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Invented Traditions as We Near the Political Denouement of the 2017-2018 Football Season in Turkey: What of Basaksehirspor? What of Osmanlispor?

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With the 2017-2018 Turkish football season winding down, there are a few political stories which could develop in the coming weeks. By virtue of a hard-fought victory over Alanyaspor, Galatasaray returned to the top one point clear of Istanbul Basaksehirspor. Below the leaders shit traditional powerhouses Besiktas (third place) and Fenerbahce (fourth place). In terms of upcoming fixtures, next weekend proves to be the most exciting. While leaders Galatasaray will face off against fellow title challengers Besiktas (who will be either second, third, or fourth, depending on their result against Yeni Malatyaspor on Sunday 22 April), Istanbul Basaksehirspor will be facing strugglers Osmanlispor (who are currently 15th in the table).

 

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The Turkish Super League Table Going Into 22 April 2018. Image Courtesy of Mackolik.com

 

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Upcoming Fixtures For Galatasaray (Top) and Istanbul Basaksehirspor (Bottom). On Paper, Istanbul Basaksehirspor Have the Advantage. Image Courtesy of Google Search.

 

In effect, this means that the weekend will be defined by the results of the Istanbul derby on the one hand, and the derby between invented teams on the other. Indeed, considering the final four matches of the season, Basaksehirspor have an undoubted advantage on paper. The ultimate answer, however, might have as much to do with on the pitch results as it will to do with off the pitch politics. While the two established Istanbul powers face off in the Istanbul derby, Basaksehirspor will be facing fellow invented team Osmanlispor. While Osmanli won their latest match against fellow strugglers Genclerbirligi Sk, it will be interesting to see what the powers at be in Turkish football make with next weekend’s match. A win for Istanbul Basaksehirspor might well mean a shot at the championship; a loss for Osmanlispor might mean relegation for the neo-Ottoman sports club.

Essentially, the question can be rephrased: Will Osmanlispor be sacrificed for Istanbul Basaksehirspor to have a shot at the championship? My hunch is that they will be; Istanbul Basaksehirspor have come to close to their first championship to be abandoned now and—given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is such a big fan—the team have friends in high places. The team on the other side of this affair, Osmanlispor, are in the opposite situation. While they were founded in order to project a neo-Ottoman image on the football pitch, their main supporter—former Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek (whose son is chairman of the team)—had a falling out with President Erdogan and, as such, the team may not have the backing it needs to survive another year in Turkey’s top flight; indeed I foresaw Osmanlispor’s struggles back in October of 2017.

Another reason that Osmanlispor might be sacrificed is that there is a contingent of new “project” teams in the TFF First League (the second tier of Turkish football) vying for promotion to the Turkish Super League. Among them are Umraniyespor, who currently sit in second place, and Ankaragucu, who currently sit in fourth place. Umraniyespor, from a conservative suburb of Istanbul’s Asian side, were just a decade ago an obscure team floundering in the amateur leagues; they now have modeled themselves as “the Basaksehirspor of Istanbul’s Asian side”.

 

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The Table in the TFF First Division (Turkey’s Second Tier) Going into 22 April 2018. Image Courtesy Of Mackolik.com

 

Ankaragucu, one of Turkish football’s oldest teams, had been ignored for much of the AKP years while teams like Hacettepe SK and Osmanlispor’s previous incarnation Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor flew the flag of the Turkish capital in the Turkish top flight. However, since former Mayor Melih Gokcek began supporting the team again in late 2017 (please see here and here, the team has risen back to prominence (this, of course, despite Mr. Gokcek’s 2011 Tweet calling for Ankaragucu to “disappear”; perhaps this was why his attempt to take over the team was rejected by Ankaragucu president Mehmet Yiginer).

It has not, however, stopped Mr. Gokcek from supporting the team unofficially. Indeed, Osmanlispor and Ankaragucu have a unique relationship: On 7 September 2017 Mr. Gokcek was overjoyed announcing Ankaragucu’s acquisition of four Osmanlispor players—valued at over 10 million Turkish Liras—free of charge! Mr. Gokcek’s Tweet claimed that Osmanlispor gave the players free so that “Ankaragucu could be champions”. Perhaps Mr. Gokcek, recognizing that Osmanlispor’s days were numbered at the outset of the 2017-2018 season—began to throw his support behind Ankaragucu whole-sale.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/sporarena/osmanlispor-4-futbolcusunu-ucretsiz-verdi-melih-gokcek-40571855

 

Given the situation, it will be interesting to see what happens between Istanbul Basaksehirspor and Osmanlispor next weekend; even if the latter lose to Basaksehirspor it is likely that the powers that be in Turkish football would rather see Genclerbirligi—a team founded in the same year of the Turkish Republic and with a strong republican and left-leaning fan-base—relegated than Osmanlispor. Given that both teams are essentially fighting for survival against one another, Osmanlispor might have some help on the other end of the table. At that point, what will matter is if Osmanlispor is seen as a good investment by those with influence off the pitch. After all, the team have few fans and—if they are not successful—that money could likely be used to support Ankaragucu instead, especially if they are able to get themselves promoted. Regardless of the motives of individual actors in this scenario, it is clear that the final weeks of the Turkish football season will see some real political wrangling both on and off the field. It will be an interesting final few weeks for observers to keep an eye on.

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Attendance Figures in the Last Matches of 2017 Reveal a Struggle Between Competing Visions for Turkish Society

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Attendance figures for the penultimate week of the first half of the 2017-2018 Turkish Super League varied greatly, and—according to data cited by Hurriyet—the the total attendance (minus season-ticket holders) of 72,453 paying fans for the 16th week fixtures represented the single biggest week of attendance in the Turkish Super League since the contraversial Passolig system was implemented. The previous record came in the 6th week of the 2017-18 season, when 55,248 fans purchased tickets. This means that the average attendance for the 16th week’s nine matches was almost 15,000 fans; a total of 130,920 fans (including season-ticket holders) attended the matches making for an average attendance of 14,546 fans league wide. While this is certainly an encouraging figure, showing that fans are still willing to attend matches despite the draconian form of social control that the Passolig system entails, a closer look at the individual attendance figures will show that the struggle for cultural hegemony is still ongoing in Turkish football.

As I noted above, attendance figures varied greatly. The highest attendance—33,027 fans—was seen for the match between traditional giants Fenerbahce and bottom-placed Kardemir Karabukspor. The lowest attendance was for the match between strugglers Genclerbirligi and Kasimpasaspor—the team from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neighborhood—which saw just 1,599 fans in attendance. The discrepancy here should not be surprising; the traditional giants of Turkish football—Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce—traditionally maintain high attendance figures. The “invented” teams, on the other hand—like Kasimpasaspor—and traditional minor teams that face financial struggles—like Genclerbirligi, founded in 1923—struggle to maintain high attendance figures. This trend was clearly visible in the 17th week, the final week of fixtures in the Turkish Super League’s first half.

According to date from Ajansspor.com, the traditional sides attracted a healthy number of fans. The contest between Galatasaray and Goztepe in Istanbul saw 45,809 fans in attendance, the match between Atiker Konyaspor and Fenerbahce attracted 20,458 fans in Konya, while Besiktas drew 16,173 fans (filling 87% of the stadium) when they visited Sivasspor. These strong attendance figures show that the traditional powers of Turkish football are still able to attract fans regardless of where they play. Unfortunately, these high attendance figures only tell half of the story. In fact, when we look at other teams, it is clear that local teams—as well as “invented’ teams—fail to draw fans.

The “derby” between teams from two neighboring provinces on the Turkish Riviera, Antalyaspor and Alanyaspor, attracted just 11,785 fans. Antalyaspor’s new stadium—built by the government—was 54% empty in what should have been a hotly contested derby. And while Antalya failed to fill their stadium they still attracted over 10,000 fans, because they actually have fans (the team has played in the top flight of Turkish football for the better part of the last three decades), other teams were not so lucky. Contrast the attendance in Antalya with the attendance for the match between Kasimpasaspor and Basaksehirspor. Normally a city derby—between two neighborhood teams—would draw a large crowd. Especially when one of the teams involved, Basaksehirspor, is topping the table. Yet, in a city of over 15 million people, only 2,265 Istanbullu fans attended the Istanbul “derby”. It is in this match that one can see just how “invented” Istanbul’s new teams are; neither of them have fans or any real football culture. That one of the teams in question should be topping the table—yet not even draw 3,000 fans in a city with a population of 15 million—is absurd to say the least.

 

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Last Week In Istanbul I Caught a Glimpse of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium During Kasimpasaspor’s Match With Istanbul Basaksehir. The Two Invented Teams Failed To Fill the Stadium in What Should be a Local “Derby”. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Yet this was not the only absurdity of the final week of the first half of the 2017-2018 season, since there was an even lower attendance! In the match between Osmanlispor (Ottoman Sports Club) and Akhisar Belediyespor; Ajansspor reported an attendance of 199 (!) but their figure may have been generous since Oda TV reported an attendance of 181. Regardless what the true figure is, that a top flight match in a football crazed country like Turkey should attract less than one thousand fans is embarrassing to say the least. The reasons for such a low attendance figure, however, can be traced back to politics.

Both Istanbul Basaksehirspor and Osmanlispor [Ankara] are “invented” teams, so to speak; both were invented by the ruling AKP government to provide alternatives to the teams that currently hold a hegemonic position in Turkish football (Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray in Istanbul; Genclerbirligi and Ankaragucu in Ankara). Due to their lack of any “real” fan base (fostered out of a neighborhood or class identity in the manner of many European clubs), these artificially created teams struggle to attract fans. Osmanlispor’s struggles have been compounded by a power struggle within the Turkish political establishment. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan forced out the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, on 28 October 2017 it meant that Osmanlispor had lost a major benefactor. Mr. Gokcek’s 23-year long reign in Ankara coincided with a lot of social engineering in the form of urban development (the odd structures he built in Ankara have become legendary; among them were a dinosaur and a giant robot–the latter got him sued by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers for wasting taxpayer money on . . . a robot statue in a traffic island).

 

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The Fact That I am Even Typing the Phrase “A Giant Robot on a Traffic Island” is Certainly Absurd–But Perhaps Not as Absurd as the Fact that Hard-Earned Taxpayer Money Was Spent on This Monstrosity; It is the Ultimate Insult to Ankara’s Working Class. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/turkish-mayor-sued-over-giant-transformer-robot-statue-10169516.html

 

But giant robot statues were not the only thing that Mr. Gokcek spent taxpayer money on. He also spent money on getting Osmanlispor’s previous incarnation—Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor (the municipality’s team) promoted to the top flight of Turkish football. After a conflict of interest (as Mr. Gokcek took over ownership of one of Ankara’s oldest teams, Ankaragucu), Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor became Ankaraspor and ultimately Osmanlispor (the neo-Ottoman undertones should be unmistakable here; it is a topic I have written about before). Mr. Gokcek even spent time sending municipal employees to Osmanlispor games in a bid to boost their attendance figures. Now that new mayor Mustafa Tuna is in office however, the municipal employees are no longer going to the stadium, which explains the low attendance figures for Osmanlispor’s final home match before the Turkish Super League’s winter break. Ankaragucu fans delighted in the development, of course, joking on Twitter that more than 200 people watch the municipality’s backhoes during construction.

 

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Ankaragucu Fans Amuse Themselves on Social Media With the Apalling Emptiness of Osmanlispor’s Stadium. Images Courtesy Of: https://odatv.com/osmanli-yikildi-2712171200.html

 

While it is refreshing that this corrupt politician’s meddling in the sports world is finally coming to light, it remains to be seen if the attempted social engineering of Turkish society through sport can be reversed. Istanbul Basaksehir is currently leading the Turkish Super League at the halfway point despite being unable to make it out of a weak UEFA Europa League group consisting of Hoffenheim, Sporting Braga, and Ludogorets Razgrad, suggesting that the team’s success is purely domestic. Also, not only is Istanbul Basaksehir the team with the highest rate of successful completed passes in the Turkish Super League, it is also the team which has committed the least amount of fouls this year. These observations suggest that while Istanbul Basaksehirspor are certainly a good side, they might also be getting by with a little help from the (Turkish) referees as well. Time will tell just how far this particular social engineering project will go, since there can be no doubt that the failure of the Osmanlispor project will have repercussions in Turkish football going forward.

The Turkish Football League Welcomes Yet Another Invented Team for the 2017-2018 Season: Gazisehir Gaziantep Futbol Kulubu

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As readers know, football in Turkey is a political sport. This politicization of sport is most often blatant in the naming (and re-naming) of football stadia, but recently it has become increasingly apparent in the re-naming of football clubs. In a bid to invent tradition in the Hobsbawmian sense, new football clubs have been “invented” in the last decade challenging the existing hegemony in Turkish football, represented by clubs whose history stretches back to the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The latest example is the case of Gaziantep Buyuksehir Belediyespor, the Gaziantep municipality’s club playing in the second tier, which as of 15 June 2017 has become Gazisehir Gaziantep Futbol Kulubu. That this should come at the same time that Gaziantep province’s most famous team, Gaziantepspor, was relegated from the Turkish Super League for the first time since 1990, should come as no surprise. After all, this is a challenge to the cultural (and sporting) hegemony of Gaziantepspor (I have written before about government efforts to take land from Gaziantepspor). That the new team’s badge should so resemble Gaziantepspor’s is no coincidence; it is part of the one dimensional thought I have written about that discourages new ideas is  inherent in late stage capitalism. That the new team’s name—“Gazisehir Gaziantep”—should so closely resemble Istanbul’s Basaksehirspor is also no coincidence; both are invented traditions.

 

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The New Logo, eerily similar to Gaziantepspor’s current logo. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.birgun.net/haber-detay/gaziantep-buyuksehir-belediyespor-un-adi-ve-logosu-degisti-164917.html

 

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Gaziantepspor’s Current Logo. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.iha.com.tr/haber-gaziantepspor-adanaspor-maci-saat-kacta-hangi-kanalda-624568/

 

2017-2018 Champions League qualifiers (and last year’s runners up in the Turkish league) Istanbul Basaksehirspor represent the most blatant challenge to the existing cultural hegemony in football because the club came to prominence following the decline of Istanbulspor, a team formed in 1926 by students from Istanbul high school, which had been a first division stalwart for years. That it was run by Cem Uzan—a controversial businessman who once ran for political office—meant a run of success for the club before it was repossessed by the government after falling into financial ruin following the departure of the Uzan family. With Istanbul’s “fourth” team—after the “big three” of Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray—out of the picture, it was only logical that a challenge would be mounted; it manifested itself in the form of Istanbul Basaksehirspor, a team born out of the municipality’s Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor which carries state backing in many forms.

This process was repeated in other cities with other teams. In Ankara it was Ankaragucu, a team formed in 1910, which fell into decline following the installation of Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek’s son as chairman. At that point Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor (again the municipality’s team) rose to prominence and became Ankaraspor; now it is known as Osmanlispor Futbol Kulubu (Ottoman Football Club), a thinly veiled piece of neo-Ottoman propaganda. Of course, as Ankaragucu has seen a resurgence (returning to the second tier for the upcoming 2017-2018 season), Justice and Development Party Mayor Melih Gokcek has pledged his support for Ankaragucu. Somethings, it seems, will never change, and politicians’ involvement in Turkish football is one of those things.

The re-naming—and transformation of clubs from state-run municipality sponsored entities into private entities—allows business opportunities for new owners and encourages crony capitalism. In this case it is Adil Sani Konukoglu who is the new chairman of Gazisehir Gaziantep Futbol Kulubu; according to Bloomberg Mr. Konukoglu is the head of Gaziantep-based Sanko holding. While Mr. Konukoglu pledged his full support for the team according to a piece on the Gaziantep metropolitan municipality’s website, it is clear that the club will have to deal with some baggage from their previous incarnation: the old Gaziantep Buyuksehir Belediyespor was accused of match-fixing in a game last season by Sanliurfaspor on 5 July 2017. On 13 July 2017 the Turkish Football Federation announced that it would look into the allegations.

These kinds of developments are typical in the climate of what some scholars have termed Turkey’s “authoritarian neoliberalism”. This kind of thought process permeates Turkish politics; it is not a conservative ideology at all. Rather it is a politics that privileges business interests above all while also cementing a new cultural hegemony. In such a climate it is tradition which is the first to fall by the way-side and the world of football is no exception.