Turkey's top flight, the Super Lig, is in dire financial straits. Politics has long helped highly indebted top clubs such as Galatasaray and Fenerbahce avoid bankruptcy, but their bubble could be about to burst.
In Turkish football they’re known as the big four: Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Beskitas and Trabzonspor. They enjoy unrivalled popularity in the country, with the vast majority of the population supporting one of these four clubs. Their supporters' passion is known around the globe.
However, despite their massive popularity, high-priced transfers and mistakes at board level have dragged these clubs towards financial ruin, while the Turkish lira's crash and the spike in inflation during the summer exacerbated matters further. The current total debt of the 18 clubs that make up the Super Lig, Turkey’s first division, is more than €2.3 billion ($2.61 billion). An eye-watering sum, especially given that this is four times what the league receives in total annual revenue. By comparison, the German Bundesliga’s overall debt stands at around €1.4 billion, with revenues exceeding €3.3 billion — a more sustainable balance.
In Turkey, much of the blame lies with the big four. Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, Beskitas and Trabzonspor may be the most widely supported teams in the country, but they alone account for two-thirds of the league's total debt.
Bundesliga club Schalke had litle trouble in their 2-0 win over Galatasaray in the Champions League last month
Ali Koc, a successful entrepreneur, was elected chairman of Fenerbahce in 2018. In his inaugural speech, he spoke of debts of more than €621 million. The situation at the other three mega clubs is not much better.
In fact, in recent years, the clubs have only managed to avoid bankruptcy thanks to the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) turning a blind eye to their debt problems.
Tugrul Aksar, a prominent football economist in Turkey, told DW that this may be about to change.
"I don’t think these clubs will manage to get out of this debt," he said. "Either they’ll need to file for bankruptcy or find new owners."
'In Germany they would have been relegated long ago'
According to a former member of Turkey's football establishment, the root of the problem lies within the system itself. Baris Guclu who has previously served on the boards of two Turkish clubs, argues that the TFF has been far too lenient with the big four.
"If this situation happened in Germany, the German Football Association (DFB) would insist that the club file for bankruptcy," he Guclu said. "The club would then be subject to relegation and possibly wind up disbanding altogether."
Football economist Aksar shares this opinion.
"Politicians see these big clubs as political tools and help prevent them from going bankrupt." he said.
For the next few years, the big four have agreed to pass on most of their revenue to the financial institutions that have lent them money. In addition, after negotiations with UEFA, football's European governing body, they’ve agreed to subject their revenues and expenses to strict outside oversight. They have, however, been spared hefty fines under UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules - at least for now. These UEFA guidelines are intended to prevent clubs' from spending significantly more than they take in in revenue.
Poor performances on the field
Losing to Germany in the bid to win the right to host the 2024 European Championship was just another bit of bad news for Turkish football in recent years. The big four have fallen behind in Europe, and are no longer competitive in the continent's top club competition, the Champions League. Galatasaray were the only club to qualify for the Champions League this season, but they have been mathematically eliminated with a game still to play in Group D.
And if that wasn't bad enough, Fenerbahce are experiencing their worst start to a domestic season in the club's entire 111 year history, occupying 15th place in the league after 14 matches. The remaining big three — Besiktas, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor — are all 6 to 8 points behind the league leaders, Istanbul BB. It is telling that the league's top two clubs, Istanbul Basaksehir and Kasimpasa respectively, are classed as corporations, privately owned by investors.
Borussia Dortmund set the gold standard
To turn things around sports journalist Sema Tugce Dikici, who also teaches in the sports-sciences faculty at Okan Univeristy in Istanbul, believes the big four should follow the example of Bundesliga table-toppers Borussia Dortmund.
"In 2005 Borussia Dortmund were on the brink of bankruptcy," Dikici told DW. "but now the club's one of the wealthiest in Europe. So, how did they achieve it? First off, with a financial restructuring. The board repaid the debt and then worked on the infrastructure. Today, Borussia Dortmund bring in more than €350 million in annual revenue. That's more than the big four of Turkish football combined."
Football clubs or corporations?
However, Tugrul Aksar, the football economist, believes that the answer lies in clubs giving up their status as clubs and becoming corporations instead. This would require them to subject their financial statements to TFF scrutiny. Overnight, clubs would begin looking for ways to balance the books.
Goztepe is just one of three clubs in the Turkish first division that currently operate as corporations, and Baris Guclu was their managing director between 2015 and 2016. Within just three years, the club has twice won promotion and is currently debt-free. Güclü believes Goztepe would be an ideal model for other Turkish clubs to follow.