Istanbul (AFP) – Istanbul Basaksehir’s home stadium is sometimes only a quarter full, they have yet to win a trophy and until a few years ago were floundering in the lower ranks of Turkish football.
But now the team with an unpronounceable name for non-native speakers are major contenders to be Turkish champions and upend the traditional dominance of the three Istanbul giants of Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray.
For their critics, Basaksehir are an artificial invention, owing their success to political support with none of the heritage or culture of the other history-laden sides.
But their success is indisputable.
After finishing runners-up last season Basaksehir remain in contention for the Super Lig title with a team boasting international names like Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor.
No Istanbul side other than Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray have ever won the Super Lig since it was created in 1959. Outside the big three, the only other winners have been Trabzonspor (six times) and Bursaspor (once).
“Basaksehir have put themselves forward and are now one of the great clubs,” said Burak Bilgili, head of the Basaksehir 1453 supporters club.
“Now there are four great clubs in Istanbul,” he told AFP.
Basaksehir are “a club growing in power,” said French-born Turkish striker Mevlut Erdinc, who joined them last summer. “We want to be among the best.”
– ‘Extraordinary situation’ –
The rise of Basaksehir to this level, in some ways, reads like a fairytale.
They were set up in 1990 and played under the unwieldy full name of the Istanbul municipality as Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor (IBB), something of a tongue twister for foreigners.
They won promotion to the Super Lig in 2007 but were then relegated in 2014 and appeared at risk of being liquidated.
But then their fortunes changed dramatically when they were bought by a consortium of businessmen reputedly close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The result of the acquisition was a makeover for the club, and a move to the new high-rise Istanbul suburb of Basaksehir, taking the new name.
A new 17,000 capacity stadium was built, named after the legendary Turkish former player and manager Fatih Terim who ironically manages league rivals Galatasaray.
Erdogan blessed the club’s new look when in July 2014 he donned Basaksehir colours to play in a charity game at the new stadium in which he scored an improbable three goals in just 15 minutes.
The year 2014 also saw IBB’s former manager Abdullah Avci return from a stint as national coach to lead the reborn side. Unusual in the hurly-burly of Turkish football, he has remained in his post ever since.
In 2015 and 2016 the club finished fourth and enjoyed its first taste of European competition. Now, they are up there with the leaders.
“We are competing against clubs that are 100 years old. It’s an extraordinary situation,” said Avci.
Top international players have made their way to Basaksehir and the side now boasts the likes of French former Arsenal and Manchester City star Clichy and Togo striker Adebayor who played for a host of English clubs.
The club also scored a major coup by securing the services of Turkey’s best-known player Arda Turan on a loan deal from Barcelona.
And their eye for local talent was underlined when in 2016 they picked up the then unknown Turkish winger Cengiz Under. After one hugely successful season, he was then sold to Roma in a deal worth 15 million euros ($18 million).
– ‘No empty stands’ –
But sceptics point to the patchy attendances for home matches, which rarely rise above 5,000, and a lack of passion compared to the intensity of support at the other big Istanbul clubs.
Most controversially, the club is regarded by rival fans as a government side which would have got nowhere without Erdogan’s support.
The club’s chairman Goksel Gumusdag is married to the niece of Erdogan’s wife Emine and seen as close to the Turkish president.
“Two men are behind this (Basaksehir) miracle. Manager Abdullah Avci and chairman Goksel Gumusdag,” said Turkish football writer Bagis Erten.
On a recent visit to Basaksehir, Erdogan said that young fans of the of the team “needed to fill the stands”, adding: “If I come to a game, I don’t want to see the stands empty.”
And a critical defeat by Galatasaray last month pleased not just fans of the rival team but also opponents of Erdogan who could not resist expressing schadenfreude.
“Galatasaray 2 Recep Tayyip Erdogan 0,” tweeted Meral Aksener, who heads the nationalist Iyi (Good) Party and is standing against Erdogan in presidential elections.
But Bilgili sweeps away the criticism with anger.
“We began hearing this when Basaksehir started playing for the title, getting familiar with the top and threatening the big clubs,” he said.
“Let them continue to criticise us. In the end, we will be league champions,” he said.