The Başakşehir football club has enjoyed a sensational rise in recent years in Turkey’s top football league, competing for the top national title as well as in the playoffs for European club championships.
The only thing it lacks is very many actual fans.
The eponymous club is based in the new-build suburban neighbourhood of Başakşehir on the far outskirts of Istanbul. Its meteoric success in recent years has fuelled ongoing criticism due to its links to the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party and alleged favouritism.
The club’s hugely influential president, Göksel Gümüşdağ, is related to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by marriage, and the president himself inaugurated the Başakşehir stadium, named after the coaching legend Fatih Terim.
“I’ve founded this club, the neighbourhood should support it,” Erdoğan said at the time.
But few locals actually seem to have followed his advice.
One fan, who asked to remain anonymous, said the club had been known to organise neighbourhood schoolchildren to attend matches and deliver free tickets to residents. For a time, municipality workers were also brought in to attend the games, he said.
Those familiar with Turkey’s football scene agree that Başakşehir was an awkward fit in a country usually passionate about the sport.
“Currently, there’s no group that we could name as Başakşehir fans,” said Cuneyt Kaseler, a sports journalist. “Başakşehir is a newly built district. Although it belongs to Istanbul, it’s far away from the city.”
Indeed, Başakşehir lies some 30 km from central Istanbul, a satellite town built as part of mass housing projects in the last decade of the previous century. The synthetic nature of the neighbourhood means that it lacks a distinctive culture. Residents have not developed an organic relationship with the club, which began as a team representing the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) before being reformed in the neighbourhood in 2014 and ascending from the lower leagues. Lacking the historic roots of top-billed teams like Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Besiktas, Başakşehir has failed to inspire a diehard support base, despite its big-name players and sponsorship.
It is now owned by a joint stock company, a novelty in Turkey, having been sold for the relatively minuscule amount of seven million Turkish liras.
“People who live in that neighbourhood and who are interested in football go to the matches, [but] most of them are supporters of other clubs,” Kaseler continued. “It’s hard to generalise since there are no Başakşehir fans.”
Mustafa Akdolu, who describes himself as the team’s top cheerleader, disputes this. He is often to be found in the stadium, leading chants and singing. He described Başakşehir as a true community hub.
“It’s the neighbourhood club, a five-minute walk from your home,” he said. “Youngsters of the neighbourhood come together, and they stay away from bad habits. This makes me so happy.”
As for the rumours that the fanbase was drawn from AKP supporters and local municipality employees, Akdolu said the team’s supporters were a diverse and representative group.
“I am a jeweller, another has a dental clinic, and another one works in advertising,” he said. “Everything said about us is totally false. There is definitely no proof.”
In the end, he said, the rumours that the club was a state-sponsored vanity project only worked in its favour.
“To be honest, I love how they always keep us in the media with such allegations,” Akdolu added. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”