There was plenty to recognise when, on 2 August, Istanbul Basaksehir beat Club Brugge 2-0 to qualify for the Champions League play-off round. The first goal came when Emmanuel Adebayor, meeting a cross from his erstwhile Arsenal team-mate Gaël Clichy, powered in a header and there were other familiar faces on hand to celebrate. Emre Belozoglu, now 37, was patrolling the midfield that day; Gökhan Inler watched from the bench; and the home side’s former Premier League sextet was completed by Kerim Frei and Eljero Elia.
Between them they could recount a passable history of the English top flight post-2005 but their present engagement involves shaping Turkey’s football future. Should Istanbul Basaksehir conclude a potentially decisive derby weekend by defeating Besiktas at home on Sunday afternoon, they will reinvigorate their bid to win the title just four years after assuming their present identity. They are little-known outside Turkey and hardly popular within it but their aim is to become a global force and succeed where the country’s more established powers have largely failed.
“It’s happened a bit more quickly than we expected,” the board member Mustafa Erogut tells the Observer. “But when we have this momentum, we just want to keep it up. If we had won the league last season it would have been very surprising. This year it would not be; expectations have changed and, from being underdogs, we’re now one of the four title favourites.”
The other three are, of course, Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce. Last season only the first of these could outdo Istanbul Basaksehir, who were runners-up after twice coming fourth. The figures are impressive, although the club has not quite arrived from thin air. Their previous incarnation was Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor, who were municipally owned and achieved moderate success after being formed in 1990. They had a tiny fanbase who, for some years, rattled around the 76,000 Ataturk Stadium; by 2014 they were viewed as a waste of taxpayers’ money and, after flirting with extinction, were re-formed in the modern suburb of Basaksehir.
A new eight-strong board took control and looked to sidestep the issues experienced by their rivals. “The biggest difference is that we are a joint-stock company, an ownership model like that of Premier League clubs,” Erogut says. “Other big clubs here are foundation models, supporter-owned. But our management makes it easier to take fast decisions and make long-term plans, because you don’t deal with elections. We are a new club; the others have 100 years of history, massive fanbases, big media power. It is good to be competing with them.”
They trail second-placed Besiktas only on goal difference and, after Fenerbahce in fourth drew 0-0 on Saturday at home to the leaders, Galatasaray, can cut the gap at the top to one point. Before a tail-off over the last month, they were leading. The battle for fans is less of a contest; numbers inside their Fatih Terim Stadium have swelled but still average around 6,000. That is nothing compared to the backing their peers command but they are counting on a new generation to catch the bug.
“It isn’t easy as they get their football heritage from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers,” Erogut says. “But we are investing in them. We go to high schools, invite them here for stadium tours, and we are in a good way. But we need to wait six or seven years for these young kids to be diehard supporters.”
The idea is for players such as Adebayor, Clichy and the January loan signing Arda Turan to work alongside academy-raised products who will arise under the tuition of the long-serving manager Abdullah Avci. The club has no debts and stresses its financial model – bolstered by European appearances, which eventually brought Europa League group stage football this season – is sustainable.
It is an attractive package, perhaps more so given the corruption scandals that have engulfed other Turkish clubs over the years, but suspicion still prevails in some quarters. A common charge is that Istanbul Basaksehir are favoured by the national government, a perception reinforced when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current Turkish president and a former mayor of Istanbul, played in the first match at the Fatih Terim Stadium.
“He’s only been to one of our games this season, in the Champions League qualifiers,” Erogut says. “He goes to other games as well – Fenerbahce games, Besiktas games. I know he likes us but he’s a Fenerbahce fan from childhood.”
The club’s stance is that they would rather help themselves and Erogut says that, to continue their rise, foreign investment will be necessary. “There is some interest from the far east but it’s not been completed yet,” he says. “But maybe we will be the first club in the country to have this kind of investment. It would be a good benchmark for Turkey as well, and it could come from us. We started like a local team, then we became a nationally known team, now we’re becoming an international team and for the last level we need to become a global team.”
In November, an Adebayor hat-trick helped Istanbul Basaksehir beat Galatasaray 5-1. Anything close to a repeat could edge their ambitions closer to reality.