough times in games and of bringing a calming presence when needed most.
Needless to say, Basaksehir’s hopes for the rest of the season, while not wholly dependant on the 93-time capped international, will be heavily influenced by whether Emre continues avoiding the sort of niggling injuries that often stymied his career, and if he can still find enough fuel in the tank during the latter stages of the campaign. While very much the same can be applied to the side’s other really experienced player, the Bosnia & Herzogovina winger Edin Visca, who averages a goal about every three or four games.
The late stages of the league are, however, some way down the track, as the Turkish League still has 18 games remaining.
Like with Leicester last season, the general assumption is that the Basaksehir bubble will burst any time now, and that they simply don’t have the resources or strength in depth to see the job through.
But in winning the English league, Leicester seem to have given great hope and optimism to clubs in similar positions, showing that on occasion team work and organisation – and a fair sprinkling of skill, to be fair – can triumph against clubs with far deeper pockets and far more famous players.
And judging by the Super Lig table, ahead of match-day 17, Basaksehir have no reason to go in their shell after the mid-season break. At writing, they have a one point lead over second-placed Besiktas with Galatasaray two points further back. Fenerbahce, who entertain Basaksehir in a couple of weeks time, are five points off the leaders.
Naturally, the team will be tested in other ways as the season progresses. For in a competitive title race involving two or three protagonists, mental strength, togetherness and an ability to recover quickly and calmly to setbacks can be as integral as the collective playing ability of teams.
To date though, there are no clear reasons to question Basaksehir on any of the above attributes and, if anything, the position they got themselves in before the break – and their ability to beat a couple of the country’s superpowers – might suggest that they are more than well equipped to withstand any potential setbacks.
Only time will tell, of course, if Basaksehir can ‘do a Leicester’ and make a stand for the lesser man in a land seriously dominated by an elite few for decades.
But maybe there would be something sweet about seeing a club who spent only £1.2million in pre-season triumph against the odds and pick up the trophy ahead of their more decorated Istanbul neighbours.
And that, if it can be achieved, would ensure an eternal place in Turkish football folklore for the likes of Abdullah Avci, Emre and Basaksehir’s much-heralded club president Goksel Gumusdag and his executive director, Mustafa Erogut.