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Dec 23, 2013

The rise and rise of Kasimpasa

Some bizarre events occurred during the Istanbul derby between Kasimpasa and Besiktas a week ago. A spectator ran onto the pitch and attacked Besiktas' Portuguese midfielder Manuel Fernandes, two of his teammates -- Ramon and Hugo Almeida -- kicked the invader and were sent off, while earlier on Ryan Donk threw a second ball onto the pitch to stop a dangerous attack.

In the end, Kasimpasa came from behind to claim an important 2-1 win and consolidate their position in second place, but it is pretty much unclear whether their management board members were jubilant at the final whistle, because their hearts belong to the opponents.

Kasimpasa chairman Zafer Yildirim is a life-long Besiktas fan who used to serve as a member of their board. His current partner Ihsan Kalkavan was also a director at Besiktas, while Kasimpasa's main investor, Turgay Ciner, one of the richest men in Turkey, is another fervent Besiktas supporter. When looking at the members of Kasimpasa board, you would find an odd Galatasaray fan too.

That will surely make you wonder. Why would they abandon the club they dearly love and invest in the little known outfit that, despite its long traditions going back to 1921, has never won anything? In order to understand that, we have to go more than four decades back to the times when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current Prime Minister of Turkey, grew up in the rather rough neighbourhood of Kasimpasa.

Erdogan was a very talented footballer in his young days. A ball playing centre-back, he was nicknamed Beckenbauer Tayyip for his vision and tendency to build attacking moves from behind. The story goes that Fenerbahce were very keen on signing him, and that would have been a dream come true for Erdogan himself, as he has always supported the Canaries. His father, a devout Muslim, didn't let this happen, and Erdogan continued playing at amateur level before eventually taking a civil job and then moving on to politics.

His love for football naturally stayed with him. Fener will always remain his biggest love in sports, but he nurtures very warm feelings for the team of his neighbourhood. As Erdogan's career rose, so did the fortunes of Kasimpasa. In 2007, shortly after Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader was elected as prime minister, the club's ground was renamed after him and is now called Recep Tayyip Erdogan stadium. The team played in the fourth division as recently as 2005 and achieved three successive promotions to join the Super League for the first time since 1964. Their experience in the top flight was shortlived at first, as they were relegated in 2008, and after another promotion they went down again in 2011, following a traumatic season that included a 7-0 home thrashing at the hands of Trabzonspor.

After yet another promotion in 2012, via a dramatic playoff win over Adanaspor, Erdogan invited the players and coaches to his offices, congratulating them on the achievement and getting a shirt signed by everyone at the club. "I hope that the people of Adana will understand that it is only natural for me to support the team that represents the place where I was born," he said. His sympathies were never hidden.

It was crystal clear, though, that significant investment was needed, so that Kasimpasa would stop being a yo-yo team and become a legitimate first division club. Besiktas men Zafer Yildirim and Turgay Ciner could never be involved with Fenerbahce for myriad reasons, but they found it easy to switch to Kasimpasa. Yildirim was photographed smiling next to Erdogan during that visit, and he would never have been able to do so when on the board of Besiktas. The takeover was completed, and Kasimpasa entered the new stage of their history.

The squad was strengthened significantly, with arrivals including Sweden international goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, of Manchester City and PSV Eindhoven fame, and the results were promising from the beginning. The board decided, however, to go for a big name coach, so fired Metin Diyadin and opened negotiations with Roy Keane. The Manchester United legend arrived in Istanbul and was close to signing, before his wife reportedly vetoed the move.

Kasimpasa then went for their second choice and appointed Kaiserispor's Shota Arveladze. The former Georgia striker, who enjoyed a very successful time in Turkey at Trabzonspor in the mid-90s before moving to Ajax, learned a lot as Louis van Gaal's assistant at AZ Alkmaar, and is considered a very bright coaching prospect with a free-flowing attacking style.

Arveladze has been a huge success at Kasimpasa since arriving in October 2012. Last season, the team flirted with European qualification, before eventually finishing in sixth place. This term things look even better, with quality players added to the squad in the summer, such as former Netherlands winger Ryan Babel, prolific Iraqi striker Sanharib Malki from Roda, Dutch stopper Ryan Donk from Club Brugge, and most importantly Argentine free-scoring playmaker Ezequiel Scarione, who has netted nine times in 16 league games.

Kasimpasa are unbeaten since September, and hopes are high of even achieving Champions League qualification. As Fenerbahce are expelled from Europe following the infamous match-fixing scandal that rocked the Turkish game, Kasimpasa remain the only hope of Erdogan to have "his" team in the competition in 2014-15.

In September, Erdogan attended the gala opening of new state-of-art training facilities in Kemerburgaz, which are supposed to be on par with the best in Europe. The club's ambitions are growing with every passing week, and they aspire to become a major force in Turkish football. As their progress evolves, Istanbul's big three clubs will start to feel threatened. As opposed to Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, there is little pressure at Kasimpasa, but their financial resources are impressive. Fans around the country are becoming quite uneasy, and some blame referees for favouring Kasimpasa. Besiktas fans certainly felt that way when losing to Kasimpasa last week, and they are very angry with Yildirim and his partners for investing in their rivals rather than in their beloved team.

And that is especially true as far as Carsi ultras group is concerned -- they are opposed to AKP and Erdogan on the political front as well, and took a very active part in protests against the government on the streets of Istanbul this year.

What will happen when the political situation changes is open to question. If there is no political incentive anymore, the investors could leave Kasimpasa, and the downfall will be as quick as the rise.

The story of Istanbulspor comes to mind. In the mid-90s, the small club was bought by wealthy businessman Cem Uzan, who wanted to turn it into one of the best clubs in Europe. Big moves followed, especially the record transfer paid for the Sergen Yalcin, the brightest and most controversial star in Turkey, while foreign players included Oleg Salenko and Peter van Vossen. It all fell apart, though, as Uzan withdrew his support in 2001, and Istanbulspor are now forgotten in the fourth division.

Will Kasimpasa face the same fate? As long as Erdogan is in office it's impossible, and his power is not in danger at the moment despite the protests. While he is there, Kasimpasa can expect to continue their success, and you shouldn't be surprised to find their name in the Champions League draw come August.