Becoming the first man outside the UK or Ireland to officiate a Premier League match, Jarred Gillett didn’t have an easy time of it.
They were only promoted in 2014, but since then Istanbul Basaksehir have claimed two fourth place finishes in succession in the Super Lig. Could this be the year when the minnows break the usual monopoly and claim their first ever title?
On the way to claiming one of, if not the most improbable of titles in sporting history, Leicester City’s game plan was ran through with a fine toothcomb. Fans and pundits alike all lined up to analyse just what it was that made the Foxes such an unstoppable force last season.
Amongst all the chatter though, the vital components of their success was there for everybody to clearly see.
The whole team were playing with elevated levels of confidence and integral players, like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, were in a hot streak of form of course, but a well-drilled defence and a simplistic counter attacking set-up that relied on pace and precision was behind Claudio Ranieri’s team’s startling rise.
This season, underpinned by similar principles, Turkish football is witnessing a familiar story unfolding with Basaksehir.
Their manager, Abdullah Avci, has instilled defensive resistance and attacking ruthlessness into his team. The result is a side which can be categorised as defensive, yet their conceding of possession in favour of a few but significant attacks during a game is yielding results, just like it did for Leicester. However, the highly regarded Avci has sometimes been unhappy with such tags being attributed towards his team.
“It is unfair to just label us as a defensive side,” he argued. “We create precision attacks with four or five players.”
Yet while he is reluctant to take on such terms openly, behind closed doors it is likely that the perceptions will not bother him, as long as his side continues to sit on top in the league standings.
The Turkish Super Lig has always been somewhat dominated by a few select sides. The so-called ‘Big Three’ of Istanbul – Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Besiktas – have accounted for the vast majority of titles over the past number of decades. There has been the occasional break in routine, but when the Big Three are splashing the type of cash that all the rest of the clubs can’t possibly hope to compete with, it is clear that resistance is often futile.
The likes of Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder, Lukas Podolski, Nani and Robin Van Persie have all plied their trade in Turkey in recent years. The fact that not one of them played for a side other than the Big Three illustrates the current chasm that exists within the league.
Basaksehir, who have already beaten both Galatasaray and Fenerbahce this season, were only founded in 1990. Since then they have lingered between the top division and the lower ones, claiming promotion some years and then dropping back down shortly after. With recent successes, their fan-base has risen from 100 to 2,000 people but that is still a paltry number for a young side which has finished in the top four twice in the last few years.
Away from the spotlight though and the ultra-aggressive desire for progression and victory that is commonplace among the Turkish elite, Avci and the club’s President Goksel Gumusdag have been able to gradually build a side. While the likes of Fenerbahce scrambled to sign marquee names in the summer, Basaksehir spent just $2M on transfers.
With a supporting cast of seasoned professionals and astutely scouted prospects, the side is threatening to write their very own fairy-tale story as the halfway point of the season slowly disappears into the rear view mirror.
In his second stint with the club, Avci has created a side that is proving incredibly difficult to stop as they sit in first place after 17 games played, having not lost a match all season. In many ways, the 53-year old manager can be seen as the main reason behind the clubs ascent.
The former Galatasaray youth team coach first joined Basaksehir in 2006, and after his failed tenure as the country’s international coach from 2011 to 2014, he returned to the place he had an obvious affection for with unfinished business to attend to.
“Avci is the key person at the project,” local journalist Arda Alan Isik told ESPN. “He is one of the few specialists in Turkey who sees football as a collective action shaped by the superior mind of the coach.”
The club isn’t ready to just accept their incredible improvement and be happy with their lot though. Instead, they have invested their money into the youth, striking up a deal with Spanish powerhouses Atletico Madrid who will help them with their youth development structures in a combined effort.
The move will presumably be beneficial to both sides in the future. For Madrid, it is a chance to break into a new market and tap into a wealth of talent that may previously have been hidden away, while for Basaksehir there will be significant income and progression as they seek to build upon their reputation in the country.
“We have built a large academy next to the stadium and want to create our own youth system. Not just any academy but one of the best and to be the best we are working with some of the clubs that have expertise,” executive director Mustafa Erogut said.
“We are creating a Basaksehir system and identity. We are heavily involved with the community, visiting schools, high schools, colleges and youth centres. Our aim is for the next generations in this area to feel a bond with their local club.”
When this type of forward-thinking is coupled with their current eye for talent, like the teenage winger Cengiz Under who was spotted by Avci and has since taken the league by storm, both the present and the future looks to be a bright one for the ambitious club.
“We want to be in the top four or five every season,” Erogut boldly declared to the BBC recently.
However, having now moved into their very own stadium and with the success of the team on the pitch, local support is still difficult to come by. And in a newly built area on the outskirts of Istanbul, it is unlikely that they will find a solution to this problem anytime soon.
“Nobody can say they’re from the Basaksehir district because it’s only ten years old,” Erogut explained. “It is difficult to break barriers here.”
The fact that the majority of their supporters, known as the Grey Owls, are mostly university students is an interesting story in itself. Rather than fiercely passionate and loyal fans of the club, they actually began following it simply as a means to protest against the violence that had become the norm among Turkish football fans in the years prior.
In possession of very little money, a tiny amount of supporters, and with an unfancied squad, nobody can be anything but impressed with Basaksehir’s rise. With still a large chunk of the season to play there remains huge doubts about whether they can carry on with their impressive form and claim one of the most unlikeliest of triumphs. But then again this time last year, there was the same doubts surrounding Leicester too.