Istanbul Basaksehir take Turkish football by storm without many fans
There is a general consensus that a solid and passionate fanbase is very important for a team to succeed. Supporters are supposed to provide players with motivation and push them forward. That is not entirely true, however, as Turkish Super Lig side Istanbul Basaksehir have been proving for a while.
On Friday, unbeaten Basaksehir came from behind to win 2-1 at Galatasaray and stay top of the table with their eighth win in 10 matches. They possess the best attacking record in the Super Lig (24 goals scored) and the best defensive record as well (six conceded). On the opening day they managed to beat Fenerbahce despite playing with 10 men for most of the second half and they have not looked back since. Yet, very few fans seem to care.
Basaksehir may be playing in their brand new Fatih Terim Stadium opened in 2014, but the average attendance at home matches stands at just over 2,000, and some of those are away supporters. Even that is a massive improvement compared to the past. Until two years ago, Basaksehir played at the huge Ataturk Olympic Stadium. The windy venue has 76,000 seats, but only around 100 were occupied during their matches.
The reason to support Basaksehir in those days was amusing as well.
"The fans, who call themselves Boz Baykuslar (Grey Owls), are mainly university students who kind of mocked Turkish football by supporting a municipality team that has no fans and no history," Arda Alan Isik, columnist at Daily Sabah newspaper tells ESPN FC. In short, it was a tiny protest movement -- fans chose their new team out of spite.
But now that very lack of support is actually one of the main reasons behind Basaksehir's rise, because it allows the club to be patient and gradually implement superb long-term plans without any pressure.
Millions of fans and constant media attention are nice if things are going smoothly, but they bring a harsh spotlight if something goes wrong. In the Turkish league, where the fans are among the most passionate in the world, a defeat is a treated as a tragedy, leading to talks about crisis. The big three of Istanbul -- Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas -- spend most of their time solving all types of real and imaginary crises. Coaches are fired and resign all the time. Newspapers and TV channels are always looking for the next big crisis. It is absolutely impossible to do any sort of planning in those circumstances. But Basaksehir coach Abdullah Avci has been patient.
"We are a team that constantly evolves," Avci, who returned to the club in the summer of 2014 after they were promoted, said in an interview with FFT Turkey. "Two years ago we focused on defending as a team and tried to improve it. Last year we started to work on the attacking issues, especially on how we can be more effective in transition. This season, we made a significant progress with all the tactical aspects."
Such steady evolution would have been almost impossible at a big club, even though Basaksehir brought decent results in the previous two seasons as well: finishing fourth with 59 points on both occasions. Without any external pressure, it is much easier to build the team step by step, and that is what Avci loves the most in his profession.
"Abdullah is the key person at [the] Basaksehir project," Isik explains. "He is one of the few specialists in Turkey who see football as a collective action shaped by the superior mind of the coach. He has geometric vision of the game, and makes players work collectively within a clear strategy. The club is now enjoying great results thanks to their patience with him."
Avci knows the negative aspects of media pressure only too well. In November 2011 he was chosen to replace Guus Hiddink as the Turkey national team coach, having taken the country's under-17 team to the World Cup semifinals in 2005. But Avci found out that implementing his principles was tough under the public spotlight.
When the coach controversially benched star midfielder Selcuk Inan against Netherlands at the start of the World Cup qualification campaign, the furore was immense. Many pundits harshly criticised the coach, and Galatasaray fans in particular were outraged. Turkey lost 2-0, and it was difficult for the manager to recover from such a fiasco. Indeed in August 2013, with the hopes of qualifying for Brazil long gone, Avci resigned and took a sabbatical.
He then chose to return to a place that feels like home. Avci had first taken over Basaksehir, then known as Istanbul BB, in 2006 and worked in perfect harmony with the president Goksel Gumusdag and the executive director Mustafa Erogut. The club, established by the municipality in 1990 as a local project, were promoted to the top division for the first time in 2007 and Avci worked wonders on a modest budget before he left for the national team job. Without him, Basaksehir were relegated in 2013, but they came back, and so did the coach who is considered a true legend.
Over the years, Avci proved his ability to vastly improve players who were unwanted elsewhere. There are no stars at Basaksehir, but rather a squad of modest professionals who are grateful to their coach.
Goalkeeper Volkan Babacan, for example, found his feet at Basaksehir after being discarded by Fenerbahce, and is No. 1 for the national team. Mehmet Batdal, the tall striker who was once signed by Galatasaray as "the new Hakan Sukur" but never got a chance to prove himself, is flourishing under Avci, and got his first call-up for Turkey this month at the age of 30. Bosnian winger Edin Visca joined the club as an unknown player back in 2011, and he is still there after making sensational progress during the last two years.
In the summer of 2015, Avci convinced Emre Belozoglu, the veteran midfielder who used to play for Inter Milan, Newcastle and Atletico Madrid, to join the project and made him the captain. The coach describes the 36-year-old as "one of the best Turkish footballers ever," and Emre's experience has helped the team to be more consistent.
Despite their incredible start, Avci has refused to say that Basaksehir are title challengers to avoid putting the players under pressure, but inside the club there is quiet confidence they could go all the way. Visiting champions Besiktas at the end of November will be an important test and if Avci's team beats all the members of the big three, the sky will be the limit for them.
Winning the title would be incredible, but claiming a place in the Champions League would too even if they finished second. Playing in the most prestigious club competition in Europe would definitely help bring more fans to the stadium but they should be careful what they wish for. If Basaksehir suddenly become popular and start to receive more attention from the media, everything could change and their recipe for success might stop working.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin