Since 2007-2008 there is a new "ugly duckling" in the highest division of the Turkish football. Now there have been more such teams and often they disappear again into lower leagues and get forgotten soon. This one however has capital and seems to be no one season wonder. Meet the team without fans that nonetheless is on its way to become a famous name in Turkish football: Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor.
Let’s first look at the football map of Istanbul. The city with over 12million inhabitants (de facto it will be more than 15million) and literally bridging two continents, is as big as some European countries and the city alone has more citizens than my native Belgium. Every single district of the city is big enough and different enough from neighbouring districts that the district would be a city of its own in any other case.
At the European side we find the old heart of Istanbul with its numerous souks (Arabic/Middle Eastern markets, typically in a maze of small alleys) and ancient mosques such as the Blue Mosque at Sultanahmet Square. These can be found mainly in the Beyazit and Sultanahmet districts of Istanbul. We have the cosmopolitan vibrant avenues with sight on the Bosphorus and countless terraces and clubs by the waterside in districts such as Ortaköy and Beşiktaş. There are the business districts such as Mecidiyeköy and the vibrant nightlife district of Beyoğlu… Suburbs are the notoriously rough Zeytinburnu and (further out of the center) Sariyer, to name just a few. On the Asian side there are residential areas such as Kartal, Maltepe and the nighlife districts of Moda and Kadiköy by the boards of the Bosphorus.
Most of these districts all have their own football club, although there are exceptions. Also sometimes a club plays out of its own district due to lack of space for a stadium in its own district. Three clubs have dominated football in Turkey since professionalism was introduced and these three Istanbul giants are supported throughout the entire country: Galatasaray SK in Mecidiyeköy, Beşiktaş JK with its famous stadium next to the Dolmabahçe Palace and with sight on the Bosphorus, and Fenerbahçe SK on the Asian side in the outskirts of Kadiköy. These three all have big stadiums, an impressive list of trophies and fanclubs all over Turkey and beyond the borders of the country.
Now and then another Istanbul club will appear in the highest league, usually without making any impact and without attracting many fans. Zeytinburnuspor and Sariyer had a few stints in the highest league during the nineties, and Istanbulspor even was quite succesful on the pitch, battling for European football. Clubs such as Kartalspor, currently in second division, have been well respected for producing some talented players that would eventually end up with one of the big clubs.
In 2007 two other Istanbul teams promoted to the highest division much to the dislike of Turkish football fans: Kaşimpaşa SK (heavily supported by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after whom their tiny stadium in Beyoğlu is named) and Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor (often abbreviated to Istanbul BB, IBB or Istanbul BBS). The reason for the dislike for these clubs: while Kaşimpaşa had only few fans, IBB literally has no fans except for the family of the players and a few colleagues.
Let’s focus on IBB. Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor literally translates as "Sport club of Istanbul Greater Municipality" or "Sport club of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality". The name gives it away: this omnisport club, who is active in many sports, is the sport club operated by the government of Istanbul and with the intention to serve the staff working for the municipal government. The club was formed through a merger of three municipality-operated clubs in 1990: IETT, ISKI and Itfaiyespor. ISKI SK Derneği had at that point gained promotion from the regional amateur leagues to the 3.Lig, the 4th level in the Turkish football pyramid (ISKI SK was the club of the municipality-owned water distribution company). IETT (founded 1941 as Istanbul Elektrik, Tramvay ve Tünel Işletmelerinin Külübü) was the club of the electricity, tramway and tunnel-enterprises of the city and was mainly succesful in volleyball. Finally, Itfaiyespor was founded in 1966 by the fire department of the city. It seems to have been as well succesful in volleybal, as far as the translation machines of Google are not letting me down when trying to decipher the Turkish language website of the current club.
These three municipality-serving teams were merged in 1990 to the current omnisportclub Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor on the initiative of then mayor Nurettin Sözen. The club competes in football, basketball, volleyball, taekwondo, judo and many other sports, but I will focus on its football team now. Most of its existance since the merger was spent in the second level of the Turkish football with an occasional drop and few seasons in the third level. At the end of the 2006-2007 season the club promoted for the first time in history to the Türkcell Süperlig, the highest level of Turkish football.
As I heard during my stay in Turkey, where I lived in the Maltepe area on the Asian side, the club would have played in the same stadium as Maltepespor prior to the promotion to the highest level. This I am unsure about since I could not find any confirmation about this. The club since its first appearance in the highest level uses the Atatürk Olympic Stadium of Istanbul.
Some people claim that going to Glasgow and visiting a Queens Park FC home game in the national stadium Hampden Park is the experience of how a stadium looks totally empty. I won’t deny that with a 200 to 500 fans in the approx 60000 capacity stadium, Queens Park indeed has a lot of empty seats. But IBB does even worse. The Atatürk Olympic Stadium, home of the legendary 2005 Champions League final in which Liverpool came from 3-0 behind to beat AC Milan on penalties, hosts almost 82000 people. The problem is, Istanbul BB has no fans. The only people coming are family of the players or staff of the city hall. Sometimes pictures of fans of the visiting team appear, showing that literally IBB has only 20 supporters in the stadium. Imagine a 1000 or 2000 fans in an 82000 capacity stadium (and 99 percent are fans of the visiting team) and you really knows how it feels to watch a game in a desolate stadium. One time, when facing the also supporterless Hacettepe SK (which in fact was the reserve team of Gençlerbirligi), the reports claim that there were less than 100 people in the 82000 capacity stadium and all of them were family or relatives of the players or officials of the Turkish FA. In other words: 0 real fans.
I had the privilege to watch Beşiktaş play against Istanbul BB at home in Inönü in the 2007-2008 season, IBB’s maiden season in the highest division. While sitting amongst the BJK fans, I could count the Istanbul BB fans. Exactly 7. And this was an Istanbul derby! I guess if only 20 fans show up at home, you cannot expect much more than 10 maximum in away games. The only times there is a decent crowd (although 10000 to 15000 fans is still looking odd in a 82000 capacity stadium) is when Istanbul BB hosts a game against one of the three Istanbul giants at home. In that case, there can be 10000 or more fans, but it has to be said 99 percent of those will be fans from the visiting team (either Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş). In all other occasions the stadium looks totally empty except for some lost souls that can easily be counted in a couple of minutes or less.
How does this fanless club get to play in this stadium? Easy: the stadium, like the club, is property of the Istanbul government, and thus they are allowed to use this giant stadium even when everybody knows nobody will come to see the games. As the Atatürk Olympic Stadium is so far in the outskirts of Istanbul (from the city center it can take more than an hour to get there by bus) it is also not helping a lot to attract new fans.
The true anger of Turkish football fans is however the reason why this club is still quite succesful: the club is ran and the players paid with tax payers’ money. Ironically, the tax money of locals who support Fener, Galatasaray or Beşiktaş is partially used to keep an opponent club going. This, and the fact that people argue clubs don’t contribute to the league when having no fans at all, lead to a general hatred against the team.
Belediye teams representing and organised by the local government are nothing new in Turkey. In the top flight there was Ankaraspor, which also grew from a sports club formed by the Ankara city hall. In the lower leagues the clubs named Belediyespor are countless : Gaziantep BB Spor, Güngören Belediyespor, Menemen Belediyespor, Denizli Belediyespor, … and many more. That said, not every team named Belediye is a city hall-owned club. Belediye Vanspor for example only uses the term because when the club restarted after bankruptcy the initial name Vanspor could not be used again the first years, hence they added the word Belediye. Most Belediye clubs will have some connection to the local city hall though. Company teams are also usual: Türk Telekomspor, Oyak Renaultspor, Batman Petrolspor, … So why is it especially Istanbul BB that angers Turkish football fans when Belediye teams are not that unusual?
The reason is simple. Most of these Belediye teams without fans vanish after a short stint in the limelight. Most of them have no access to playing their home games in the nation’s biggest stadium. IBB however seems like a team that could very well become an established club in the Süperlig. The first season already they finished mid-table and had some remarkable results: their maiden game in the top flight was also the opening game of the season, versus Fenerbahçe. The approx 10000 fans in the Atatürk Stadium (95 to 99 percent being Fener fans) saw a surprising 2-0 win for Belediyespor against the defending champions. A huge shock to start the season with. In the second round they would also get a draw in Fenerbahçe’s home. Beşiktaş did equally bad against the unlikely underdog: a draw at home in Inönü and a 2-1 loss in the return in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. Of the three giants, only Galatasaray managed to win against the newcomer, 0-3. However, the game at home in Ali Sami Yen versus IBB ended in a draw so in their first season in the top division Istanbul BB got a 4/6 points against Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş and a 1/6 against Galatasaray. And that all while the club was run with tax payers’ money. Somehow you gotta love the irony of fans of the Big Three seeing their tax money spent on a team that then takes points from their beloved team.
All of this, and the fact that IBB gets good results despite having no fans, enrages the average Turkish football fan. They consider a supporterless club to be a joke for the entire Turkish league, the club uses the tax money of people not even supporting them, and can use the biggest stadium in the country despite having no fans. About the idea that a club with no fans adds nothing to the league, you can debate. However, on the pitch, nobody can deny IBB is going very well. The first season they finished 12th, their second season in the top division saw them finish 9th and the third season (2009-2010) even saw them finish 6th. The supporterless club is unlikely to vanish from the Turkish top division soon, and even may play in Europe at some point: in their 4th season in the top division (the currently ongoing season 2010-2011) they are, shortly before New Year, again close to the top-5. It seems Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor is there to stay for now, and fans will have to get used to a supporterless club being present in the league. They won’t battle for the league title with Trabzonspor, Bursaspor and the Big Three from Istanbul, but I also don’t see them being in danger of relegating anytime soon.
A sidenote: what happened to the other much disliked team that promoted together with IBB, Kaşimpaşa SK? The club heavily supported by the prime minister has a very small stadium in the city center, and has to move to the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Ali Sami Yen or Inönü for games when a large crowd can be expected. Their first season after promotion ended with relegation, despite a shocking 0-1 victory away versus Galatasaray. At least one of the two unwanted teams was gone. But it seems the Turkish fans aren’t spared by fate: Kaşimpaşa SK immediately promoted back to the Süperlig and last season managed to survive their comeback year and stay in the highest level. This season they again battle against relegation, so unlike Istanbul BB they are less likely to become a regular for the near future. But with some other clubs doing quite badly as well, it is also not sure Kaşimpaşa will be relegating again. For sure Turkish fans will need to tolerate IBB in the highest division for the foreseeable future.