Indebted for their mismanagement and the lyre crisis, the big clubs of Turkish football go through their worst moment in decades, and the Turkish Super League is dominated by clubs unknown to most European soccer fans. Therefore this may be the season of Medipol Basaksehir, who leads the table despite being a team with almost no followers and built practically out of nothing in recent years.
Basaksehir began to rise in 1995 on the outskirts of Istanbul. The then mayor of the Turkish megalopolis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wanted to turn it into a model neighborhood for the most conservative population in the country, the same one that had boosted it to the City Council and would later take it to the Government and the Presidency of the Republic. A peaceful city-garden of closed urbanizations where to live according to the most traditional values and the norms of decorum of Islam without being bothered by those lay people who drink alcohol and wear tight clothes. "The most important reason for those who buy a flat in Basaksehir is the feeling of belonging to a place that has a conservative identity and the will to create a community around these religious values," writes scholar Selin Gürgün in his thesis on Basaksehir. The names of its streets make reference to politicians, poets and intellectuals of strong Islamic tradition, most of the women are veiled and in the parks it is forbidden to walk dogs and ride a bicycle.
But, in addition, the Basaksehir project had to serve to open to the urbanization and new businesses the vacant lots of the outskirts of Istanbul, solidifying the alliance between Islamist politicians and builders that has cemented the power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan The district of Basaksehir has expanded and now houses almost 400,000 inhabitants, which will be more in the future based on the cranes that build new blocks of flats everywhere.
The destinations of the neighborhood and the football team were finally intertwined in 2014. Until then, the club was called Municipal of Istanbul and presided over, since 2006, Göksel Gümusdag, AKP councilor and married to a niece of Erdogan's wife. Gümusdag had managed to take Basaksehir to the Turkish Football First Division, but his plans went further. In 2014, the team was privatized – it was acquired by a group of companies close to the government at a price of 2.5 million euros – and it was renamed Istanbul Basaksehir. The Islamist model neighborhood already had a team to animate. He was built a modern stadium with capacity for 17,000 spectators and was opened in style: it coincided with the final straight of the elections that would make Erdogan the twelfth president of the Republic after three terms as prime minister. The president himself – who in his youth played in amateur leagues – showed off on the pitch scoring three goals. Since that inaugural match, the number 12 worn by the president has been removed. No player can use it.
The club then undertook an aggressive policy of signings that has led him to sign big names in European leagues such as Adebayor, Clichy, Robinho or Arda Turan. And he climbed to the highest positions of the table, which has not been detached: has been a two-time Cup finalist and in the last four seasons has always finished in the top four.
Patrick Keddie, journalist and author of the book The Passion, about football and politics in Turkey, writes that the fact of being a private company and not having partners – and therefore less pressure for short-term results – allows the management of Basaksehir better planning. The club has invested in grassroots football and in finding hidden stars of Turkish football that can then make a profit, like Cengiz Ünder, who acquired 500,000 euros from a modest club and sold to Roma for 15 million euros.
Despite this, the club does not arouse great sympathy among Turkish fans, who see it as a political project. Not in vain, its colors orange, blue and white are the same as those of the ruling party. Just a few hundred fans come to cheer for the Basaksehir: they are the members of the 1453 peña, a name that refers to the date of the Ottoman conquest of Costantinopla, a fetish for the Turkish nationalists and Islamists. "How can the Superliga win a team without followers?" Asked a local journalist. The average entrance of the Fatih Terim stadium is 2,464 and sometimes even the rival fans outnumber the locals, something that enervates the Turkish president. "The stands of the Basaksehir must be filled," Erdogan demanded at a meeting of his party: "As long as we are not present in this field, we will also be politically weak."
The main question is where does the money come from to convert a third-class club into a clear contender for the title when the revenue for the tickets "does not even come to pay for the stadium's electricity," according to the newspaper Cumhuriyet. The salary of the staff – estimated at 40 million euros per year – is not available to any team. The club has not answered EL PAÍS questions. In the absence of more information, the key to its financing seems to be the important network of companies with which it has signed sponsorship agreements. Some of them are public (Turkish Airlines, the Ziraat bank or the municipal breadmaker of Istanbul) and others have juicy contracts with the state administrations: for example, the consortium that has built the third airport in Istanbul or the construction company Makro, with extensive works in Basaksehir and which pays the salary of four million euros per year plus Arda Turan premiums, ceded by FC Barcelona until 2020.
The stage of Basaksehir stadium constitutes the agora of current Turkish football and the best way to connect commercially with the Administration. In addition to the family relationship that unites the president of the entity and Erdogan, another of the directors of the club is the entrepreneur and current Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Ersoy, who at the meetings of the Government will undoubtedly discuss the team with the owner of Health, Fahrettin Koca, since he is the founder of the private health consortium Medipol, the main sponsor of Basaksehir.
Several councilors of Istanbul, the director of the municipal works company, the director of the municipal tourism and catering company, construction, mining and tourism entrepreneurs sit on the club's board of directors, and many have joint ventures . For example, Kagan Sahin, councilor of the AKP and whose family businesses have won some thirty municipal public competitions, several of them tendered by Bel-Tur, company of the Metropolitan City Hall of Istanbul whose director is Ahmet Ketenci, yes, also a director of the Basaksehir and also related to the Erdogan: he is the brother-in-law of one of the sons of the President of Turkey.