Besiktas' Journey from Istanbul's Third Club to Europe's Cult Favourites

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2017

Cenk Tosun and Ryan Babel's celebration has become a common sight in this season's Champions League
Cenk Tosun and Ryan Babel's celebration has become a common sight in this season's Champions LeaguePaulo Duarte/Associated Press

There are many who continue to insist that the group stages of the Champions League are uncompetitive, pallid viewing. Fuel for those opinions is in short supply this term, with less celebrated names grabbing the tournament bull by the horns. The Black Eagles flying high over Istanbul are the only monochrome element among these rising powers.

Besiktas, Turkish champions for the last two seasons, have reached the Champions League knockout round for the first time after Tuesday night's draw with Porto.

They missed out on the same target last year in awful fashion, kicking off their final group game at Dynamo Kiev with their fate in their hands and subsequently succumbing to a 6-0 reverse. As such, they have gone from perceived big-match bottlers to brilliant on the continental stage in less than a year.

It should always have been this way under the roof of the magnificent Vodafone Park, only opened in April 2016 but already seared on to the landscape of European football.

Built on the site of Inonu, which housed BJK from its 1947 opening until its demolition in 2013, it retains the white-hot atmosphere of its predecessor, as well as that prestigious position neighbouring Dolmabahce Palace and the banks of the Bosphorus.

Now, Besiktas are hip; partly because of the club's magnificent arena, partly due to the exciting team led to silverware by veteran coach Senol Gunes.

It's also in part to the club's burgeoning international reach, stoked by social media campaigns such as last summer's famous 'Come to Besiktas' clip, which incorporated new signings such as Pepe and Alvaro Negredo and even tickled Cristiano Ronaldo in one of the Portuguese star's Instagram chats, per Eurosport.  

Today, few but the most partisan viewers of Turkish football would dispute that Besiktas are the best team in the land. The champs trail Galatasaray and Basaksehir in the Super Lig by four points as it stands, having been distracted by their Champions League exploits—more of which later.

It has been a hard road, however, to step out of the shadows of their fanatically followed Istanbul rivals, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, and doing so looked like a pipe dream just a few years ago.

Some of the foundations of the current success were laid by a recently deposed Premier League boss. Slaven Bilic was confirmed as Besiktas coach on June 26, 2013, the day after UEFA confirmed the club would be excluded from the upcoming season's Europa League, following a match-fixing scandal, per the Guardian.

It wasn't an easy-looking task. Besiktas had last won the SuperLig as recently as 2009, but Bilic's appointment was the seventh change of coach since summer 2010, when Bernd Schuster was given the reins.

Bilic's solely domestic remit was to stabilise a team on a relative shoestring. While champions Galatasaray had Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder and Felipe Melo on their payroll, and across the Bosphorus to Asia, Fenerbahce had big earners like Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt on their books, the new coach was tasked with trimming the wage bill.

Slaven Bilic's two years at Besiktas were trophyless, but built foundations for the future
Slaven Bilic's two years at Besiktas were trophyless, but built foundations for the futureKirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

"The ban itself wasn't the sole reason for this," beIN Sports journalist and presenter Engin Kehale told Bleacher Report, "but the restrictions to have a financial break-even, supported by the changes in the club's management by the president Fikret Orman triggered the evolution.

"It's quite similar to the strategic plan that Joan Laporta put in practice with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in Barcelona—an aggressive cost-cutting programme, followed by an aggressive revenue-generating one."

Orman had been elected president a year earlier, in 2012, and found a culture of waste. In Bilic, he found a coach with the determination to build the team back up, and the personality to inspire fans thrust into a period of change as the team moved out of Inonu as the build began.

"It was love at first sight for Besiktas fans," said Kehale. "Bilic was like a guy from the Besiktas stands who was chosen to lead the team on the pitch. The team reflected Bilic's characteristics—exciting, organised, rebellious." He guided the Black Eagles to successive third-placed finishes.

His sophomore season is often seen as a failure after Besiktas lost the leadership of the table in the final few weeks of the season. But in reality, it was a miracle they came so close, given a nomadic existence away from Inonu taking in spells playing home games at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium as well as at Basaksehir, Konya and Ankara.

Bilic had already began to put in key pieces of Gunes' title winners, including Atiba Hutchinson, Cenk Tosun and Olcay Sahan.

Besiktas had to be strong to get through this transitional period, and they were. Even if the club had been on their uppers financially, they had something to work with.

The fans might have been displaced, but they remained a central part of the Istanbul football community. The club's fanatical Carsi supporter group had a key role in involving football fans—and not just Besiktas ones—in the Gezi Park protests of 2013. "Pepper spray is our perfume," one member told Der Spiegel's Ozlem Gezer and Maximilian Popp at the time.

That passion has been something to build on, and Orman's administration has done just that. Now, the Champions League has moved into the priority position as the club aims to grow.

"The plan is clear," Kehale said. "Becoming a global brand. That's why Besiktas made a trip to China this summer to play a friendly against Schalke. The idea is to build a fanbase outside of Turkey. To convey the global message to fans all over the world, the Champions League is crucial."

Mario Gomez's prolific spell at Besiktas propelled the club to a first SuperLig title in seven years, and resurrected his career
Mario Gomez's prolific spell at Besiktas propelled the club to a first SuperLig title in seven years, and resurrected his careerArmando Franca/Associated Press

An attractive on-field persona is key in that, too, and Gunes has built on Bilic's foundation to take Besiktas to the next level. He has created something not just to win, but to entertain.

The current team are one very much in Turkey's modern, post-Fatih Terim tradition, made to attack. Gunes has rehabilitated top-level players whose careers had stalled, including Mario Gomez and now Ryan Babel, to add to Ricardo Quaresma, Oguzhan Ozyakup and Adriano.

"You'd think it (with so many stars) was a hard group to work with," underlined Kehale, "but not for Gunes."

The 65-year-old, who took Turkey to the 2002 World Cup semi-final, and his group deserve huge credit. That relatively recent banishment from Europe means those fans are cherishing these moments—and thanking their lucky stars that Orman used that year away to accelerate the process of lasting change.

"If you have the right plan and the right people to implement that plan," suggested Kehale, "you build something for the future, rather than a one-shot title race. This seems to be the biggest step that Besiktas has taken, and that Fenerbahce and Galatasaray haven't."

Those steps are quickly turning into giant strides in the shadow of Dolmabahce.

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