Besiktas eyeing place in Europe's elite after group success in UCL
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkish football has a new standard-bearer in European competition: Besiktas have broken record after record in the Champions League this season as they became the first Super Lig side to book a place in the knockout phase as group leaders -- something they achieved before Wednesday's final group game with RB Leipzig has even been played.
Besiktas have emerged from the shadows of their noisy neighbours Galatasaray and Fenerbahce to take Istanbul's footballing throne. With back-to-back league titles, European progress and grandiose plans to become a global player in the football world, the Black Eagles mean business.
Recent success is made more prodigious by the fact that five years ago the club was in a financial crisis, facing 142 lawsuits and suspended from UEFA competition over match-fixing allegations. President Fikret Orman took on a job nobody wanted and, in retrospect, hitting rock-bottom turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the board set about making sweeping changes.
"Over the last few years we have built something for the future, rather than short term goals like the title race," Orman told ESPN FC. "It was a big step for us involving recruiting the right players, right coaches, brand management, sponsorship agreements, financial arrangements, communication tools and more. What we are witnessing now is our vision starting to come to fruition.
"We have tried to keep a stable sportive and financial structure. We have not made any decisions that we believe will harm club balances in the long run, even if they will bring success in the short term."
Besiktas tightened their belt, restructured their wage policy and employed a transfer policy which has yielded impressive results. Compared to their Group G rivals, the Black Eagles spent the least on transfer fees (£7.1 million). Last-placed Monaco shelled out £91m (though made a significant amount back in sales); RB Leipzig -- who may not even qualify for the round of 16 -- invested £54m; Porto spent £19m.
Besiktas signed Pepe on a free transfer from Real Madrid while also snapping up Alvaro Negredo, Gary Medel, Caner Erkin for small fees, and bringing in Anderson Talisca and Jeremain Lens on loan.
The club also outshone their competition when it came to social media coverage. Unless you had your phone off all summer you probably saw one of their Black Eagles' "Come to Besiktas" transfer announcement videos which went viral.
It may have looked like a bit of fun but it was actually part of the club's ongoing efforts to foster a global brand. Among football clubs, Besiktas had the third highest growth worldwide on social media; the Black Eagles also have the fourth highest engagement per-post on Twitter with a following across all platforms at 11.3 million.
After analyzing social media growth of current @ChampionsLeague group leaders, aftermath of @neymarjr move to @PSG_inside is still evident. ⚽️📱📊— Football Benchmark (@Football_BM) October 23, 2017
More data 👉 https://t.co/3hwaEEzUFf#kpmg #footballbenchmark #Neymar pic.twitter.com/cu63r5umYD
Orman's vision for Besiktas clearly encapsulates more than domestic success and he has his eye on a bigger prize: to transform the club into a worldwide brand with a 100 million strong fanbase.
"To increase this awareness, we have projects branching outside Turkey," he said. "We made history by becoming the first Turkish club to play a football match in China [playing Schalke in Zhuhai in July]. The Far East tour was the first significant step taken towards our goal. We will step up efforts over the next few seasons. Chinese officials have visited us and we will hold further talks to discuss long-term plans. We will continue pushing our globalisation project on all fronts and follow up our China tour with projects in Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe and the United States."
Besiktas have been making strides on the pitch, too. Manager Senol Gunes has managed to turn a motley crew of players few coaches have ever been able to tame into a force to be reckoned with. Any coach who manages to get Ricardo Quaresma to consistently perform at his highest level deserves a medal of honour; Gunes has Ryan Babel playing as Liverpool fans hoped he would when Rafa Benitez signed him from Ajax; Anderson Talisca has gone from drifting in and out of form at Benfica to "Mr. Consistent" at Besiktas.
Gunes has also transformed Cenk Tosun from a squad player into one of the best performing strikers in the Champions League -- four goals and two assists; former Portsmouth left-back Dusko Tosic has been converted into Pepe's partner in crime at centre-back; while Arsenal may be casting envious glances at the success former academy starlet Oguzhan Ozyakup has had in leading his new team to the Champions League round of 16.
"We brought in experts in their fields to the management, they are here on merit which unfortunately is rarely the case at Turkish clubs," Orman added.
The Gunes factor cannot be underestimated, but neither can the stadium factor. The new Vodafone Park, opened in April 2016, has had a spellbinding effect and has increased the club's income stream. An impressive feat of engineering, it rose from the remains of the former Inonu stadium like a phoenix in what has to be one of the most idyllic stadium locations in the world.
Few footballing arenas can boast such a view but as RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner found out, looks can be deceiving... the new stadium is loud too. (He wore earplugs and then asked to be substituted midway through the first half during the club's 2-0 defeat on matchday two because the noise from the fans was too much for him, though later it was said that was due to "circulation and breathing problems.")
The "12th man" is not just a footballing cliche at Besiktas. The club is still based in the district where the club was founded in 1903; football is more than a game as far as the fans are concerned. Even McDonald's, whose company sign of golden arches with red trim resemble the colours of rivals Galatasaray a little too much for the locals' liking, had to change their branding so Istanbul became home to the world's only McDonald's with a black and white sign.
"Our fans are one of the main heroes in our story," Orman said. "Between 2013 and first half of 2016 we were playing home games at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Basaksehir, Konya and Ankara stadiums. They never stopped believing in us and followed us everywhere to support the team. Besiktas fans are the main part of this family. This is a real power that many clubs don't have anymore."
Besiktas are riding the crest of a wave; confident and determined to become a global player in the coming years. Such grand plans may sound far-fetched now, but so did finishing Group G as leaders just a few months ago. The Black Eagles have already exceeded expectations in the Champions League and now the sky is the limit.
"Everyone has seen our capacity and the things we can do at UEFA Champions League," Orman said. "After this step, it doesn't make any difference which team is drawn. We will do our best and try to improve as far as we can."
Eren Sarigul covers Turkish football for ESPN and Turkish-football.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_ErenSarigul