Sunday 19 July 2020

Breaking the Big Three's Dominance? İstanbul Başakşehir Win Their First Ever Süper Lig Title and It Might Not Be a Flash in the Pan!

Winning 1-0, İstanbul Başakşehir were 30 minutes away from their first ever Süper Lig title when the lights went out. A power cut was seemingly putting their celebrations on hold. They need not have worried, however, as it would not take at all long for the championship to be theirs. Not long after the match had restarted following a 15 minute delay then news filtered through about results elsewhere and Başakşehir were suddenly champions. Thinking they would need a win, defeat for their nearest challengers had secured them the crown regardless. The players on the pitch for Başakşehir could now play on safe in the knowledge that win, lose, or draw, the title would still be theirs.

Home to Istanbul's newest champions, with a population currently estimated at over 450,000, the ever growing but surprisingly leafy district of Başakşehir is an area within greater Istanbul that sits on the European side of this bustling ancient metropolis. Başakşehir is home to the Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadı where Liverpool famously came from 3-0 down to defeat AC Milan on penalties in the 2005 Champions League final. The stadium is also where İstanbul Başakşehir's predecessors İstanbul BB played their home matches with the unusual spectacle of sub 4,000 crowds watching them in a ginormous 76,000 capacity stadium. A new more modest stadium was built in the area for the team but was not completed until 2014 just after the club had been disbanded and replaced by the new İstanbul Başakşehir side who moved into the venue instead. Named the Başakşehir Fatih Terim Stadyumu after former Turkish footballing legend and current Galatasaray manager Fatih Terim it has a much smaller capacity of just over 17,000. Although, with some of the lowest attendances in the league the stadium's capacity is still well above what İstanbul Başakşehir average as they struggle to compete for support with the city's well established traditional big three of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray. 

İstanbul Başakşehir FK, currently known as Medipol Başakşehir FK for sponsorship reasons, are a rather recent addition to the Istanbul footballing landscape having been founded only six years ago. The club was formed by locals in 2014 to replace the footballing section of the municipality owned İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi (BB) sports club which had been closed down by the local government. İstanbul BB had been created in 1990 and their football side made their first top flight appearance in 2007-08 where they remained until 2012-13. Relegation that season saw instant promotion back at the first attempt but as that campaign ended with the club being dissolved it was the new Başakşehir club who took their seat at the top table instead. 

Who actually runs the current club is a question for which the answer seems a little complex although links to the current government do seem rather evident. In terms of names, all directors in the eight-strong board are listed on the official website where the club are described as a 'company'. Elsewhere, however, the club are listed as being owned by the Ministry of Youth and Sports whilst describes the club as being owned by 'Eight shareholders, mostly representing big companies close to the government'. But whilst the exact nature of the club's links to the government may be unclear when looking in from afar, club chairman Goksel Gumusdag's links to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are very clear - he is married to the president's niece! It is also worth pointing out that when the newly created İstanbul Başakşehir moved into their new stadium shortly after formation Erdoğan played on the pitch for the club in the opening match and had a shirt number retired in his honour.

It's fair to say that since İstanbul Başakşehir came about in 2014 they have certainly been making waves on the pitch. Başakşehir have yet to finish outside the top four of the Turkish Süper Lig in their six years of existence. Finishes of fourth, fourth, second, third, and second preceded this current campaign for the new kids on the block as they looked to challenge the monopoly that the city's big three have on the Turkish game. Between them, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray have prior to this term been crowned champions in every single season bar one since 1984.

Until the end of last season Abdullah Avcı had been head coach at the club but Avcı, who had previously had a short-lived spell as head coach of the Turkish national team, left to join Beşiktaş for whom he has since been sacked. Often using the classic 4-3-3 cum 4-5-1 formation, under Avcı Başakşehir did not always play the most attractive style of football and were certainly not a high scoring team but a solid defence was the key to their five top four finishes in a row. Replacing Avci was Okan Buruk who is married to a former Miss Turkey model. Under Buruk, an ex Galatasaray and Internazionale star who finished his playing career at İstanbul BB, the team have played a more attacking style of football often playing out from the back with a slow tempo, albeit usually still with just one up front.

Under both coaches, it's fair to say İstanbul Başakşehir have had some star studded names by Turkish standards in their line up, most of whom still remain at the club. There are nowadays numerous players in Turkey's Süper Lig that fans of Europe's big four leagues would recognise, but nowhere is this more prevalent than at İstanbul Başakşehir. Current star left-back Gaël Clichy, also formerly of Arsenal, joined in 2017 on a free transfer from Premier League side Manchester City whilst around the same time former Udinese and Napoli star Gökhan Inler joined from Beşiktaş also on a free transfer. He also still remains in town. Last summer another ex-Man City star, also formerly of Real Madrid, joined the club in the form of Robinho who cost €2m after a season at Sivasspor. Also last summer, ex Hoffenheim, West Ham, Newcastle United, and Chelsea star Demba Ba joined the club arriving on a free transfer from Shànghǎi Lǜdì Shēnhuā whilst another arrival on a free was ex Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel who joined from Atalanta. Ex-Arsenal, Man City, and Spurs player Emmanuel Adebayor, however, was the first big star to join the club when he signed in 2017 before leaving two season's later.

Alongside these experienced famous names are players not so well known outside of Turkey, some of whom have been key to the team's current successful campaign. Goalkeeper Mert Günok signed from Bursaspor in 2017 and has conceded less than a goal a game this season whilst Bosnian Edin Višća, who has been with the Başakşehir/İstanbul BB since 2011, has been top scorer this season with 18 goals. Višća who plays right wing has scored four more than centre forward Ba who plays as a lone forward. Enzo Crivelli, who plays on the left, has also had a share of the goals with the Frenchman who signed from SM Caen in his homeland last year having also netted 14 times. There is also more experience with the likes of centre back Mahmut Tekdemir who has been with the club and its predecessor for his whole career which dates back to 2006.

İstanbul Başakşehir would not have been favourites for the title at the start of this season and that was before they lost their opening two matches against Yeni Malatyaspor and Fenerbahçe. Thankfully for Başakşehir, though, they did not lose again until January. By that point, the club had propelled themselves into second place and despite moving into pole position in February by the time COVID-19 brought proceedings to a halt they had dropped back into the runner up position. After the restart, however, four wins and a draw saw them in first place some four points ahead of their nearest challengers Trabzonspor with three to play. Whilst their rivals had faltered, Başakşehir did not. Only Trabzonspor had managed to just about keep in touch with Başakşehir as Galatasaray and Sivasspor, two title challengers when the league restarted, completely dropped out of the race.

Monday 13th July saw both İstanbul Başakşehir and Trabzonspor in action on a night that the title could have potentially been wrapped up for Başakşehir. Victory for Başakşehir at Konyaspor combined with defeat for Trabzonspor at Denizlispor would have secured the club their first ever Süper Lig championship. Taking a 1-0 lead through Višća from the penalty spot after just two minutes was the perfect start for Başakşehir but unbelievably they found themselves 3-1 down at the break. With Trabzonspor at the same time winning this was disastrous. Başakşehir came back to life in the second-half, however, and goals from Ba and Eljero Elia saw the match tied a 3-3 and the visitors looking in total control. Astonishingly though when a seventh goal of the match was scored it came from the hosts and Başakşehir were behind again. Almost as dramatic mind were the scenes in Denizli where Denizlispor had come from behind to take a 2-1 lead over Trabzonspor. If that news gave Başakşehir impetus they failed to take advantage and both matches ended up in victory for the home sides as Turkey's top two were both beaten on what had been a night exciting high drama. Despite defeat, Başakşehir retained their four point lead at the top and with only two rounds of fixtures left to play the title was still well and truly in their sights.

A week later, this evening, 19th July, both teams were in action again. Trabzonspor would blow a 3-1 lead and lose but for İstanbul Başakşehir that result would have mattered not. In what ended up being a rather strange night for Başakşehir their eventual win meant they would have been crowned champions regardless. At half-time they had one hand on the trophy thanks to a goal from Tekdemir but they could have had a second had Višća not missed a penalty. It wasn't the most thrilling of games but there was drama in the second period when powercuts twice put proceedings on hold. The first one lasted for some 15 minutes and when the match did resume Trabzonspor were busy messing things up in their match to hand Başakşehir the title just before the second power cut happened. With 10 minutes to go there were celebrations on the bench when news filtered through of events in Trabzon. There may have been no supporters present for obvious COVID-19 reasons but those associated with the club who were inside the stadium made plenty of noise themselves as unbridled joy set in. Celebrations on the touchline did not last long, however, before a second power cut delayed the match again. But after a much shorter delay second time around the players were able to finish the match with no further goals. Following a rather unusual night İstanbul Başakşehir had won their first ever Süper Lig title.

A well deserved title for not just the players but also for manager Okan Buruk. Having won seven league titles as a player, Buruk has become only the fifth man in the history of Turkish football to have won the Süper Lig as both a player and a manager. Buruk joins a list that includes Şenol Güneş, Ertuğrul Sağlam, Aykut Kocaman, and Hamza Hamzaoğlu. A great honour for Başakşehir's head coach.

The celebrations will no doubt continue in the days to come but Başakşehir still have one final league game left to play and then an ongoing European campaign to finish before plans for next season and a stab at the Champions League will no doubt quickly get underway.

Winning the Süper Lig has guaranteed İstanbul Başakşehir a place in the Champions League group stage next season something they have never achieved before. Previous Champions League campaigns have fallen apart in the qualifying rounds although the club have twice reached the group stages of the Europa League. The second of those group stage appearances came this season and saw for the first time progression to the knock out rounds after finishing top of a group that included AS Roma and Borussia Mönchengladbach. This season's European campaign has not yet come to an end and Başakşehir currently have a 1-0 first leg lead in the last 16 to defend when the competition restarts next month. Wednesday 5th August sees Başakşehir travel to Copenhagen to finish off their tie with FC København.

İstanbul Başakşehir may not be favourites to win the Europa League but nonetheless a chance of more silverware next month is still entirely possible and win or lose in Europe the club will be back next season for a crack at the Champions League. A second successive league title will be another aim and why not? FIve top four finishes in a row prior to the current campaign suggest that this season's title win is not a flash in the pan. Not only that but, despite having an ageing squad, losing only twice more after those opening defeats make it difficult to imagine them not being a force to be reckoned with again next season, especially with a few more excellent moves in the transfer market. For İstanbul Başakşehir this season's Süper Lig triumph may be only the beginning! 

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