Mustafa Akdolu is the terrace leader of Istanbul Başakşehir FC, Turkey’s newest professional football club, which has been giving the old elite a run for their money. In his thirties, with glasses and a round, smiley face, Akdolu is better known by his terrace nickname, ‘Ponçik Reis’, the happy chief. The emotion that most characterises him right now, however, is dejection. 

It’s the last week of the 2018-19 season and Başakşehir are taking part in a dead- rubber home game against Alanyaspor. Today, fewer than 750 people are at the stadium, watching their side labour to a 1-1 draw. A grand total of four populate the away end. I estimate the average age of the crowd to be 17. “Why did they give us a game at 6pm on a Friday during Ramadan?” Ponçik Reis grumbles. “Normally this section is completely full,” he tells me, gesturing around us on the top terrace. 

It wasn’t meant to end like this. Formed a mere five years ago, the team – which has close links to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his ruling party – had been tantalisingly close to breaking the stranglehold of a tiny cluster of Turkish clubs. Had they won the 2018-19 season, Başakşehir would have become only the third team outside the “Big Three” of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş to have won the top league since its inception in 1959. Erdoğan, who has radically reshaped Turkish politics and society during 16 years at the nation’s helm, had said that a Başakşehir title would be a “revolution”. 

Başakşehir’s entire operation, from its business structure to its playing style, is an audacious attempt to forge a new model for Turkish football – privately- owned, financially “modest”, with a different fan profile and geographical focal point. Critics accuse the side of not playing fair, of exploiting its connections to the government to win preferential treatment. Yet it had looked like it was working. In March, Başakşehir were eight points clear at the top of the table. Coached by one of Turkey’s most promising managers, Abdullah Avcı, the side had a mix of youth and experience, Turkish and foreign stars, and played a brand of pressing, possession-based football rarely seen in Turkey. Everyone thought it was Başakşehir’s year. 

Then it all unravelled. The week before I met Ponçik Reis, Başakşehir lost 2-1 to Galatasaray, handing their storied rivals the league title. Since then, the club has lost its manager, foreign teams are looking to pick off its star talent and the Istanbul city council – closely entwined with the story of the club’s rise – has passed into the hands of the opposition. Having watched its rapid ascent, many in the world of Turkish football are now asking if this daring attempt at sporting engineering has reached its limits. 

The assumption of power in 2002 by Erdoğan’s party, the religious conservative Justice and Development Party (known as the AK Party), signalled a sea change in Turkish politics. When Turkey was founded as an independent nation in 1923, it was established as a secular state. Islam was stripped from much of public life, declared a private matter and controlled and monitored by a new directorate of religious affairs. In the decades that followed, the urban, secular elite readily imbibed this position but it sat uneasily with a larger, poorer mass of citizens, for whom religion provided structure to daily routines and offered succour in the face of discrimination. Religion continued to be policed by the military and the courts. When, in 1996, an Islamist party made it to national power – as part of a coalition government – the generals undemocratically forced them from office. But in 2002, bolstered by the votes of liberals attracted by their pro- business, rights-based manifesto, the AK Party had won a thumping majority. And they were going to use it to radically reshape Turkey. 

Slowly, over the course of two decades, Erdoğan has changed the role of the military, the judiciary, the media and religion in public life. Some of this has been a necessary correction to the harshest dictates of a secular system – abolishing a rule that forbade women from wearing headscarves in government buildings and universities, for instance. Other elements have been more controversial. The once hostile media has been brought to heel. Judicial independence has become compromised. Alcohol has come under sustained attack, from banning its sale on university campuses to blurring images of its consumption on television. State theatre has lost its autonomy. 

Yet some areas of Turkish life have been more resistant to change. Speaking in January 2019 at an awards ceremony held by the culture and tourism ministry, President Erdoğan made a surprisingly frank comment. “It always makes me sigh to say this, but in the last 16 years we’ve not gone as far as we wanted in the fields of art and culture,” he told the audience. The speech was an admission that, while the government can easily alter laws and policy, cultural practices remain more obdurate to reform. Nevertheless, he was not giving up. “Whatever the field of art, it falls to us as a government to provide the means for its creation,” continued Erdoğan. “If a society paralyses its art and literature production, the creation and cherishing of common values becomes difficult. I see this [goal] as at least as important as our foreign policy or fight against terrorism”. 

Football has long remained one of the hardest nuts to crack. Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş are too big, with too many supporters, to make sweeping generalisations about the political or cultural persuasions of their fans. Yet the clubs’ histories and institutional structures are resolutely secular. Fans from all three of these sides played a prominent role in the largest demonstrations to date against the AK Party, the 2013 Gezi Park protests. “They are behaving disgracefully,” Erdoğan was captured saying in leaked tape, revealing just how angry he was at football fans’ involvement. Before a 2017 referendum on awarding more powers to the presidency, the stadiums of the Big Three clubs rang to chants of the Izmir march, a song from the Turkish war of independence that became an unofficial anthem of the opposition. 

There are football clubs from more conservative cities, such as Konyaspor and Kayserispor, which play in the Süper Lig. Yet their fan cultures can be rough round the edges – aggressive, sweary and confrontational with police and rival fans (a friend of mine had a chunk of stadium concrete thrown at his head when attending a Kayserispor match against Ankaragücü). And they are not based in Istanbul, limiting their influence. In short, both in the past and today, football in Turkey is not particularly pious or obedient to those in charge. It was against this backdrop that Başakşehir was born. 

Officially, Istanbul Başakşehir Football Club is five years old. The club’s name (pronounced Bash-ak-sh-heer), its crest and location in Istanbul’s western district of Başakşehir all stem from June 2014, when the club was established by a consortium of seven businessmen. But while the club appeared new, it was little more than a shell that would take over a team with deeper roots. The manner of its founding continues to be one of the largest gripes of the club’s many critics, who bristle with anger at its very existence. 

Başakşehir’s story in fact begins with Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor, better known by its acronym, IBB. IBB was established in 1990 by the municipality (a translation of its name is the catchy “Istanbul Municipality Sport”). It might seem odd for a professional sports club to be formed with taxpayers’ money, but this has long been common practice in Turkey. Municipality outfits are normally multi-sport clubs, with branches in amateur sports that frequently aren’t profitable, such as handball or wrestling. It is unclear why those in charge of Istanbul felt the need to support a professional football branch in a city that was already home to Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş. 

IBB football team spent the 1990s and 2000s yo-yoing between the third and first tiers, never doing much to capture the imagination. The club never had a bona fide fanbase. At one point in the 2000s, IBB attracted a couple of hundred young fans who began supporting the side in an ironic hipster style. At matches they would hold banners mocking the team’s distant location (“everywhere’s an away match for us”) and sticking up for unlikely heroes (“the referees are always right, boys”). Otherwise, the story of IBB was unremarkable – no different to many of the dozens of middling professional sides in Turkey. That was soon to change. 

On 4 June 2014, the business consortium that had established Başakşehir FC purchased the football branch of IBB for 16.5 million Turkish lira, roughly £4.6 million. IBB had just been promoted to the Süper Lig. Paying £4.6 million for a top division Super League club was an eyebrow-raising bargain – the income in the subsequent season from TV rights alone would be at least £7 million. The sale was conducted without a tender process. 

Attention fell on the members of the consortium, in particular to the person who became president of the new club, Göksel Gümüşdağ. Gümüşdağ was a businessman but was best known for his involvement in Istanbul politics with the AK Party. Yet Gümüşdağ’s link to the government went deeper still: he was related by marriage to Emine Erdoğan, the wife of the President. Another member of the management board, Ahmet Kenetçi, also had ties to the Erdoğan family – his sister had married one of Erdoğan’s sons. 

Such connections prompted critics to suggest that the club was sold at a knock-down price by an AK party mayor to a group of businessmen that included members of the Erdoğan family. Gümüşdağ denies the claim that the deal was overly generous. “IBB sports club had no assets,” he said in 2018. “Despite there being no assets at all, we formed a company and paid around 16 million 550 thousand lira to take on all the active and passive debt.” He went on to say that the football branch was legally registered as a public association separate from the municipality – so not, in fact, acquired from the public – and that the sale was completely above board, supervised by the Capital Markets Board of Turkey with all the official documentation to prove it. 

Yet critics were unhappy. “You can’t just say, ‘Right, I’m packing up and leaving the municipality, now I’m a private company’ – that’s public property,” wrote the journalist Soner Yalçın. The deal came just after IBB had secured promotion to the Süper Lig. Rather than start at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, the purchase allowed the consortium to “buy in” to the top division. 

Across Turkey, people cycled through the possible reasons for the takeover. The new club was probably not going to make money: football teams are notoriously bad investments. Nor had it been acquired out of love for this particular club: no one loved IBB. As absurd as it sounded, it seemed like the foundation of Başakşehir had bigger, more audacious goals – nothing short of building an entirely parallel football culture from scratch. 

It takes a long time to reach Başakşehir from central Istanbul. There’s a metro but it’s slow and involves two changes. Whenever I visit, I normally just block out two hours and sit on the bus. The route provides a snapshot of Istanbul through the different rings of its life. First the bus crawls in heavy traffic past the old mosques of Fatih, the historic centre of the city for millennia. It goes through a gap in the old Byzantine city walls, as it picks up speed down huge highways that carve through post-war districts – Bayrampaşa, Esenler – all brown tiles and red four-storey apartment blocks crammed cheek-by- jowl across the slopes and hills. Then it passes onwards, through the ordered rows of a huge industrial estate with men welding pieces of metal on the street outside. It pushes westwards, past the huge Mall of Istanbul shopping centre, Istanbul’s latest temple to consumption, sitting at a tangle of flyovers and lay-bys. 

Başakşehir almost forgets to announce itself as the bus moves through unassuming rows of private housing estates, tucked behind fences and guard booths. Clusters of schoolgirls wait at the bus stops. The verges are all brusque, unlovely landscaping but it’s probably more green than most places in Istanbul. If I’ve been lucky, the bus’s final stop will be the bus park right outside the Başakşehir football stadium. The silver panelling and curved floodlights of the ground mark the current edge of the urban sprawl in this city of 16 million – across the other side of the highway is scrub and trees. 

Today, Başakşehir is home to 427,000 people. 25 years ago, none of it existed. The neighbourhood was the brainchild of a growing segment of the Turkish population that chafed at Turkey’s strict secularism and wished for more Islam in public life. Whilst the idea resonated with the urban poor, the key drivers of the movement were the petty bourgeoisie. These were the first generation who had made the double jump, from country to city and from poor backgrounds to middle-class existence, yet who felt marginalised and impeded by Turkey’s secular establishment. 

In 1994, the Islam-inspired Refah (Welfare) Party won local elections in Istanbul – a landmark moment for the political wing of the movement. The new mayor of the city was a charismatic politician called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He saw an opportunity. Fundraising through Islamic solidarity networks, the municipality planned and built two brand-new suburbs, Başakşehir 1 and 2, with a combined total of 5,300 units. They proved popular. By the end of 1998, both housing complexes were full, with construction beginning on two further neighbourhoods. 

Large political significance was attached to the projects. “These housing enterprises, they are something more than just the economy of construction,” Bülent Batuman, a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Bilkent University told me. “It’s a way of building a new national identity.” The politicisation of urban architecture has a long history in Turkey. In the 1920s, the building of opera houses and Parisian- style wide boulevards was a direct attempt by the country’s founders to grow a generation of urbane, secular, westward-looking citizens. The housing projects of Başakşehir – along with slum clearance projects, and the construction of new mega-mosques – is a 21st century iteration of politics-through- construction. Başakşehir was to be a pious neighbourhood. New residents described their motivations for moving to the area to include separating themselves from individuals who drank alcohol, dressed inappropriately or owned dogs as pets (which are seen by some conservative Muslims as unIslamic). The symbolism was important, right down to the neighbourhood’s name – başak is the Turkish for “wheat”, the symbol of the Welfare Party. 

In 2008, the housing developments of Başakşehir became classified as their own province. Now an autonomous entity, the new district suddenly needed its own council facilities – a town hall, libraries, parks. It was also decided that it needed a football stadium. In early 2013, Istanbul council signed a 133 million lira contract with the construction firm Kalyon Group to build a 17,500 all-seater stadium, the fifth-largest in Istanbul. The late founder of Kalyon Group – Hasan Kalyoncu – had ties to Erdoğan that went back decades. 

A 2013 story in the local online newspaper, the Başakşehir Times, suggested that athletes with limited resources would be able to make use of the site’s 48-room hotel and sports facilities. But as soon as the stadium was completed, IBB was bought by the Başakşehir consortium, the team renting it exclusively. When I was given a tour of the club in 2019, the staff member guiding me around proudly showed off the “5-star” hotel. When I asked if outsiders could use it, he tutted. “No, only Başakşehir players”. 

The opposition complain that the whole process was unfair. Başakşehir’s council- built facilities contrast markedly with most of Istanbul’s sports infrastructure. “For every six amateur clubs in Istanbul there is one facility to train,” Tarık Balyalı, a member of the Istanbul municipal assembly for the opposition Republican People’s Party, told me. “On the one hand are amateur sports clubs that can’t find a pitch to train on and the money to participate in the league. On the other is a football club that is close to the government, founded and supported by those who support the government, which has had hundreds of millions of lira spent on it. Is that just?” 

The neighbourhoods of Beşiktaş or Fenerbahçe on match day are a sea of riotous, boozy fans drinking in the many bars, restaurants and parks. Başakşehir, by contrast, is largely quiet: often the only clue that a game is happening is the traffic jams. For Bülent Batuman, the developments in Başakşehir reveal the shift in status for religious conservatives in the AK Party era. “In the past, Islamic practices took place behind closed doors. But now they [religious conservatives] feel confident,” he told me. “The Başakşehir stadium is a claim to visibility.” The lack of alcohol and boisterousness seems universally viewed as a pity by most fans of the Big Three teams, but many supporters forget how intimidating a large, male- dominated crowd of drinkers can feel. I see more women and families with young children attending Başakşehir matches. The stadium, the team and the area are a claim to recognition by those who feel they have been in the shadows for long enough. 

The management at Başakşehir understood that the hopes and dreams for what the team could represent counted for little if the football was no good. The first thing the new club did was re-sign the old IBB coach, Abdullah Avcı. In charge of the municipal side from 2006 to 2011, Avcı did a quietly decent job of guiding the team to top- half finishes and an appearance in the Turkish Cup final. In November 2011, he left to manage the national team – a period that ended in disappointment when Turkey failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. But shortly afterwards he was back, taking the reins at his “old” job, now transformed. He has won the respect of many Turkish football journalists. “Abdullah Avcı is an open coach who follows developments in modern football closely,” said the sports reporter Kenan Başaran. “From the physical to the nutritional, he’s involved with every department.” In a league still dominated by personality-driven managerial styles, Avcı has stood out with his obsession over tactics, use of data and his willingness to delegate to assistants. 

But it was the club’s transfer policy that caught the most attention. Başakşehir did what all Turkish clubs have a reputation for doing – buying big name foreign talent nearing the end of their careers. Their signings included Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho and Demba Ba. But these headline names obscured more savvy transfer business. In 2016, Başakşehir acquired the 19-year-old winger Cengiz Ünder for €700,000 from second-tier side Altınordu; a year later they sold him to AS Roma for €13.4 million. İrfan Can Kahveci was brought to the club from Gençlerbirliği and became a key attacking talent who now has Premier League clubs sniffing around him. Avcı also got more out of the existing players. Edin Višća, at Başakşehir since 2011, blossomed into a tricky winger. Başakşehir’s CEO Mustafa Eröğüt sang the praises of Avcı’s skill in this regard. “He’s like the American businessman Warren Buffett. Buffett is a very rich man because he buys undervalued stock. Mr Avcı is very good at finding undervalued players and making them better.” There have been duds: in January 2018, Arda Turan was signed on loan from Barcelona. He failed to perform, and in May 2018 was banned for a record 16 games for pushing and insulting a referee. But on the whole, Avcı managed to generate a blend of young and old, Turkish and foreign, who played a disciplined, pressing, possession-based style of football. 

In their transfer dealings Başakşehir were helped by being a private entity. Most clubs in Turkey are owned by a dernek, an association run by members who pay an annual fee and elect the president and board. This arrangement has led to a plague of short-termism. With their eyes set on re-election, presidents spend for instant success, racking up debts that haunt the clubs in later years. Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş and Galatasaray are all creaking under their debt loads, which run to hundreds of millions of euros each. As a corporate entity, Başakşehir stands in contrast. The club has no members it needs to keep happy, no fans screaming to sign the next expensive, ageing European star. “One day I think all the clubs in Turkey will be private,” a member of Başakşehir staff predicted. 

In their first two seasons in the top flight, Başakşehir recorded back-to-back fourth-place finishes. In 2016-17 they were the main competitor to Beşiktaş for the league title but ran out of gas and finished second by four points. That year also saw the club reach the Turkish Cup final, in which they lost on penalties to Konyaspor. Last season, Başakşehir went into the final round of fixtures capable of winning the league but ended up finishing in third place. 

All of these close shaves paled in comparison to the 2018-19 season. Başakşehir were much better than the others. Galatasaray had sold their striker, the former Swansea star Bafétimbi Gomis, to the Saudi club Al-Hilal and were toothless in attack. At Beşiktaş, the Şenol Güneş era was coming to an end amid ageing players and disjointed formations. Fenerbahçe had one of their worst seasons ever, sat in the relegation zone at the halfway point before a late-spring surge made them safe. Başakşehir, by contrast, were purring. They reached the top of the table at the end of October, and stayed there for the next six months. 

One cold evening in March 2019, I saw Başakşehir dispatch Fenerbahçe. Başakşehir dominated the first half, maintaining possession so well that the Fenerbahçe fans – not known for their graciousness – started applauding them. In the second half, Başakşehir let the control slip. A defensive error gifted Fenerbahçe an equaliser. Were it not for a Fener player missing an open goal, Başakşehir would have fallen behind. Yet a minute after that scare they nabbed a second: 2-1. Game over. It was exactly the kind of gritty comeback that defines champions. With two months to go, Başakşehir’s lead over second-placed Galatasaray stretched to eight points. At the final whistle my eyes caught Márcio Mossoró, another foreign also-ran transformed under Avcı. The Brazilian midfielder jumped into the arms of a teammate, pumping the air with both fists, face full of elation like they had just won the league. 

Başakşehir’s rise has irritated fans of the Big Three. They ridicule the club for having no supporters and dismiss its success as a flash in the pan. “They are a fake club and have no history,” a Beşiktaş fan told the BBC in a recent story about the club, a sentiment I have heard repeated countless times. “I don’t have any feelings, any nerves about playing them and everyone else feels the same”. 

Anger at Başakşehir has been fuelled by questions over how its owners purchased the club, and the way that it has been run since. It stands accused of exploiting its government connections to win overly generous sponsorship deals and other support for the team. Under the AK Party, in exchange for lucrative government contracts, businesses are sometimes expected to do certain things, such as donate to charitable foundations with close ties to government, or acquire newspapers and TV channels and turn them into propaganda outlets. Many believe that sponsoring Başakşehir became one of these quid-pro-quo “favours” on the merry-go-round of business and politics in Turkey. 

Take, for instance, the club’s name. Officially, it is called “Medipol Başakşehir FK”, Medipol being the name of a successful health company in Turkey that has paid to have its name included in the team’s. The founder of Medipol group is Fahrettin Koca, long time personal doctor to President Erdoğan. In 2018, Koca became Minister for Health. 

Critics look at the signings from foreign clubs – Arda Turan’s wage alone is supposedly €4 million a year – and conclude that these sponsorship deals must be inflated, or that there must be additional income streams that the club isn’t declaring. Stung by the criticism and endless questions about the club’s finances, in January 2019 Göksel Gümüşdağ gave a presentation in which he displayed a pie chart of its income. He claimed that only 14 per cent came from sponsors, with the bulk coming from TV rights and profits from transfers. “Başakşehir’s success isn’t covered up or hidden. We are a model club in Turkey,” he stated. 

Başakşehir’s fans are repeatedly accused of being government cheerleaders, paid to attend matches. That is disputed by the small band of loyal supporters who attend the games. “When Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul he founded Başakşehir. So when people say ‘Başakşehir’, the government immediately comes to everyone’s mind,” a Başakşehir fan called Burak Bilgili told me. “But that’s not reflected on the terraces... There are people on our terraces from every [political] party. Başakşehir are not political.” But if the terraces are apolitical, why was Erdoğan met with a large banner reading “Commander in Chief” when he recently attended a game? “That wasn’t the fan club, it was done by other fans at Başakşehir,” Burak said. “But we didn’t mind because it is about the president and he is the president of all Turkey”. 

Listening to Bilgili I found myself torn. In my conversations with fan groups across Turkey, a common refrain is frustration with how their actions are politicised by general society. This is as true of Çarşı, the Beşiktaş supporters’ group that many on the left have claimed as their own, as it is of Başakşehir. Yet at the same time there was a guardedness to Bilgili’s pronouncements. Six months after we met, I arranged to attend a match with him. I made the 450km journey from Ankara especially for the game. We had been in regular contact throughout my journey but when I arrived, Bilgili stopped answering his phone. Then it was turned off. I stood outside the ground, scanning the crowd to see if I could spot him but to no avail. Turkey is a nation famous for its hospitality. In more than 10 years of researching its football fans, the episode remains the only time I’ve been stood up. 

The club too are very defensive about their political links. When I visited in February 2019, one executive gave me an exasperated take on what he sees as the double standards of the opposition media. He pointed out that the president is a Fenerbahçe fan. “But when Fenerbahçe win the league, do they say, ‘Ah, Erdoğan manufactured it?’” He gave a further example. “Erdoğan’s hometown is Rize. You know us Turks, we love our hometowns. Two years ago, Rizespor were relegated. If Erdoğan was involved in football, would they have gone down?” Another member of the club believed the disapproval aimed at Başakşehir has nothing to do with politics – it’s simply the irritation the Big Three feel when someone tries to upset their sheltered clique. “People at first looked on us with sympathy, when we were finishing fourth,” he told me. “But then we started challenging and people started to criticise us.” 

I have some sympathy with this argument. There is an unfortunate tendency in Turkey not to train the scrutiny aimed at Başakşehir onto the Big Three clubs. Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş are hardly paragons of virtue. Their systemic importance to people in Turkey – around 90 per cent of the population support one of the Big Three – has bred a sense that they are “too big to fail”. All have received support from successive Turkish governments, including the AK Party. In January, the state-owned Ziraat Bank offered debt restructuring to Turkey’s ailing clubs. None of the Big Three have yet signed on, but many feel it’s only a matter of time. Defending Başakşehir, one official at the Turkish Football Federation pointed out that other teams appear to take advantage of their own business networks. The Fenerbahçe basketball team is sponsored by Beko, the white goods firm that is partly owned by the family of the club’s chairman, Ali Koç. Questionable sponsorship deals are of course a problem that goes far beyond Turkey. In 2014, Manchester City and Paris St Germain were fined by Uefa for breaching Financial Fair Play rules through inflated sponsorship contracts signed with companies linked to their owners. 

Başakşehir’s efforts to distance themselves from politics are not helped by Erdoğan himself. “I founded Başakşehir,” he stated in a live TV interview in March 2019. Some saw that comment as a self-aggrandising lie – in 1990, when IBB was founded, Erdoğan had no link to the municipality. But it could also be read as an admission of being the driving force behind the 2014 formation. At an AK Party congress in April 2018, around 100 Başakşehir fans were in the audience. They were explicitly addressed by Erdoğan, and whooped and hollered at his pronouncements. The incident seemed to make a mockery of Burak’s claim of political impartiality. 

Başaran thinks their success is down to a cocktail of factors. “It’s a combination of a corporate structure, a good manager, stability, the right transfer policy, a powerful club president, political influence, financial means and no fan pressure,” he said. It is undeniable, though, that Başakşehir could do a better job at being transparent. No one at the club would talk to me officially for this piece. Bağış Erten, a journalist at Eurosport, told me that they should level with the public, arguing that the current business model for football in Turkey is broken and putting forward the case for their approach. Instead, he says, their lack of accountability fuels suspicions. “They are not open and they are not transparent. They should erase all these suspicions. They should do that, not me.” 

In the final weeks of the 2018-19 season, the Turkish league suddenly shifted, like a settled weather pattern that has just been disrupted. For the second year in a row, Başakşehir had an April wobble, leaving an opportunity for Galatasaray to pip them at the last minute. Taking a line out of the Alex Ferguson playbook, Galatasaray manager Fatih Terim cranked up the pressure. 

Başakşehir failed to win for four successive matches as Galatasaray caught them up. At times the Istanbul giants rode their luck. Against Rizespor, with the game in injury time and Galatasaray still behind, the referee gave the softest of soft penalties. Despite replays seeming to show no contact, the VAR referee chose to uphold the decision. Was it a genuine refereeing error, borne of the drip-drip of pressure? Like their Big Three counterparts, Galatasaray generate influence just by being Galatasaray. Or was there something more fishy going on? Social media exploded with intrigue as Turkey indulged in its love of a good conspiracy theory. When I first arrived in the country I found this tendency absurd. But the more I’ve dug into Turkey’s football, the more dirt I have uncovered – links between sides and mafia bosses, teams winning 8-0 on the last day of the season to clinch the title. It’s impossible to know for sure. 

Such concerns were swimming through my head when I attended the penultimate match of the season: Galatasaray v Başakşehir. The fixture list had been kind and delivered a title decider. With the sides level on points, whoever won would claim the championship (a draw would take it to the final week, the advantage with Galatasaray whose goal difference was eight better). 

I got to the stadium to see a sea of 50,000 red and gold Galatasaray fans enjoying the sunny May evening. Walking around, I spotted a temporary arch, sponsored by a phone company, labelled “championship souvenir”. Fans were queuing up to have their picture taken in front of it. “A bit presumptuous,” I thought to myself. Sitting down for a rest outside the club shop, I got talking to a fan who had flown in for the match from Adana, a city in in southern Turkey. I asked him if the game was a derby match. “No!” he said violently. “There’s only one derby: against Fenerbahçe. Not even Beşiktaş is a derby match.” Others I asked were equally dismissive of their rivals for the title. Such carefree disregard of Başakşehir. Such supreme confidence that Galatasaray would win. 

This feeling only grew as I got into the stadium, which was a crackling bowl of expectation. Even the banners were upping the ante, written – like so many assertions by Turkish fans – with a confidence that is completely alien to my Leicester City-supporting consciousness. “You will win! You will fight in order to win!” “We will see the championship this season too, Galatasaray!” As the game got going, the intimidation of the Başakşehir players was truly awesome, every scintilla of possession greeted by 50,000 people whistling loudly. After five minutes my ears felt like someone had dragged a pot scourer through them. By contrast, the Başakşehir fans couldn’t even fill the away end. There were perhaps a thousand people huddled behind the protective glass, lost among the empty seats and impossible to hear against the din of the home crowd. 

The adrenaline of the occasion had seeped into the players, who were charging around, overhitting passes and jumping into tackles. When Başakşehir took the lead, courtesy of skilful wing play and a perfectly-directed header by Riad Bajić, the game boiled over. Angry at how Başakşehir celebrated, the Galatasaray bench turned on their counterparts. A scrum developed, in the middle of which I saw Terim clench his fist and threaten to punch a member of the Başakşehir coaching staff. The hosts were rattled. 

A different Galatasaray emerged for the second half. While people were still returning to their seats the hosts scored an equaliser. In the 54th minute, the Galatasaray midfielder Younès Belhanda put the ball in only for the VAR referee to rule it out for a handball. Two minutes later, Henry Onyekuru scored only for the VAR referee to rule it out again, this time for offside. The Galatasaray bench was fuming. Fatih Terim would soon be sent to the stands along with a Başakşehir assistant coach. The crescendo of whistling from the crowd removed what was left of my eardrums. I feared for the referee’s safety. Then came a Galatasaray free kick. A sliced clearance from a Başakşehir player. And an Onyekuru header. This time the goal stood. The crowd erupted into a jubilant roar. It was hard to absorb what had just transpired. From a position of almost unassailable dominance, Başakşehir had blown possibly their best chance of becoming champions. That night, the streets of Istanbul were a cacophony of car horns, singing and music as the red and gold third of the population partied. 

Five days after the loss to Galatasaray, I was across town on the terrace at Başakşehir, chatting with Ponçik Reis at their miserable season finale. By the end of the game he had perked up a bit, inviting me to attend next season’s big fixtures with his group and indulging in some gallows humour. “How are we supported by the government? We didn’t win the league the past three years!” But a week later it was announced that Abdullah Avcı was to leave Başakşehir for Beşiktaş. The club quickly appointed a successor, the highly-rated Okan Buruk, but the symbolism was unmistakeable. Avcı had been with Başakşehir since the outset. He was seen by many as the architect of their success. It was hard not to view his departure as a significant turning point in the club’s history. 

Başakşehir’s woes bore an uncanny resemblance to those of the AK Party itself. In local elections in March 2019, just after Başakşehir began to struggle, Erdoğan lost control of a string of cities including his beloved Istanbul. For the first time in 25 years, Turkey’s biggest metropolis was to pass out of his hands. The AK Party demanded a re-run of the mayor’s race, claiming irregularities but providing no credible evidence. The high election board assented and scheduled the repeat for June 23. 

It made no difference. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition candidate who won narrowly the first time around, triumphed in the rerun by a thumping margin. His victory has electrified the Turkish opposition. It also does not bode well for Başakşehir football club. Before the vote, İmamoğlu had signalled his dislike of the project. “When we have our three distinguished clubs in Istanbul, we shouldn’t be worrying about establishing a new football club, and transferring to them money, contracts and sponsors,” he was quoted as saying. 

In his first week in office, İmamoğlu promised to open up the books at the Istanbul municipality and bring in auditors. “The municipality will be inspected very strictly,” he warned. If the club really did receive unfair support, it may well come to light in the months ahead. Regardless, the loss of Istanbul and other cities is widely expected to make a dent in AK Party patronage networks. At the very least it seems that sponsors, grappling with an economic downtown, will have less money to spare. 

Even if the side can overcome these setbacks and manage to win the championship, it’s hard to see how they will ever culturally compete with the Big Three in Turkey. Bilgili, the Başakşehir fan, readily admitted that it’s difficult to persuade adults to support them – their football affiliations are already fixed. Even his own journey to becoming a Başakşehir fan was marked by his former love. “All of us were first fans of Istanbul’s big teams,” he said. “I’m [originally] a Fenerbahçe fan. Fenerbahçe are in my heart.” Başakşehir focuses on the next generation of supporters, giving discounted tickets to local schools to get students to attend. But the lack of interest and affection from the wider Istanbul population seems like a perpetual limit on the project. Even Erdoğan has conceded that this is a problem, using a 2018 speech to warn, “I’m sorry, as long as the terraces at Başakşehir aren’t full, the question mark will remain.” 

Just as the club isn’t fulfilling its ambitious goals, so the area of Başakşehir hasn’t entirely conformed to the idea of its founders. “They wanted to create an Islamist environment but it hasn’t happened,” Batuman told me. The area is scored with divisions. “The Muslim bourgeoise isn’t very happy because they don’t like the poor people there,” said Batuman. “And conservative intellectuals, they look at it and they don’t see anything Islamist there. Young people, they aren’t happy because they want to have more freedom. They want to be with their boyfriends, girlfriends and whatnot. So nobody’s happy with it!” In the re-run of the Istanbul election, 48 per cent of the district voted for Imamoğlu. 

The story is still unfolding, but Başakşehir football club seems to serve as a cautionary tale to those in Turkey who want to attempt grand social engineering. Despite the endeavours over the years – by politicians of all stripes – to shape and corral Turkish society, the people do not always oblige. You can create a football team. You can even make them successful on the pitch, but you can’t force people to like them. Not even really AK Party supporters, who are often more free-thinking than many in the opposition would like to believe. 

“Başakşehir’s tale actually shows Turkey’s transformation, both politically and economically,” says Balyalı, the opposition council member. “Alongside the rise of a governing power was a rising sporting club, specially created. Başakşehir was an attempt to show the power of the ruling party, to show that the government had the power to do anything.” Here he paused for effect. “But what emerged was this: even with the support of the government, you can’t do everything.”