Dwindling attendances blamed on a controversial new fan ID system. The sudden exit of a key sponsor. The shadow of one of football’s worst match-fixing scandals.

Turkish football, famed for the passion of the players and the fans, is going through a rough patch with both the national side and clubs misfiring at an international level.

Galatasaray — who once prided themselves on giving visiting European teams a reception akin to a “welcome to hell” — finished bottom in their Champions League group after a shambles of a campaign with one point and a goal difference of minus 15.

But Turkish Super Lig leaders Besiktas, like ‘Gala’ and Fenerbahce based in Istanbul, on Thursday have the chance to salvage pride when they travel to England to take on Liverpool in the Europa League round of 32 first leg, in a key game for the image of Turkish football.

Guided by Croatian manager Slaven Bilic and inspired by new signing the experienced Senegalese striker Demba Ba, Besiktas have proved the most dynamic Super Lig side so far this season.

– ‘Losing brand value’ –

The big controversy in Turkish football has been the introduction of an ID card — Passolig — that fans must possess in order to buy tickets in line with a 2011 law on preventing violence and keeping public order in sports.

Tickets are no longer printed but uploaded onto the card which contains all the personal information about a fan — including their passport details.

Passolig has been blamed for dwindling attendances at stadiums as fans refuse to use a system that essentially involves sending their data to the state.

Stadiums even for the most keenly awaited games are not even half-full. This weekend, 23,000 watched Besiktas beat 4th placed Bursaspor 3-2 at the over 70,000 capacity Ataturk stadium in Istanbul.

On Monday, just over 8,000 spectators saw Galatasaray overcome Balikesirspor at the over 50,000 capacity Turk Telekom Arena.

The low attendances were one reason cited by Murat Ulker, the Turkish billionaire who heads the Yildiz Holding and Ulker biscuit company, for pulling his financial support in a move that sent a shockwave through the Turkish game.

Slamming “empty stadiums” and games marked by “violence, fighting and tension” he told the head of the Turkish Football Federation Yildiz Demiroren in a letter that Turkish football had “dramatically lost in brand value”.

Yildiz Holding had invested $215 million in Turkish football over the last nine years.

The Turkish national team’s current coach Fatih Terim warned in January that the Turkish game was “not moving in the right direction”.

– ‘Messed-up situation’ –

The problems extend even to the names of sides — the Super Lig team from the Anatolian city of Kayseri has since 2014 been called Suat Altin Construction Kayseri Erciyesspor after a deal with a local building firm.

“The situation of football in this country is so messed up that it looks like there is no way to raise it to its previous standards,” wrote commentator Ozgur Korkmaz in Hurriyet Daily News.

A decision to allow sides to name 11 foreign players in their 18-player match day squads from next season has also exposed the weakness of home grown players.

Just one Turkish footballer plays in a major league abroad — Arda Turan of Atletico Madrid.

Much of the interest in the Super Lig comes from foreign imports like Brazil’s Felipe Melo and Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands at Galatasaray, Dutchman Dirk Kuyt at Fenerbahce and Ba at Besiktas.

Meanwhile, the spectre of the 2011 match-fixing scandal that rocked Turkish football is still far from banished.

The over six year jail sentence handed to Fenerbahce’s chairman Aziz Yildirim was quashed by the supreme court which ordered a retrial. This new process got underway on January 15, with the defendant saying he was innocent and denouncing the case as political.

Politics is never far from football in Turkey and sceptics note that the Passolig system was introduced in the wake of the mass 2013 protests against the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Thirty-five members of Besiktas’ fan club the Carsi Group — known for its anti-establishment and hard-left tendencies — went on trial in December on charges of trying to overthrow Erdogan’s government in the 2013 protests.

The trial — denounced as absurd by activists — is due to resume in April.

Photo Credits : AFP