The Decline of the Turkish Super Lig
5th April 2016.
Turkish football fans have been hit with one piece of bad news after another, as of late. First, a February 21st Super Lig match between Galatasaray and Trabzonspor became global news, after referee Deniz Ates Bitnel red-carded not one, not two, but four Trabzonspor players in the space of the second half. Then, Galatasaray received a two-year ban from UEFA competitions for violating Financial Fair Play rules. Next, on March 25th, Fenerbahce became the last Turkish soccer club to exit the 2015/16 Europa League, losing 1-4 in their second-leg round of 16 match against Braga. Finally, Turkish soccer authorities were forced to cancel a March 20th derby between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, due to a threat that reportedly came from ISIS.
Of course, not all of these stumbles and woes have been related in the slightest, beyond the fact that they all involved Turkish soccer. However, all four incidents do amount to what has been a spectacularly bad season for the Turkish Super Lig. Between bad press, reported financial struggles, and a number of other deep problems, Turkish football seems to be in crisis at the moment. Is there a reprieve coming? Or is the Super Lig doomed to collapse?
Identifying the Root Problem
The 2015/16 season may have brought a series of new lows for the Turkish Super Lig, but this is not the first time that we have been discussing the less-than-perfect state of the division. On the contrary, last February, journalist Patrick Keddie wrote a piece for Middle East Eye called “Could Turkish football collapse?” The article offered a fascinating look at the fracturing state of the Super Lig and Turkey’s soccer scene as a whole, blaming a myriad of different issues for the slump. Among those problems were “fleeing sponsorship, low attendances, violence, debt, corruption, and political struggles.”
Keddie’s article quoted a source who said that, between the 2013/14 season and the 2014/15 season, the per-match attendance stats for 13-time Super Lig champs Besiktas dipped from 40,000 people to between 3,000 and 5,000. That massive decline itself could explain why Turkish football is drowning in financial difficulties—and why, soon after the drop in attendance, major Turkish soccer sponsor Yıldız Holding chose to get out of the sport completely. Both of those issues, though, are merely symptoms of a broader problem.
In his article, Keddie drew a direct line between Turkey’s declining attendance numbers and a new e-ticketing scheme that the country introduced in April 2014. The e-ticketing strategy, called Passolig, was and is a thinly veiled way for government authorities to collect personal information about soccer fans wishing to attend matches in Turkey. That information can, in turn, be used to identify match attendees who are swearing, being rowdy or violent, make anti-government statements, or otherwise violating Turkey’s laws.
The Turkish government is involved with the country’s professional football scene in other ways, too. In some cases, the government even helps clubs get lines of credits with banks, or pulls strings to postpone the payment of debts. In many ways, it’s like the soccer clubs in Turkey are owned by the government, rather than functioning as private organizations like clubs in other countries.
The result is that Turkey’s soccer clubs have little economic sense and less accountability. They spend big to buy new players without much strategy for how to recoup the money. And now that attendance is lagging, and sponsors are fleeing the country, it’s going to become even more difficult for Super Lig clubs to turn a profit. Sooner or later, it seems like the other shoe will drop, and Turkish football will collapse under the weight of debt and political intervention.
The string of recent woes identified earlier in this article could exacerbate the pending crisis of Turkish football even further. Fans who were already dodging soccer games due to high ticket prices, government oppression, or unwelcoming and violent match atmosphere have even less reason to pay attention after this streak of embarrassments.
For instance, Galatasaray being banned from UEFA competition is a blow to the economics of the football club and to the loyalties of die-hard fans. Perhaps even worse than the ban itself, though, is Galatasaray’s inexplicable decline as a team. The Yellow-Reds won their 20th Super Lig title in 2015—a record for Turkish soccer. This season, they only managed a single win in the Champions League group stage and were promptly eliminated from the Europa League in a round of 32 loss against Lazio. As for the 2015/16 Super Lig, Galatasaray are well out of title contention at this point, and might not have qualified for a UEFA competition anyway.
Fenerbahce are fairing better—though likely to finish second to Besiktas in the Super Lig title race. Still, the Yellow Canaries had an embarrassment of their own in the Europa League this season—though they were arguably the victims of injustice. Facing off against Portugal’s Sporting Braga on March 17th, Fenerbahce’s soccer squad picked up eight yellow cards and three red cards. Even Fenerbahce manager Vitor Pereira ended up getting sent off, ejected from the match just before time because of an angry disagreement with referee Ivan Bebek.
The Yellow Canaries ended up losing the match 1-4, crushing any chance of Turkey grabbing some international silverware this season. Much of the coverage of the match surrounded Bebek and his arguably one-sided officiating. Indeed, less than 24 hours after the game, there was a petition with 110,000 signatures calling for Bebek to be stripped of his referee’s license.
Still, the match—and particularly Pereira’s ejection—was a rather shameful end to Fenerbahce’s Europa League hopes. It was an embarrassingly public showing of all of the troubles that are sweeping through Turkish football at this moment in time.
The aforementioned February 21st match between Galatasaray and Trabzonspor shouldn’t have been as visible, given its status as a Super Lig match instead of a European knockout stage battle. But the four-red-card spectacle made international headlines that didn’t exactly reflect Turkish football in a great light. And perhaps just as damning as all the red cards, Galatasaray only managed a 2-1 victory, despite having four more men on the pitch by the end of the match than their opponents did.
Saving Turkish Football
The bottom line is this: Turkish soccer is in trouble, but there is no clear solution because there are so many different issues contributing to the crisis. The corruption of an increasingly authoritarian government is likely the biggest problem at play here, since it’s Turkey’s e-ticketing system that drove fans away and lost the Super Lig some major sponsorship money. However, the caustic atmosphere at the matches and the mounting threat of ISIS are making it downright dangerous for fans to go to games, which will only hurt the Turkish Super Lig further.
The list of issues goes on and on, and we still haven’t even mentioned the 2011 Turkish sports corruption scandal. That scandal was arguably the largest instance of match-fixing and corruption in the history of professional football, and it’s resulted in fans being rightfully skeptical about the outcomes of matches and league competitions.
Needless to say, prescribing a cure for Turkey’s football crisis is not going to be easy. Would you pay premium prices to see a soccer match if you knew you might be arrested for getting too loud or too rowdy? Would you attend a match if you feared for your personal safety? Would you pay for tickets if you had reason to believe that the game you were going to see wasn’t a true display of competitive sportsmanship, but a fixed match? Most of us would probably answer “no” to all three of those questions, which explains why Turkish football is in such a rut in terms of finance and attendance.
What do you think the future holds for the Turkish Super Lig? Will Turkey’s government ease off on some of the control it has over clubs and games? Or will the league become increasingly violent and unwelcome, leading up to the moment when it eventually implodes entirely? At Soccer Box, we want to hear your predictions and thoughts on this matter. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google + to discuss.