“It’s our number one sport, it’s in our DNA”: Can Turkey climb back to soccer’s summit?

“It’s our number one sport, it’s in our DNA”: Can Turkey climb back to soccer’s summit?
After years of financial woe and off-field upheaval, the Turkish Football Federation is plotting a route to the top. The national body’s vice president, Servet Yardımcı, explains how.

This time last year, Turkish soccer was in a perilous position.

Financial fair play (FFP) violations, allied with a currency crisis and economic downturn, had plunged the domestic game into the mire. It had left clubs on the brink of collapse and fans feeling that a soccer-obsessed nation had become a laughing stock in the global game.

A little over 12 months on, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and its vice president, Servet Yardımcı, believe they are sowing the seeds of recovery.

“The vision is to continue to promote and protect football in Turkey, and make sure we become an elite footballing nation,” Yardımcı tells SportsPro. “We want to continue to qualify for international tournaments and eventually win a title. We’re working with clubs to achieve financial stability so we’ll see stronger commercial revenues and attracting more sponsors.”

The ambition of the 62-year-old, who also sits on the UEFA executive committee, is admirable, especially given the state of play over the last few seasons.

Before austerity had wrapped its vice-like grip around Turkish soccer, the top-flight Süper Lig was following the example of other big European leagues with its excessive spending. Fuelled by capital from broadcast rights income – the sixth largest in Europe’s soccer leagues – as well as sponsorships and favourable bank loans, revenues had soared. So too did debts.  

By 2015, the amount clubs owed had shot up from approximately €60 million (US$66 million) to an eye-watering €1 billion (US$1.1 billion). Two years later, Turkey was the only country in the whole of Europe where debts and liabilities, by this point more than €1.5 billion (US$1.6 billion), outstripped clubs’ assets.

From boom to bust to begging, UEFA stepped in. Galatasaray, winners of the UEFA Cup – now the Europa League – in 2000 and 22-time domestic champions, were banned from European competitions for a year and fined €6 million (US$6.6 million) after breaking FFP rules. The governing body next sat down with the TFF to look for a way out of the financial turmoil.

“We’ve worked with UEFA over new regulations, which were put into place at the start of the season. It’s so far, so good,” Yardımcı says cautiously. “Clubs have restructured to streamline their financial positions by adopting and complying with the new FFP criteria.

“Obviously, that will take time because their bank loans are huge and are not going to disappear overnight. Clubs are thinking long and hard about their finances and if they can afford to buy players.

“At the end of this season, they have to stay within the spending limits so they can’t deviate considerably. Over time, we’ll see more benefits.”

The pressure has always been there to perform in Turkish soccer, and indeed to keep up with Europe’s elite, but with that has come overspending. Expensive marquee players such as Didier Drogba and Robin van Persie arrived in the Süper Lig well past their prime, while the focus on youth development shrunk. A lack of long-term planning has also meant some soberingly sharp declines. Mersin İdman Yurdu, a Süper Lig club as recently as 2016 with a new 25,000-seater stadium, tumbled out of the division and then into insolvency last year.

Other clubs, including the likes of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, have avoided a similar fate thanks to reported government intervention. Last January saw the Turkish banking association (TBB) initiate a plan to restructure club debts – rather than write them off completely – in a move to ease spiralling finances. It was widely reported that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president and a former semi-professional player, was behind the financial scheme, which led some detractors of the Turkish leader to criticise the move as an attempt to boost the popularity of his party ahead of local elections in March last year.

However, for Turkish soccer to prosper, a politically motivated fairy godmother is not sustainable. But Yardımcı admits getting the Süper Lig back on an even keel and competing with the likes of the Premier League and La Liga is a monumental task.

“The gap is getting bigger and bigger, it’s huge. It’s going to be a big struggle for us to compete with the top five leagues,” he concedes. “But we’ve made progress financially, the value of our clubs has gone up tremendously. Turkey is a big country with big potential and once the financial situation of our clubs becomes more stable then we’ll be able to make our way up towards the top, but it won’t be easy.”

Based on the latest Deloitte Football Money League, topped by Barcelona and made up solely of teams from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, Turkey has plenty of chipping away to do before its clubs can break the monopoly. Napoli, who are 20th in this year’s study, still pull in a handsome €207.4 million (US$228.4 million) in annual income.

Turkey will inevitably have to bide its time before returning to somewhere resembling soccer’s upper echelons. A notable early coup saw the country secure hosting duties for this year’s UEFA Champions League final for the first time since Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium staged Liverpool’s immortalised victory over AC Milan in 2005. No pressure then.

“We expect work on the stadium to be completed by the end of March at the latest,” affirms Yardımcı. Improvements to the site had been due to finish in February only for the TFF to encounter construction company problems. Despite this, Yardımcı maintains they are “well inside” what UEFA deems acceptable.

“The stadium will look perfect,” he continues. “We’re in continuous contact with UEFA, who are down here almost every month to go through everything we are doing. Everyone is satisfied. In terms of getting the stadium ready, we have no problem.”

The Atatürk upgrades are just a small part of a wider overhaul to Turkish sport’s infrastructure, with the country planning to open 30 stadiums in 27 cities.

“Together with Poland and Russia, we’ve invested the most in new stadiums,” says Yardımcı. “We want to provide our fans with the best experience. The passion for football in Turkey goes through everybody’s blood. It’s our number one sport, it’s in our DNA.

“Safety and security are also of paramount importance to us. We now have e-tickets and since we introduced this system we’ve basically been trouble free. We’ve got more families, more women and children attending matches.”

Buoyed by the growing interest in soccer in the country, Turkey also put itself forward to host the UEFA 2024 European Championship, only to lose out to Germany in September 2018. At the time, Yardımcı stated there were “no valid reasons why Turkey shouldn’t host”, but he admits to SportsPro now that lingering doubts over the country, and its human rights record in particular, ultimately meant its long wait to stage an international soccer tournament will have to go on.

“Human rights has always been an issue against Turkey,” Yardımcı notes, “but we are part of the European Convention on Human Rights and it is not an issue anymore, even though it was in the past.

“It’s all in the past now but obviously at the time we were not happy. We knew how strong Germany’s bid was, they’ve got a great hosting record. We have no doubt they will hold a fantastic tournament. But Turkey was prepared to offer to UEFA a new direction with its location, market and so forth. Eventually it was decided in favour of Germany but we wish the best of luck to them.”

At the heart of the TFF’s long-term strategy, however, is the UEFA Grow project, which was created to nurture and broaden the sport across Europe. For a nation like Turkey, where soccer is the number one sport, one would think there would be no such need. Yardımcı points out that this is far from the case.

“Each country should have 3.5 per cent of the population participating in football,” he begins. “With our population of more than 80 million, we should have 2.8 million registered players in Turkey but today we have just over 600,000 players.

“This is not good enough and we need to reach that 3.5 per cent to put us on a par with other elite European countries.”

Yardımcı adds that the lack of participation is also being reflected at club level from an attendance standpoint.

“One of the areas is the number of spectators in our stadiums,” he says. “Clubs like Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş and Trabzonspor don’t really have that issue and will have an 80 to 90 per cent capacity. But other matches unfortunately there can be a lack of supporters turning up.

“The passion is there but we don’t have that support in the stadiums so we’re working on it to make sure Süper Lig matches are played to full houses.

“To do this, we are initiating UEFA Grow, which will see us go into schools and start to increase participation in soccer.”

If the Turkish game can eventually compete again, on and off the pitch, then it may well be doing so in a very different space. Despite being shelved for now, the much-discussed Champions League reforms continue to dominate the agenda, with proposals for a gated promotion and relegation system potentially serving up a disadvantage for clubs from smaller leagues.

Yardımcı remains philosophical over a situation that could quell interest in the Süper Lig, particularly outside of Turkey.

“At the moment nothing has been decided,” he asserts. “UEFA has the best knowhow and expertise to be able to come up with a solution that will satisfy everybody, including Turkey. I believe Aleksander Čeferin [UEFA president] will never do a closed competition with only the best leagues and teams. He will be fair. We shall wait and see.”

Maintaining competitiveness at club and international level is the TFF’s immediate goal before any grand plans of winning trophies take hold. The national team has come close before, reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002 before making it to the same stage of Euro 2008.

In any case, these fresh, small steps at least appear to have a long-term vision in mind, which seems a marked contrast to the approach of years gone by. Now, with this summer’s Euros just months away, there may not be a better time for Turkey to show the continent how it is faring on the road to recovery.

“Hopefully this generation will do well at the tournament and qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and compete like we did in 2002 and 2008,” Yardımcı says. “Euro 2020 will be the chance for us to show how good and passionate a team we are.”

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