When Turkish Super Lig side Fenerbahçe asks fans like Tolga Babuz for money there is no doubt about him reaching for his wallet.
Facing debts of $370 million, hit by the coronavirus suspension of play and struggling with an already high wage bill, the club called for direct donations via text message.
Sending ‘1907’-the year of the club was established-to a special number gives Fenerbahçe 20 Turkish Lira, around $3.
“If the club is campaigning for something, it is our duty to join it”, Babuz says.
He did not hesitate in sending multiple texts, not only on his behalf, but in honour of his infant children and deceased father.
It’s not the first time the club has asked fans directly for money.
Despite being listed on the Turkish Stock Market and having been granted many lines of generous credit from the banks, Fenerbahçe is well-versed in fan-based fundraising.
Back in 2016, Babuz, who considers himself a ‘fanatic’ or ultra, saw every item in a downtown merchandise store bought by diehard fans, after calls for financial support.
Even the air-conditioning unit was unscrewed from the wall and carried off by a paying supporter.
Crowdfunding appeals may have raised sums in the short-term, but one figure which is harder to alter is the money owed to the banks.
Big signing addiction
The Istanbul giant is the 6th most indebted in Europe and has consistently lost money. Yet it cannot shake the habit of making flagship signings of players in the twilights of their careers.
From Nani to Martin Skrtel, Robin Van Persie to Mathieu Valbuena, players have queued up for a final pay-day by the Bosphorus.
But paying the giant wages these stars expect has pushed the club further and further into the red.
Not that the Istanbul giants are alone, bitter inter-city rivals Galatasaray and Besiktas have similarly large debt piles, having taken the same approach to player recruitment.
Trabzonspor from the Black Sea, which is considered the country’s fourth superpower, is also drowning in debt.
“These four clubs dominate Turkish football”, says leading soccer economist in Turkey Tugrul Aksar.
“[But they] do not seem to be able to solve their own financial problems because there are big gaps between total revenue and expenses.
“It is not possible to solve problems without generating new sources of income. Cash flows are insufficient, shareholders’ equity is negative, their debts are more than their income and their accumulated losses are about TL 4.5 billion, around $750 million.”
Aksar’s assessment of what would happen to the clubs if they played in a different country is blunt: “They would probably go bankrupt and be relegated.”
Helping ‘the family’
The idea that clubs might ask fans to donate to their soccer club at a time of national crisis is not universally embraced.
In countries like the U.K., the backlash against teams seen to be cashing in on fan’s goodwill has been extreme, even at teams where financial resources are tight.
English third division side Sunderland caused uproar by refusing to refund supporters season tickets for the remainder of the season. A decision which was subsequently reversed.
There was also a huge public outcry when Liverpool and Tottenham attempted to make use of the British government’s coronavirus support scheme-where the government paid a proportion of employees salaries to safeguard jobs. This also prompted U-turns by both organizations.
Players, the argument goes, should take a pay cut before others step in to support the club.
In Turkey, the mentality of supporters is different.
“I felt as if I was helping my family”, says Fenerbahçe fan and club member Ergün Bülbül.
“I supported with SMS [text message], I also sent money by bank transfer.”
“It is necessary to think as a whole, both the football player, the fan and the club should make a sacrifice.”
But as Fenerbahçe asked fans to donate, faced with what looks like a perilous financial scenario, rumours of a big-money move for the world’s most famous player of Turkish descent kicked into overdrive.
‘No explanation for this’
World Cup winner and Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil has long been rumoured to fancy a move to Fenerbahçe.
So it didn’t take long for speculation to begin that the crowdfunding SMS initiative could be used to fund a move for Ozil.
Hardcore supporters know such claims are hopeful at best, the target of the text campaign is to reach one million messages, which would be about $3m.
That wouldn’t even cover a month’s wages for Ozil whose current deal with Arsenal is an estimated $800,000 per week.
But the relentless need to spend big on a star player, regardless of the consequences or financial position, is a constant issue for Turkish soccer’s big four.
In January 2019, the banks whom Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Besiktas and Trabzonspor owe a combined TL 10 billion ($1.4bn), restructured their debts.
The aim was to get the vast sums owed under control.
Rather than helping to shift the approach, it prompted another summer of spending.
The four teams signed a total of 51 players for TL 716m ($104m) in the 2019 transfer window.
“Unfortunately, there is no logical explanation for this”, finance expert Aksar continues.
“These expenses were spent by the clubs so as not to be left behind in the competition. But it was a completely wrong policy.”
Aksar believes that stronger leadership and longer-term solutions from the Turkish Football Federation would help.
Whether that comes at this moment is another matter.
Ultimately for the sporting authorities and even the Turkish government, its four soccer superpowers are simply too big to fail.
Fenerbahçe fanatic Tolga Babuz certainly thinks so.
“Big clubs will survive. I think the state will help where the fan is not enough.”
Currently I am head of content at Construction News, specialising in investigations. I have led numerous collaborations with major media outlets. These include an undercover slave labour expose with the BBC, a Financial Times report which uncovered a sexual assault scandal and an international investigation into worker deaths on the world’s biggest airport with Architects’ Journal. My work has been longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2020 and I was a finalist at the 2019 British Journalism Awards. I was named International Building Press’ Journalist of the Year 2019 and awarded the IBP Scoop of the Year and Construction/Infrastructure Writer of the Year prizes.
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