Thursday 18 June 2020

Not the Usual Chart Toppers: The Current Top Three in Turkey's Süper Lig Aren't the Three You'd Expect

There is, perhaps, one major similarity between the Turkish and Scottish football. As in Scotland Turkish football has been always dominated the same rivals from the country's largest city who between them win the title almost every year leaving the rest without a look in. But whereas if I head 60 miles north of my Newcastle home and cross the border into Scotland I would find Scottish football more one sided than ever, if I were to catch a plane to where Europe meets Asia I would find, for this season at least, this is now anything but the case.

Whilst the two Glasgow giants of Rangers and Celtic have traditionally dominated Scottish football, winning over 100 titles between them, three sides from the city of Istanbul, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray, have consistently lead the way in Turkey. Between them, these three have managed to claim virtually 80% of all titles awarded since the original Turkish football championship was created over 100 years ago. In the  Süper Lig era (1957 onwards) that figure rises to almost 90% which shows just exactly how much these titans from Istanbul have dominated. This season, with the league having just resumed after a covid-19 enforced suspension, things are looking very different, however, with only one of the usual three part of what is essentially now a four team title race.

İstanbul Başakşehir in second and Sivasspor in third in have never won a top flight championship in their histories whilst although Trabzonspor in first have six league titles to their name the last of those came in 1983-84. To exemplify the dominance of big three, only one since that last Trabzonspor triumph has anyone other than those main three won the title. That lone season was 2009-10 when Bursaspor where surprise league champions but since then normal service has resumed. Galatasaray in fourth are the other contenders still left in the title race but defeat in their opening match post COVID has done much to dent their chances, especially with their other three title rivals all winning. The results in this first weekend back leave Trabzonspor and İstanbul Başakşehir both four points ahead of Sivasspor in third with Galatasaray two points further back again in fourth.

Could this season finally see someone from outside the big three win the title again in what would be exactly ten seasons after it last happened? Ten years ago no one anywhere expected Bursaspor to be challenging for the title. The previous season the club, based due south of Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, had finished sixth and although this was a significant improvement from the thirteenth place they'd managed a year prior it was still a long way short of any sort of title challenge. The 2009-10 campaign did not get off to the best of starts for Bursaspor but crucially they only lost once in the second-half of the season. They did not find themselves top until matchday 24 but from that point on it was neck and neck between them and Fenerbahçe as Bursaspor did not again drop out of the top two. It was advantage Fenerbahçe, however, going into the final round of fixtures but whilst Bursaspor won 2-1 at home to Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe could only manage a 1-1 draw in their home match with Trabzonspor. Bursaspor were suddenly champions for the first time in their history defying all expectations. The following season Bursaspor finished third but some 21 points behind second placed Trabzonspor who were denied a league title thanks to goal difference. Even with a 4-0 win on the final day of the season, their +46 was still no match for Fenerbahçe's +50 after the Istanbul side won their match 3-2. The usual stranglehold on the title from the big three in Istanbul has continued ever since.

The port city Trabzon, famous for its anchovies, lies in on the Black Sea coast in the north east of the country about two and a half hours drive from the border with Georgia. The city's football club Trabzonspor were first promoted to the top flight in 1974 and have remained there ever since. The club's excellent form in the early years of their top flight adventures saw a glut of titles. The club were crowned Turkish champions for the first time in their history after only two seasons at the top table. Back to back titles were followed by a second placed finish and then three titles in a row to make it five league titles in their first seven top flight campaigns. Two second placed finishes again followed before a sixth title in 1984. There were also four Turkish Cup triumphs for the club during this period and this included three league and cup doubles. In those days Turkish clubs were not known for making waves in Europe, however, and sadly Trabzonspor never made it past the first round in European competition. At home, though, they were dominant.

Ahmet Suat Özyazıcı had taken over as Trabzonspor manager in 1973 and was the main man behind the club's success but Özyazıcı left the club in 1984, however, and the team began to struggle. There would be no more league success for the club and the next cup final win would not be until 1992. Four more cup final triumphs have followed but league success has continued to elude them. There were 10 successive top four finishes in the 1990s including successive runner up finishes in 1994-95 and 1995-96 whilst there were also further successive runner up finishes in the mid-noughties and of course that painful end to the 2010-11 season but alas no more league titles. Could this finally be their year again? Well although they currently sit top of the table only goal difference separates them from second placed İstanbul Başakşehir.

İstanbul Başakşehir are a more recent addition to the Istanbul footballing landscape having only been founded in 1990. Formed originally as İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi, the club did not manage a top flight appearance until the 2007-08 season where they remained until 2012-13 when relegation saw a return to the top flight at the first attempt. A change in ownership in 2014 and a move to the Başakşehir district of the city saw the club renamed and start a new life under its current guise. 

Investment has seen the club climb up the league and suffer several near misses in terms of titles. This investment has seen several marquee signings and ex Premier League stars Martin Skrtel, Gaël Clichy, and Demba Ba all currently play for the club. Arguably their biggest name these days, however, is Robinho who as well as having played for Premier League side Man CIty also previously played for AC MIlan and Real Madrid. As yet the big name stars have yet to bring Süper Lig success but finishes of fourth, fourth, second, third, and second have been hugely impressive and a league championship is surely not too far away.

Having previously played in the large Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadyumu the club recently moved to a brand new much smaller venue more suited to their needs. The club's average attendance this season pre covid-19 was 3,860, almost a tenth of what the big three each attract though still significantly higher than what they achieved under their previous guise.

If either Trabzonspor or İstanbul Başakşehir don't win the title then one of either Galatasaray or Sivasspor will clinch the prize. But whilst Galatasaray are 23 times champions of Turkey, five behind Fenerbahçe and three ahead of Beşiktaş, Sivasspor have never once been crowned champions. Based in the city of Sivas, south west of Trabzon and some 400 odd kilometres east of the capital Ankara, Sivasspor were formed in 1967 and did not reach the top flight until 2005 finishing runners up in 2009. The club were relegated in 2015-16 but returned to the Süper Lig at the first attempt. Last season's 12th placed finish gave no indication of a title challenge but they sit currently in third on merit with seven league wins in a row from the end of October onwards helping propel them to their present position.

As things stand Trabzonspor and İstanbul Başakşehir are clearly favourites to win the title but Galatasaray and particularly Sivasspor aren't completely out of the hunt. The final outcome is yet to be decided but one this is clear, it's increasingly likely that for the first time in over a decade and only the second time in 37 years the monopoly of the 'big three' could once again be broken.

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