It’s not a coincidence that the biggest and most successful football clubs in the country are recording the worst performances in their history.
Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray, dubbed the “Big Three” of Turkish football, are the most successful football clubs in the country’s history, each with millions of fans, massive budgets, and a slew of championship titles.
Always considered title contenders by the sports media industry, they usually made headlines at the start of every season by bolstering their squads with sensational, expensive, and talented players.
And for years, it paid off. Since 1959, these three teams have dominated at the top tier with 57 league titles in 65 seasons.
But this season appears to show a turn of the tides. Fans have been left disappointed by each club's less than stellar performances: Fenerbahce is currently placed sixth, while Besiktas holds seventh place. Galatasaray lags behind in 13th place, only three points ahead of the relegation zone. All three parted ways with their managers in the middle of the season due to their poor results.
By Week 21, the Big Three had officially recorded the worst performances in their history, suffering 20 losses in total, according to OPTA, a British sports analytics company. Each team has been poorly managed by their board, hasn’t been able to dominate the Turkish Super League campaign, and is not displaying the success of previous decades.
But these results are far from a mere downturn of luck, and if Istanbul teams don’t change their policies both on and off the pitch, the balance of power could shift to smaller budget clubs.
Impact of VAR technology
Video Assisted Referee (VAR) technology has played a crucial role in raising the fairness level of football matches. Three seasons after VAR was implemented in 2018, performances from the Big Three have suffered, leaving fans wondering if officials were biased, particularly during their home matches. The massive football fandoms – each with their own press and clout, generated an atmosphere that likely pressured the referees and their decisions on the pitch.
So far, Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray have lost 10 matches and recorded seven draws in front of thousands of fans in their home stadiums.
As of January 1, a total of 58 decisions have been overturned by VAR in the 2021-2022 Super League season alone.
Meanwhile, Anatolian clubs Trabzonspor, Rizespor, and Konyaspor have benefitted the most from VAR, while Galatasaray, Alanyaspor, and Yeni Malatayaspor were most negatively impacted. Fenerbahce and Besiktas sit at the fourth and seventh spots, respectively, in terms of VAR that worked in their favour.
Deepening financial woes
The Big Three are in big financial trouble. Decades of financial mismanagement and overspending, combined with a revenue hit from the coronavirus pandemic and Turkiye’s foreign currency crisis, have left the clubs in major debt.
Fenerbahce is currently in debt to the tune of 5.9 billion liras, Besiktas by 5.4 billion liras, and Galatasaray by 4.5 billion liras. The Turkish Football Federation has introduced spending limits for each team, to prevent them from outspending their revenues, hopefully leading to a reduction of their debts.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) also slapped financial sanctions on the clubs for violating the UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, and some were banned in previous years from European competitions for breaching the regulations. As a result, signing new and expensive players will be difficult for these clubs, minimising the gap between big sides and the rest of the clubs.
Foreign formula for success
The Turkish Football Federation limits the number of foreign players on Turkish teams.
In 1977, the clubs were only allowed to register two foreign players – a number that was incrementally increased over the decades. These limits led to less competitive Super League campaigns over the years, as the richest clubs could spend more money to acquire talented players from abroad. They also meant that the top Turkish players always preferred to sign with the Big Three – creating a gap between these clubs and smaller ones.
Today, the Turkish Football Federation allows up to eight foreign players on the pitch and 14 players in the squad. By allowing the clubs to register more foreign players, it makes the number of quality Turkish players relatively less important than in the past.
Smaller budget clubs now work to their strengths by choosing bargain foreign players; teams with even the smallest budgets can now buy more foreign players at a lower cost, leading them to build more qualified squads than in the past.
These clubs are now fighting on a more level playing field against other teams, leading to more competitive and hard-fought matches this season.
Apart from the Big Three, Trabzonspor, Basaksehir, and Bursaspor have been other winners of the Turkish league since 1959. Today, Trabzonspor is close to ending a 38-year title drought – and is currently comfortable at the top of the table, nine points ahead of Konyaspor in second place.
Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce will remain favourites in the title race in the upcoming seasons. But with all of these changes and contributing factors affecting the Turkish league, it would not be surprising to see various teams from different cities boasting first, second, and third place positions, replacing the Big Three in their usual standing. As for international fans, they may start to see different lower-budget clubs representing Turkiye in Europe during the coming seasons.
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