The phrase “no pain, no gain” seems to sum up the current state of Turkish football as the new season approaches. The Süper Lig giants are all in transition as Financial Fair Play has forced clubs into addressing mounting debts and becoming more sustainable. Long term it will benefit the league but in the short term most clubs will suffer.
Now for the good news though: the league is finally producing – and relying on – young, Turkish talent. A lot of it.
Galatasaray pipped Basaksehir to the Süper Lig title on the penultimate week last season. Besiktas were involved in the title race right up until the final three weeks but it is a tale of four clubs in Istanbul and last season it was Fenerbahce’s plight which provided the biggest storyline.
They finished 6th but it could have been a lot worse. The Yellow Canaries spent much of the season in the bottom half of the table and were briefly involved in a relegation battle. There has been a lot of schadenfreude around from rival fans, as expected, but it is important to point out that Galatasaray also finished sixth in 2015-16 – and they were champions two years later.
Fenerbahce, it appears, have been at the bottom and are on their way up again. Last year, as Ali Koc, heir of the wealthiest family in Turkey, replaced the club’s longest-serving president Aziz Yildirim after 20 years in charge but by that point the club had been run into the ground. Debt had spiralled out of control to an astonishing €621m (£574m). The existing model was clearly unsustainable.
Fenerbahce had faltered where most other Turkish clubs do. Several of the major Süper Lig clubs are run on a “foundation club” model – much like Real Madrid and Barcelona – with thousands of members. The problem with that is that the fans expect silverware all the time. Club presidents typically get three-year terms and focus on the here and now rather than the future, leading to endemic short-termism.
Koç may be one of the richest men in Turkey but he has his hands tied with regards to using his personal fortune to fund the club. Koç is not the owner of the club –the members are the owners – and has FFP to contend with.
And in a break with Süper Lig tradition he has decided to focus on the long-term future of the club. He has started to work on the debt, created a sustainable transfer policy and focused on youth development. It is a risky strategy in a league that does not do patience. It is also a brave move considering it could be his successors, rather than him, who benefit from the system being set in place. “The academy is very, very important to us,” Ali Koc says. “It’s our priority to produce talent. There are talented players emerging from all over Turkey and we cannot ignore them.”
Koc brought in Damien Comolli as sporting director and gave him the freedom to decide all the key footballing decisions, including recruitment and the academy. The Frenchman has made 10 signings so far, spending just €10.4m (£9.5m) bringing in Max Kruse on a free, club legend Emre Belozoglu and Mathias “Zanka” Jørgensen from Huddersfield as well as a number of proven Süper Lig players.
The key thing, however, is that the Yellow Canaries are currently €5.7m in profit after selling the 19-year-old Eljif Elmas for €16m to Napoli. And it is the focus on exciting young talent that is the current trend not only at Fenerbahce but the league in general.
The catalysts for this youth movement was Financial Fair Play (FFP) and the lifting of the foreign player restrictions in 2015. The market had become distorted. Turkish players were given an unfair advantage as clubs were forced to pay over the odds for players based on their nationality instead of talent. Demand outweighed supply and Turkish players ended up on extortionate wages and then blocked the path for young talent. Süper Lig clubs were lumbered with players nobody outside the country would pay significant money for. The lifting of the restrictions resulted in that the players started to be valued on talent rather than anything else. Domestic players were forced to improve in order to compete with the influx of talent from abroad and with a more even playing field young players were finally given more of a chance.
FFP has a lot of critics but as far as Turkey is concerned it is one of the best things that has happened in years. Süper Lig sides have had to become more accountable. It is no coincidence that in the three seasons prior to 2015 just €4.8m was made from the sale of Turkish players to the top-five European leagues while in the three years after that the figure was €75m. Turkish clubs have been forced into investing in scouting, youth development and giving young players a chance – and have benefited from it.
Turkey is teeming with talent and is currently only scratching the surface. The country has a population of 80 million with the youngest demographic in the Uefa zone. There are millions of young players, often from poor backgrounds, desperate to become the next star. And for the first time in years they are being given a chance.
Ozan Kabak was just 18-years-old and had played just six months of first-team football for Galatasaray when Stuttgart paid €11m for him last January (Schalke went on to sign him for €16m over the summer)while Lille purchased Yusuf Yazici from Trabzonspor for €16.5m this summer. And then there was the case of Merih Demiral who Juventus snapped up for €18m last month.
The case of Demiral also highlights a potential problem for Fenerbahce. A childhood fan of the Yellow-Navy Blues Demiral rose through their youth ranks but he felt so disenfranchised with his chances of breaking into the first team that he left for the Portuguese third-tier three years ago.
And this is the culture Fenerbahce want to change. Comolli has given the academy an overhaul, set up a new scouting network, recruited professional coaches and focused on installing a modern data and analysis department. He also brought in talent from the Premier League to oversee the operation, making the former Crystal Palace head of first team recruitment analyst Beri Pardo the head of performance analysis.
It seems to be working. Fenerbahce are nurturing some talented young players and have hired some of the best youth coaches in the country.
Now they just have to give them a chance. Recent history has not been that encouraging. The goalkeeping protege Berke Ozer was signed amid high expectations from Altinordu last summer but the 19-year-old made just a single appearance last season before being loaned out to Westerlo this summer.
Another example is the 19-year-old wonderkid Ferdi Kadioglu, who turned down several other offers to join Fenerbahce from NEC last season but despite already having a season of Eredivisie football under his belt he spent most of his time on the bench.
For the culture at Fenerbahce to really change young players need to believe there is a pathway from the academy to the first team and here the head coach, Ersun Yanal, is in a tough spot. Managers rarely last long in Turkey and while the club has long term goals, Yanal has his job to worry about.
It is expected that he will strike a balance and that we will see more young players in the starting XI this season and the number of youngsters coming through should then grow in the coming years. In 2019-20 we should see the likes of Kadioglu and the 21-year-old goalkeeper Altay Bayindir given more regular playing time.
In order to progress Fenerbahce may have to suffer even more in the short term. But no side is leaps and bounds above another. The title race has gone down to the wire for the past few seasons and that trend is likely to continue. Do not write anybody off just yet.