The Turkish football league has been dominated by three major Istanbul teams for decades.
But in a country where political divisions are as deep as the love of football, the sudden rise of an upstart club to the top of the league table is the story on everyone’s lips – not least because of the club’s links to the government.
The club in question is Basaksehir, another Istanbul team, shaking the monopoly on trophies that historical giants Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas had always enjoyed – until now.
So what is behind Basaksehir’s rapid ascent? Is it a story of sporting success, or as many of President Erdogan’s opponents claim, a political attempt to influence the nation’s most popular game?
To find an answer, I first went to see Basaksehir fans.
Small fan base
Only a few hundred were cheering in the stands of Basaksehir football club, the day they played against Sivasspor in December.
They lost 1-0 – their only home defeat of the first half of the season.
There were hardly any tears, and nobody looked particularly disappointed. The reaction to the loss stood in stark contrast to what Turkey’s passionate football fans are best known for.
Basaksehir’s existence initially goes back to 1990 when it was called IBB in Turkish, short for “Sport Club of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality” and owned by Istanbul’s municipal government.
Then in 2014, a group of businessmen close to the governing AK party of President Erdogan bought the club, and gave it a new name, Basaksehir.
‘A new model for success’
Rival teams are quick to point out that their fan base is very small, so the club lacks strong ties to the community it represents, a district of Istanbul.
But its admirers say there is a lot to learn from the club, which exemplifies ‘a new success-driven Turkish football model’.
They may not have much support, but their sponsorship deals are certainly lucrative.
And it’s exactly these deals which are causing controversy in Turkey.
Critics claim the sponsorship deals are the result of the club’s close relationship with President Erdogan and his associates.
The president of the club, Goksel Gumusdag, is married to the niece of the Turkish First Lady, Emine Erdogan.
The BBC wanted to speak to Basaksehir officials over the alleged role of the government in the club’s management, but the club refused to give an interview.
Basaksehir hosts some familiar faces from Europe’s top clubs, including Emmanuel Adebayor and Gaël Clichy – both formerly of Arsenal – and ex-Newcastle player Emre Belozoglu, as well as former Barcelona midfielder Arda Turan. The club has recently signed Robinho.
The new club is named after one of Istanbul’s modern suburbs, where support for President Erdogan and his AKP government is huge.
“The district of Basaksehir was created by our president. The community and the region are beautiful,” says Mustafa Akdolu, a Basaksehir super-fan who leads the chants at the stadium, as he points out concrete high rises lined up next to each other.
“But the club or the fan base have nothing to do with the president; we have members from all different political parties,” he adds.
This district is a new home for Mustafa too. He moved seven years ago and he’s been a Basaksehir fan for the past three years. He says he did not support any other team before.
Some see this neighbourhood where many residents are conservative Muslims as a symbol of Erdogan’s vision of a new Turkey, just like the football club itself.
When the club opened its gigantic new stadium in July 2014, President Erdogan, a former football player himself, was among those on the pitch in Basaksehir’s orange shirt – he even scored three goals in an exhibition game.
This was a sign of support and encouragement for the new journey the club was just about to begin.
Four years later, in April 2018, just before the presidential elections, Erdogan addressed his supporters in the district.
And he was vocal in showing his disappointment over the empty stands, which can host close to 18,000 fans.
“We want Basaksehir to succeed in politics just as it does in football,” said President Erdogan, addressing Basaksehir residents.
“As long as you don’t fill the stands, my question mark will remain,” he continued.
A clear call to the club’s supporters, but it had little resonance in the district.
“In the past, politicians had to make efforts to cosy up to football, whereas this time it looks like football has been deployed right by their side,” says Bagis Erten, football writer.
“Political power wants to regenerate its ideology on all platforms. Culture, daily life, urbanisation, etc.
“When they attempt to do the same in football with the aim of presenting their alternative, we see the end result as a club that purports to be a neighbourhood team without being able to create real bonds with the district, therefore failing to fill the stands.
“One of my major concerns has been about the kind of football which is success-driven, and once again it is being dished up on the football scene by Basaksehir. They just buy footballers, ignore the youth, and their only objective seems to be to win the championship – nothing else. This is not an ‘alternative’ model in my eyes; it is repeating the same old problems.
“People have questions about the way they are funded, but Basaksehir is extremely secretive on these matters, with no desire to address the public.”
When I was watching Basaksehir play against Sivasspor in a home game in their stands, the middle-aged fan sitting next to me turned out to be a Besiktas fan.
He was just there to ‘watch football, not to support’.
Basaksehir is not short of good football on the pitch – the club is leading the league halfway through the season, so a championship is a distinct possibility.
But how far can it challenge Turkey’s football hierarchy, if the stands are empty?
Mustafa is determined to celebrate a trophy at the end the season.
He agrees the fan base it not huge, but he is not too bothered. “It’s not the many that will win,” he says, “but the believers.”