When a star-studded Arsenal side succumbed to a surprising penalty kick shoot-outs defeat to an unfancied opponent in the name of Galatasaray, not many people in England or around Europe knew much about the Turkish league. ‘Gala’ were, after all, the first ever Turkish side to appear in a European final; they would go on to win the UEFA Super Cup three months later at the expense of a majestic Real Madrid boasting the likes of Raul, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos.
‘Cimbom’ as they are commonly known to their fans started that season as the sole representative of Turkish football in the Champions League, starting at the qualifying rounds despite winning the domestic league the previous season. Such was the low ranking of the ‘1.Lig’, as it was called then, among the European competitions. Since then, the Turkish league had come long way to its current status as the 7th best league in Europe in terms of UEFA Coefficients, represented by a team in the Champions League group stage and another in the qualifying rounds in addition to 3 teams in the Europa League.
The impact of Turkey’s booming economy over the same period on the country’s football cannot be overstated. At the turn of the century, Turkey had an annual per capita income of just over $3,500; comparable in today’s income levels to India or Congo. By the end of 2012, a decade after the recently elected President Erdogan’s ruling AK party first ascended to power, the country’s economy has more than quadrupled in size to an impressive $14,000 per capita. This unrivalled economic growth was reflected on the country’s football clubs, two Istanbul clubs, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce are the only two clubs from outside the Top 5 leagues among the 20 richest clubs in Europe as per Deloitte. The two teams have regularly made it into the latter stages of the Champions League and Europa League in recent seasons and continue to draw players with an increasingly high profile from across the continent, Galatasaray’s capture of a peaking Wesley Sneijder and an on demand Didier Drogba from Inter and Chelsea respectively in addition to Fenerbahce’s acquisition of Liverpool duo Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt in the past couple of years were all signs of increasing competitiveness with Europe’s top clubs in the transfer market. A trend that continues this season – Fenerbahce landing Brazilian playmaker Diego from Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid & Besiktas acquiring the services of Demba Ba from Chelsea.
When the Turkish league was created in 1959, it was composed of 16 teams from the three largest cities in Turkey; Istanbul, Izmir and the capital Ankara. Since then the title has always gone to an Istanbul based club –apart from a brief period in the late 1970s and early 80s when Trabzonspor dominated Turkish football winning 6 league titles-, the three big clubs from Istanbul; Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas exchanged 50 titles between them. In May of 2010, Turkey was again celebrating a champion from outside Istanbul for the first time in 26 years. This time the success of Bursaspor was a sign of the changing economic times in the country rather than the beginning of an impressive generation of footballers in Bursa.
‘The Green Crocodiles’ triumph over Istanbul’s big three has inspired fans in smaller cities to support their local teams rather than just following the big guns, in a country of 76 million people, this could prove vital to the development of the league as provincial clubs eye higher gate receipts in their pursuit to close the gap on the Istanbul trio. While the sheer size of their stadiums and the massive urban population of Istanbul plays in favour of Galatasaray and Fenerbahce and to a lesser extent Besiktas, teams such as Elazığspor and Eskişehirspor are now boasting higher attendances as a percentage of their respective stadiums’ capacities as per Billsportsmaps.
The three big teams are no longer the only ones capable of recruiting international footballers and renowned names from across Europe and Latin America, you will find familiar names everywhere you look in Turkey today from Florent Malouda and Oscar Cardozo in Trabzonspor to Ryan Babel at Kasimpasa to Taye Taiwo and Sebastian Frey at Bursaspor, the Süper Lig is hoping to draw more followers from abroad and the trend of big names flocking into the league is not limited to players only, the number big name foreign coaches are now an increasing trend with legendary Brazil full-back Roberto Carlos and Vahid Halilhodzic, the man behind Algeria’s recent World Cup achievement, among the names on the benches.
Turkey’s ‘economic miracle’ as it was dubbed by many economists was mainly characterized by the rise of cities in the Anatolian Region, as opposed to the traditionally rich triangle of Istanbul-Ankara-Izmir. This has been a key factor in the development of the ‘Süper Lig’; Turkey’s national competition currently features 18 teams from 14 different cities which is a testament of the growth these cities have undergone. Kayseri in central Anatolia had two teams in the top division last season, Kayserispor and Kayseri Erciyesspor. Unsurprisingly, the economic growth in the city was so rapid it once opened a record 139 new businesses in one day back in 2004 as per the Globalist, it also recorded a Billion dollars in exports by 2007 and continues to see population growth of over 15% a year.
Last season witnessed a relegation battle including the two Kayserian clubs with Kayseri Erciyesspor finishing 3 points above the relegation zone, thus guaranteeing a share in the $ 450 million TV rights deal. A sum that has increased by more than 4000% since 1998 as per Turkish Football, Süper Lig is now the most valuable in Europe outside the big 5.
One of the main challenges facing Turkish football’s pursuit for a place among Europe’s elite is results on the European stage. Since the creation of the Süper Lig in its current form in 2001, its representatives have made it to the Champions League quarter-finals only twice, once for Galatasaray in 2012-13 and once for Fenerbahce in 2007-08 season while their best result in the Europa League is Fenerbahce’s semi-finalist finish in 2012-13. If Turkey is to move further up the UEFA coefficients, their top clubs will need to mount a more serious challenge for Europa League title on a regular basis and feature more often in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Turkish football is giving strong signals it’s heading in the right direction; fans will hope recent political and social tensions do not reflect negatively on the growth of the beautiful game in their country.
As the Süper Lig takes on the big five leagues in Europe, its top clubs need to take the lead once more to achieve the level of success this football obsessed nation has always longed for. Continuous growth of provincial clubs will keep the top teams on their toes as they are now at constant risk of losing their European football participation and all the extra income that comes along; It is simply no longer option to stay put for Galatasaray and fellow Istanbulite teams.