Political football: ‘pro-government’ club shakes up Turkish league
High-flying Basaksehir is run by directors with close links to Erdogan’s ruling party
Murat Senturk sings the praises of Basaksehir football club as he queues for tickets ahead of a crunch match against championship rivals.
“The stadium is nice. It’s easy to get here. The tickets are cheap. They have good players and a good manager,” says the 37-year-old, who has come to watch Basaksehir play Besiktas, one of Istanbul’s top sides. There is just one problem: both Mr Senturk and a friend accompanying him are fans of Galatasaray, Turkey’s most famous team. “We’re here as football lovers,” Mr Senturk explains.
Basaksehir is an upstart club with a small fan base. But it has shaken up the Turkish football establishment as it has become the most successful attempt yet by supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a “pro-government” club.
During his 15 years in power, Mr Erdogan has taken on the old establishment and worked to mould the fabric of society and state in the image of his Justice and Development party (AKP). He has created a new elite of wealthy conservative businessmen, brought the media to heel and encouraged the infusion of religion into a previously staunchly secular state. Basaksehir is the sporting example.
It is run by a group of directors with close links to the AKP who bought an ailing club run by Istanbul municipality. Four years later, the club sits in second place in Turkey’s Super Lig, challenging for the title against the “Big Three” Istanbul teams of Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce. If they win the league, Basaksehir would be only the sixth side to be crowned champions since its inception in 1959.
“For the first time, with Basaksehir the government has managed to create a football success story,” says Bagis Erten, a sports columnist.
As a former semi-professional footballer, Mr Erdogan understands the importance of football in Turkey, where millions are obsessed by the game. The “Big Three” Istanbul teams and their fans have been troublesome for him in the past. Football ultras played a central role in anti-government protests that erupted in 2013. During a referendum campaign on plans to enhance the president’s powers last year, fans took to chanting the “Izmir march”, a song seen as an anthem of secular values.
Basaksehir, which is named after the sprawling outer district of Istanbul, is considered an attempt by the ruling party to change that, says Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara. “Populist leaders are always interested in following, influencing, and, if they can, controlling any sector that resonates with the masses,” he says. “Since football is the most popular sport in Turkey, it is not surprising that the AKP and Erdogan want to get involved.”
The AKP influence is not obvious in the stands, other than seats that match the party’s orange, white and blue colours.
The pre-match display of militarism featuring images of fighter jets striking targets and child mascots dressed as Ottoman soldiers is a reflection of the nationalist tide that has swept the country since the launch of a Turkish military operation in Syria two months ago. Also noticeable is the brief chant of “God is great” from a hardcore of 500 Basaksehir fans, a slogan rarely heard on the terraces of the Big Three.
But it is behind the scenes that the links to the ruling party become more apparent. The club’s chairman, Goksel Gumusdag, has claimed that reports of close ties to the government are “nonsense.” But he is an AKP local official who is related by marriage to Mr Erdogan. The president donned the team’s luminous orange strip for a charity match to mark the opening of its stadium in 2014. The club’s main sponsors are firms with close ties to the ruling party.
Critics say that the club has only done well thanks to these political overlaps. “They succeeded because the government supports the club,” says one Galatasaray fan who has brought his young son to watch the game. But others say that is unfair.
They put the team’s rapid ascent down to the hard work and creative style of their manager, Abdullah Avci. He commands a strong squad that includes Arda Turan, the most successful Turkish footballer of his generation. The team also have a clutch of foreign stars, albeit ones in the twilight of their careers, including former Arsenal and Manchester City players Emmanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy.
But despite their growing success — they beat Besiktas earlier this month despite going down to 10 men — the team must make do for now with playing in a half-empty stadium. The average attendance is just 5,500.
The project serves as a reminder of the limits of Mr Erdogan’s attempts to engineer society from the top. Football allegiances in Turkey are traditionally passed down through generations, not something that can be changed on a whim. It is telling that one of the rare “real” Basaksehir fans in the stands, a university student called Burak, says that he is new to football and has no family team.
Mr Erten says that the club management has ambitions over the longer term to build its supporter base but it is not their immediate priority. “They want to change it,” he says.