Turkish Football

  1. Turkish leagues – structure and attendances
  2. My visit to istanbul
  3. Tuzlaspor 2 Sakaryaspor 3 HT: 1-1 Att: c650
  4. Fenerbahçe 5 Kasimpasa 1 HT: 2-1

Turkish leagues – structure and attendances

The Turkish top-flight started in 1959. Even though football was played in Turkey from the late 19th Century, introduced from the UK, it wasn’t until 1959 that the first nationwide league started – the Super Lig. Before that, the big cities had their own regional leagues. However, when calculating number of Championships, Besiktas were allowed to include their two Turkish Federation Cup wins in 1957-58 and 58-59, a nationwide cup that preceded the Super Lig., which means 66 titles have been awarded.

Superlig Titles

TeamCityNo of Titles
Istanbul BasaksehirIstanbul1

As you can see, Istanbul teams have won 58 out of the 66 titles. The big three – Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas have won 57 of them.

Until 2009-10, when Bursaspor won their first championship, only four teams had won the title. More recently, relatively new club, Istanbul Basaksehir, won their first title in 2019-20.

The big three are the only ever-presents in the top Turkish League, having participated in all 65 seasons, with Ankaragucu on 53 and Trabzonspor on 49. Besiktas claims to be the oldest of the Istanbul clubs, being founded in 1903, compared to Galatasaray’s 1905 and Fenerbahçe’s 1907. However, the JK of Besiktas’s name stands for Jimnastic Kulubu, and indeed when first formed they were just a gymnastics club, so the honour of oldest football club is still contested.

Istanbul lies in the North West of Turkey, with the country being roughly a landscape rectangle shape. Trabzon lies towards the North East tip, where Turkey borders Georgia, 1,100 kilometres away.

The big three also get the biggest attendances, with Trabzonspor easily in fourth again:

TeamAverage Attendance 2022-23
Adana Demirspor 16,870
Gaziantep FK3,795
Istanbul Basaksehir2,399
Fatih Karagümrük1,528

You can see from the table above how the attendances start dropping dramatically, from fifth place, down to an average below 2,000, for Fatih Karagumruk.

Other clubs hailing from Istanbul in the league are Istanbul Basaksehir, Istanbulspor, Fatih Karagumruk, Kasimpasa and Umraniyespor.

Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents, with the Bosphorus Strait separating the European and Asian sides. Besiktas and Galatasaray are on the European side whereas Fenerbahçe are in Asia. Of the other Istanbul clubs in the Super Lig, only Umraniyespor play on the Asian side.

A peculiar feature of the top flight is that many clubs use different venues for their home games. I assume this is when a big crowd is expected and their ground may not be sufficient. However, looking at the stats, this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Istanbulspor, Umraniyespor and Fatih Karagumruk have all used the Ataturk Olimpiyat Stadium for home games this season, presumably when one of the big three are visiting. The Ataturk Olimpiyat is the national stadium, housing 76,092, but not the official home stadium of any one team.

Less obvious, though, is why Umraniyespor have travelled over the Bosphorus to Europe to play one game each at Kasimpasa’s and Istanbulspor’s stadiums. That’s four home grounds in one season. This hopping in and out of other grounds isn’t just unique to Istanbul. Gaziantep FK have used Hatayspor’s ground, Konyaspor have used lower league Eskisehirspor’s massive ground and Sivasspor have used Yeni Malatyaspor’s New Malatya Stadium at some point in the season.

When you start down the rabbit hole of Turkish Stadiums, you soon realise the fact that Turkey has more new stadiums than any other European Country. And strangely, given the sudden cliff edge of attendances after Trabzonspor, a lot of these new grounds belong to lower league teams.

Before I carry on, let’s just take a look at the league structure in Turkey. After the 19 team Super Lig you have the second tier 1.Lig, 19 teams spanning the whole of Turkey. The third tier is regionalized into two leagues, called White and Red. The winner of each goes up, with a third team going up from a play-off of the runners-up.

The fourth tier has three groups with two going up from each and beyond this are many regional amateur leagues.

Professional League Structure in Turkey

1  Super Lig
2  1.Lig
2.Lig White group 2.Lig Red Group
3.Lig Group 1 3.Lig Group 2 3.Lig Group 3

This is a list of the teams in the second division (1.Lig), their stadium capacities and the year their stadium was built. It’s difficult not to think that this stadium building has just a touch of overkill about it, given the small attendances, even in the Super Lig. It reminds me of Scotland a bit, but on a larger scale, with a few teams dominating the trophies and the crowds, with the quality of football and attendances decreasing almost exponentially, the further down you go.

1.Lig TeamCapacity of StadiumYear Built
Yeni Malatyaspor25,7452017 
Erzurumspor FK21,3741968 
Ankara Keçiöre…4,8831999 
Manisa FK3,000u/k

Bursapsor, mentioned above, who became only the fifth different team to win the Turkish Super Lig in 2009-10, play in the third tier now, and are 15th out of 19. They have a magnificent 43,563 capacity ground, called the Bursa Timsah Arena, built in 2015, that is green and shaped like a crocodile wrapped round itself. It’s a magnificent sight, just difficult to believe it is home to third tier football now. The 1.Lig (league above) game we saw at Tuzlaspor was watched by around 600-700 fans and the quality was akin to Conference football (objection your honour, conjecture. Objection sustained). This is what is hard to grasp regarding the size of these new grounds.

Third tier club Bursaspor’s 43,563 capacity Bursa Timsah Arena

Bottom of Group 1, in the fourth tier, you have Eskisehirspor, whose New Ataturk Stadium was opened in 2016 and holds 32,500! There may be many others lurking around in the lower leagues. These mega stadiums are sitting alongside very humble municipal grounds, such as the aforementioned one Tuzlaspor played at, that are more akin to what you’d expect, being similar to a Northern Premier League or Conference Ground.

My visit to istanbul

My friend Tom and I took advantage of some flights he’d banked from the Covid era, and he stretched the vouchers all the way across Europe, so we could put our toes in Asia and see our first football game there. Neither of us knew much about Turkish football, beforehand, and the visit wasn’t just for football, with the biggest city in Europe being quite a pull in itself.

The city is ancient and has lived through and been the focal point of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Its location has made it a strategic focus for thousands of years. It has a population of at least 15 million, the equivalent of two Londons.

Like a lot of European Leagues, the fixtures are first listed as all happening at the same time on the same day, so planning in advance is not possible. We wanted one of the big three, plus one or two others. Fenerbahçe and Besiktas were both at home, with Galatasaray playing away. It was only about ten days before our trip that the fixtures re-arranged for television. Besiktas was a no go, as they were playing Friday night, when we’d still be en route. Fener was Sunday 7pm, so that was a definite.

At first glance it looked like an Istanbul triple was on for the Sunday, with Istanbulspor kicking off at 13.00 and Istanbul Basaksehir kicking off at 16.00. This is where the sheer size of the city became a logistical problem in terms of groundhopping. Despite having over an hour between the last two games, there’s no way you could get there. A taxi might make it, trafic permitting, but you’d be rushing and wouldn’t be able to soak up any atmosphere. Likewise, between the first two games. The first and third was an option, but Istanbulspor is a good 1 hour 45 minutes on public transport from Sultanahmet, where we were staying, and once we’d got back, about another hour to Fener. It would mean a whole day travelling.

We decided to ditch a second game Sunday, to do some tourist things like visit the Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern, amongst other things, and it was the right choice.

Saturday 28th January 2023
Turkey 1.Lig

Tuzlaspor 2 Sakaryaspor 3 HT: 1-1 Att: c650

from Sancaktepe Stadi

Entrance: 50 tl (about £2.50)

On Saturday, we did a stadium tour of Besiktas, which is also where we had to pick up our ID cards from. From here we got a ferry across the Bosphorus Straight to an area called Sancaktepe, to see the 1.Lig game between Tuzlaspor and Sakaryaspor.

Tuzlaspor are another club who seem to play in various grounds. They have their own ground, over 40km east from our hotel, well into the Asian side, but were playing at Sancaktepe’s ground in the suburb of Samandira, a mere 35 km east and more inland. A ferry, two long metro journeys and a hairy taxi ride through very typical bad traffic, finally got us to our destination.

The street vendor outside the ground was selling some awesome kebabs

The ground is three sides, and all-seater, holding just under 3,000, although both sets of fans were standing throughout the game and the seats were fairly filthy, given the recent rain and the trend of people walking over the seats to move up the stand. Indeed, the only access to the Chai seller at the top of the stand was by standing on seats – it had the worst access of any tea hut I’ve seen.

Only the two side stands were open for the game, with the Sakaryaspor fans up one corner in one side, and all home fans on the other long side. The total crowd was around 700 at a guess, with around 100-150 vociferous away supporters. The home support was surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly subdued.

Tom spotted that Tuzlaspor’s number 95 was called Imbula, and to my amazement it was the same Giannelli Imbula who Mark Hughes paid £18.3m for in 2016-17. At only 30 now, it seemed a bit surreal to see him playing here, in the backstreets of Istanbul, in a game watched by less than 1,000 and costing less than £2.50 entrance fee.

Sakaryaspor’s impressive and noisy away support.

The first 15 minutes of the game were woeful from a football point of view, especially Tuzlaspor’s defence. It felt like watching North West Counties League. Sakaryaspor scored a tap in after 2 minutes which the referee gave, and they were just about to kick-off from the centre spot when the VAR team (yes, Turkish second tier games use VAR!). The original ball was deemed offside. We only found this out after the game, but I suspected something was amiss, as the scoreboard remained at 0-0.

The away side did take the lead for definite after 38 minutes; a completely unmarked header from two yards. However, just before half time, another strange incident. What looked like a definite penalty, where the Tuzla guy was bundled to the floor, was waved away by the ref. The Tuzla players surrounded the ref and positively insisted he change his mind, to which he did the VAR gesture and ran to stand. I don’t know what the setup was, but given the stadium, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone’s phone he was looking at.

He came back onto the pitch, did the film or television charade and awared a pen. Cue Giannelli Imbula, who put it away to equalize.

Giannelli Imbula, about to take a penalty

HT 1-1. Two cups of chai at half-time (he didn’t sell anything else) and then Tuzla took the lead early in the second half, following a scramble. It was turning into an end-to-end exciting game, and despite the home side’s awful start they were looking more than a match for Sakarya.

However, their defence always had a fragility to it, and after 70, the wonderfully named Kabongo Kasongo scored a dramatic overhead kick to equalize. Sakaryaspor could smell blood and looked dangerous to the end and their persistence paid off when an insufficient clearance from the box was wellied home by Suleyman, in the 90th minute, overpowering the keeper, who couldn’t hold it. Probably a deserved victory on balance.

Sunday 29th January 2023
Turkey Super Lig

Fenerbahçe 5 Kasimpasa 1 HT: 2-1

from Sukru Saracoglu Stadyumu

Getting into this game was a nightmare of epic proportions, a confusing and Kafka-esque episode that showed the darker side of Turkish football, doing little to warm us to the locals. Tom and I are still confused as to what exactly went on, but it seems it was a combination of variables, ranging from the shambolic Passolig ticketing system to corrupt ticket office staff, ticket touts and unscrupulous stewards, to say the least.

We’d looked up average crowds in the Super Lig this season. Despite the big three getting close to capacity, when they were playing each other, it seemed there were a few thousand spare seats for the other league games, even when playing the other Istanbul sides, such as tonight’s opponents, Kasimpasa. We thought, after successfully getting tickets for the Tuzlaspor game yesterday, it’d be easy to do the same today.

We arrived almost three hours early, to soak up the pre-match atmosphere, heading straight for the ticket office, to make sure of our entry. We were accosted by touts telling us it was a sell-out, but they could help us out. They wanted to charge close to £50 each for a ticket. We checked with the ticket office and they confirmed they were sold out, but in retrospect, we went to the hatch suggested by the tout. It could have been manipulation and that particular window had someone in on the scam.

As all ticketing must be done through the Passolig system, the touts transfer the tickets already on their card to yours, by using the ticket office staff. This open collaboration between the official ticket office and the touts was odd, to say the least, but we decided to risk it, as we’d come all this way for a big three game. The ticket office gave Tom a one-day pass, as he didn’t physically have his Passolig card and loaded my ticket onto my card.

The tout’s assistant, who we realized probably had learning difficulties, marched us to a cashpoint and back, and then insisted we go in to the ground 2 1/2 hours early. He kept grunting and aggressively ushering us to the turnstile. Every time we protested, saying we wanted to wander around first, he violently pointed towards the entrances. It was difficult to know what to make of this – did he want us through security so we couldn’t chase him, or did he want to make sure our tickets worked? In the end we lost him, after about the third frisk from police and stewards, so we went for a walk around the area and a bite to eat.

Most of the establishments around the area were alcohol free, but the ones that did look like pubs, looked very partisan, and so we opted for a chai and a kebab in one of the many cafés.

On getting back to the ground, still with over an hour to go before kick-off, and a further half-dozen frisks and searches, neither of our tickets worked. This is where it became like The Trial by Franz Kafka. We were both Josef Ks, at the mercy of authorities who didn’t speak English, and gave us contradictory and confusing messages – and that was just the start of it. At first, we assumed we’d been ripped off by the tout. We found the nearest ticket office, who despite the continuing language barrier, (it seems virtually no Turkish people speak any English whatsoever, even those working in hospitality, like a ticket office) confirmed that the game was sold out and we didn’t have tickets (this would turn out not to be true, so we don’t know if they just couldn’t be bothered to look, or were being deliberately obstructive).

In a last-ditch attempt to salvage either our tickets or money, we went all the way round the ground to the original ticket office, where we started. To our surprise, our tout was still there. We confronted him and he seemed genuinely shocked that our tickets didn’t work. He went back to the agent, who double checked our cards and assured us that we could get entry via block 17.

Back all the way round to block 17, another round of searches and this time Tom goes first and gets in, but again I’m refused entrance. This suggested that it wasn’t the touts that were at fault, but something else. I was getting het up to say the least now, and desperately tried to find somebody to help. A chief steward seemed to want to help me and was welcoming. He beckoned me to one side and we had to talk through google translate on his phone, by text messaging. We both had to use his phone, as using data in Turkey costs about £20 a megabyte.

He went away to check my passolig card and came back to say there was no ticket present on it. I stressed that I paid for one and asked if there was anything he could do. He went back inside the ground for a second time. Then his translated texts started making no sense at all. He said that ‘your species in the past has a history of violence and swearing at games’. Pardon? What did that have to do with anything? I didn’t even know where to start with this – did I have a ticket, but being English, they’d decided not to let me in?

After a good half hour of exhausting and slow dialogue through his phone, he then says he can get me in for 500 Turkish lira. This is about £45. I walked away in despair – I was done. He could have got me in all along, but was just after money. It was disgusting. I thought the guy was genuinely interested in helping me; instead, it was all prep for a bribe. As I walked off, he asked how much I had in my wallet. In desperation, I thought I’ll go along with this to get in, for 200 lira, about £15, but no more. He disappeared again for 5 minutes, came out and said they won’t accept it.

I left forlorn and miserable and circled the ground back to the metro station, with the intention of going back to the hotel. As I was passing the original ticket office, I thought I’d try just one last throw of the dice. This time, I went to a different agent. He checked my card and said the reason I wasn’t allowed in is because someone else had used my Passolig card. He showed me his screen with a snapshot of the turnstile camera – it showed a picture of Tom! I said it was my friend. He asked me what’s his passport number was, which I gave him and he issued me with another card. (By the way, he didn’t speak English either, when I say ‘he said’, I mean more of a conveyance).

At 19.35, I finally entered the stadium, having missed nearly all the first half. The crux of the whole problem was the shocking Passolig system, but then exacerbated by lazy ticket agents who couldn’t be bothered properly checking what the problem was, stewards who were only interested in turning my nightmare into their profit, and other staff members who didn’t want to know full stop. It left a seriously bad taste in our mouths and we vowed not to ever visit this country again for football. So many questions remain.

Much as the UK has its flaws, this wouldn’t have happened here. I just can’t believe the attitude shown by Fenerbahçe, it’s still hard to comprehend. What was worse was that once inside the ground, it was quite blatantly not sold-out, despite multiple official ticket agents telling us it was.

From a football point of view, I got lucky, I’d only missed Kasimpasa taking an unlikely lead after 24 mins. Within minutes of my late entry, Fener were awarded a penalty. Enner Valencia (former West Ham and Everton forward) had his shot hit the post, which he then scored. No goal, as it hadn’t touched anyone else. However, the keeper was deemed to have moved before the kick was taken, so he got to take it again, which he floated into the top corner this time. A couple of minutes later a great passing move was volleyed in from ten yards, again by Valencia, to put them 2-1 up at the break.

Trying to get a coffee at the break was tough, as I was ignored on account of not speaking Turkish – a sobering insight into what it must be like for minorities everywhere.

The second half was much more one-sided, with Fenerbahçe cruising to a 5-1 victory, which could have been more. Valancia scored another two, making four for him, with Batshuayi scoring right at the end to make if five. The game was good and the atmosphere as electric as I’d heard it would be, but the events beforehand did put a dampener on the evening.

I would strongly recommend a visit to Istanbul, a fascinating and historic city. I can’t say I’d recommend going for football, after our experience.


The Passolig system is a compulsory ID system, introduced in 2014. To get into a game in the top two divisions, all fans must be registered, and tickets bought using this system.

Tom and I both registered while still in the UK and soon realised how poor it was. It is buggier than some independent computer games written for the ZX Spectrum in the early 80s. It is atrocious. At first, I got lucky and was able to register successfully, by uploading a photo and passport details. It wouldn’t accept Tom’s photo, but was happy to take his money.

In order to buy tickets, you needed to load the card with money. However, this just wasn’t possible. Every time I tried to do this, it threw up an error message. By the way, the app version of Passolig won’t let you translate it into English, and it won’t even let you highlight text to put into Google Translate. If you do want to translate it you have to type in all the Turkish words from scratch. The online version lets you translate, but then as soon as you click on a further link, it reverts back to Turkish.

Whenever I tried to add money, it came up with an error message that was roughly – this is not possible, try again. Oh, and occasionally it would say that you don’t exist, that the email address was invalid, only to let you in the next time. It was impossible to use, like a bad anxiety dream.

Thinking it could be a problem with using it in England, we hoped it might become smoother once in Turkey, but no, the same problems persisted.

You can’t book tickets for a match less than 24 hours before kick-off, unless you are affiliated with the club in question. As if you could book tickets, anyway!

When you apply for your Passolig card, you can choose which club badge to have on. Whichever you choose, will give you higher priority for ticket for that particular team. You also have to pick a venue to pick your cards up from. As we weren’t sure yet who we were seeing, we chose the club nearest to our hotel – Besiktas.

Apparently, you don’t need your physical card, as long as you’re on the system. However, as Tom’s application didn’t seem to work properly, we thought it best if we went along to Besiktas to get our cards. We also did a stadium tour and visited the football museum beforehand.

After the tour, we were directed to the ticket office, which looked shut. A bloke gesticulated that indeed it wasn’t open, but then we saw one window with man lurking at the back. We went to him and told him we were picking up our cards. He produced mine, but he couldn’t find Tom’s, despite him applying before me.

Considering it’s been in place almost 10 years, we found Passolig a nightmare system to use on all counts. From not having Tom’s physical card to the appalling App and the almost equally bad website; none of which we managed to get a ticket from. And when Fenerbahçe, a major European side did manage to attach a ticket to mine, they didn’t let me in anyway.


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