TURKEY’S GALATASARAY have been banned from European competition for a year after consistently breaking the Financial Fair Play code. It is the latest twist in the decline of the Turkish domestic game, which many believe teeters on the brink of disaster.
A few years ago, Turkey was being heralded as the next big watering-hole for big-name players. Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder made his way to Istanbul from Inter and other players were lured to the banks of the Bosphorus to pick-up lucrative contracts. The Turkish capital’s big three clubs all attracted healthy attendances – Fenerbahce and Galatasaray both drew 40,000-plus crowds, while Besiktas enjoyed gates in excess of 23,000. There was a deep passion in Turkish football, extremely partisan crowds that gave no quarter – witness the infamous “welcome to hell” banners that greeted visiting teams from abroad.
But behind the passion and intense loyalty, the big Turkish clubs have been badly managed. Take Galatasaray, who, according to Deloitte’s Football Money League, are the 21st biggest club in Europe, with revenues of EUR 123m. Galatasaray and Fenerbahce are the 30th and 46th biggest football brands in the world and all the top clubs are among the most instantly recognisable brand names in Turkey.
But they have extremely high levels of debt and, on an operating basis, they run up huge debts on an annual basis. Half of the most debt-laden clubs in the Stoxx European Football Index are Turkish. As Goksel Gumusdag, head of the Football Clubs’ Association, said: “Revenues are huge but there is a lack of fiscal discipline.”
Indeed, the renowned football economist, Tugrul Aksar of the Dunya newspaper, foretold an era of struggle three years ago when he predicted: “If Turkish soccer isn’t reformed and goes along as it has so far, then it is doomed to hit a wall.”
Turkish clubs have debts approaching USD 1.5bn, half of which is owed to banks. In 2013, it was reported that Galatasaray were on the verge of bankruptcy and that Fenerbahce’s indebtedness was “unsustainable”. Aksar said that the logic of paying for current transfers with future performance was flawed. “The cost of high profile signings is real, whereas revenues are no more than expectation.” In short, all the major Turkish clubs would collapse if they were truly commercial concerns. But while no football club can really be called systemic, the big Istanbul outfits wield great political power.
No football club is systemic, but the Istanbul giants have a lot of political clout
What happened really reflected the mood of a resurgent nation with global ambitions. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008-09, Turkey was seen as one of the so-called “MINT” nations – Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – developing markets that could provide some fresh impetus to an ailing global economy. Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan aimed to make the country one of the top 10 economies (it’s 18th right now) by 2023 and in tandem, promoted the aspiration of making the Turkish Super Lig a top four football league. Local business also bought into this ambition, with Digiturk paying USD 321m per season for TV rights for four years, a deal that was extended in 2015 for a further two years.
Turkish football received a setback when Yildiz Holding, sponsors of the national team, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray discontinued its support. The company’s chairman, Murat Ulker, said that the violence, fighting and tension associated with the game had reduced the value of sponsorship. Reading between the lines was not too hard – they don’t want to be connected with the negative publicity.
Notwithstanding the crowd trouble at games, the 2011 match-fixing scandal has eroded the power and credibility of Turkish football. Fenerbahce and Besiktas, among others, were under investigation. Both clubs suffered European bans, but in the end all the people charged at the outset of the scandal were acquitted. Regardless, a match-fixing drama of this nature takes years to clear. It had an impact on Turkish match attendances, with the average Super Lig crowd falling from 13,000 in 2013 to 8,000 in 2015.
But it’s not just the scandal that is driving fans away from games. President Erdogan has endorsed a scheme to introduce fan registration – the Passolig system – which will be operated by Calik Holding, a commercial bank run by Erdogan’s son-in-law. The system, which was first mooted in 2011 and explained as a way to curb fan violence, is seen by its critics as a surveillance tool and a form of commercial opportunism. The cards will effectively be a credit card that could help Calik, among others, leverage predictive marketing. Fans have been boycotting games in protest at the initiative.
There have been some other, more bizarre, stories coming from Turkey. There’s the referee that was red-carded by a player, another referee that was sacked because it became known that he was gay, and the Amedspor player that was banned for 12 matches for “idealogical propaganda”. And the legendary Hakan Suker, faces a possible four-year jail sentence for insulting the president. It all points to a sport that is at odds with itself.
So how can Turkey’s clubs gain some stability and the game move forward again? There’s no question that the government wants the clubs to be better run and there’s currently moves to introduce better regulation to ensure revenues – which are significant – are better spent. The Turkish Football Federation was talking about creating an “asset reconstruction company” which sounds as though it might be something along the lines of a “bad bank” to park the debts. The TFF’s vice president said at the end of 2015 that a “clean break” in the financing of football must be made and that “we are plotting a new road with the support of football financing experts”.
In the meantime, Turkish clubs were hoping to benefit from the cash-rich Chinese, who have been luring European players to their rapidly-growing Super League. A few big money sales would help heavily burdened balance sheets.
Whatever happens, Turkish football will have to act quickly to show it can be run more prudently. With Yildiz pulling out, the worry is that other major sponsors will follow suit and that could trigger a full-blown crisis. Now that would be hell for football followers in Turkey.