It’s not easy being Istanbul’s third club. In a city where the shadows of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe loom large, Beşiktaş have trodden a rocky road to survival. A club often on the brink, one steeped in history and literally crossing the Asia-Europe divide, the club from an area of Istanbul of the same name is one of Europe’s most intriguing.
In a city that blends the old and new like no other, a wonderful juxtaposition has emerged in recent years along the banks of the Bosphorus. Standing in the shadow of the magnificent Dolmabahçe Palace (or is it the other way round?) has arisen a new sight for the Istanbul skyline; one that promises to take the city’s oldest football club into a new era.
The Vodafone Arena is the new eco-friendly home of Beşiktaş, a cutting-edge stadium to rival the excellent Türk Telecom Arena from the dominant rivals across the city.
For a club that has been mired with financial trouble, hard-hitting corruption and inconsistent performances on the field, the new stadium represents a welcome development in the history of a club that has enjoyed many a day in the sun across all its sporting disciplines.
Beşiktaş really is one of football’s most unusual clubs. Like no other, it straddled the divide between two continents, enjoying flitting periods in the sun before stepping back to watch their fierce rivals take centre stage in one of the world’s most passionate leagues.
Indeed, long before the Vodafone Arena was mooted as the future of the club, fans could walk to the highest rows of their old stadium, the İnönü, and catch glimpses of the most iconic buildings in both Europe and Asia. Taksim Square, a living, breathing relic from Turkey’s long and often brutal history, was a short hop away; it all ensured that Besiktas, old and steeped in history itself, would remain an integral part of the football scene in this city of cities.
Far from just being the third club in Istanbul, Beşiktaş is a vivid link to the past, one of the most important figures in the history of the game and a club that has long since held positive relations with key figures from Western Europe.
The late-Ottoman period was one of unrest and uncertainty across the empire. Having existed and governed for almost 600 years – albeit in varying stages of geographical coverage – the end was nigh for the largest and greatest Muslim empire in history.
It was in these times, on the bustling, dusty and often scorching streets of Beşiktaş, Constantinople, that a small, local club was formed – taking its name from the area where it was founded. In an era of Sultan paranoia, where groups of men were discouraged from meeting for fear of uprisings and political opposition, a small gymnastics club arose in 1903 after special permission to continue their gatherings.
Beşiktaş would continue to grow as a club, incorporating wrestling – a popular sport in the Ottoman state – boxing, fencing and athletics. The club quickly came to the attention of the greatest athletes in the Ottoman state at the time, and was officially registered as the land’s first sports club in 1910.
From humble beginnings in a small neighbourhood by the mighty Bosphorus, in a land still gripped by the often authoritarian rule of the Sultan, came Beşiktaş Ottoman Gymnastics Club, a club that changed the course of Turkish sport forever.
With trade still rife between the Ottoman and British Empires, football began to sweep the land in the early 20th century, and Beşiktaş were at the forefront of its adoption. Members began to embrace a sport so different to the elegance of gymnastics, the brute of boxing and the mystique of wrestling. This was a sport for the common soul. And Constantinople was full of them.
As the number of leagues in the city doubled, tripled and ultimately grew ten-fold, Beşiktaş finally entered their team into the Friday and Saturday leagues, and won their first title in 1918, the same year that the Great War ended. It was a war that had cost the lives of many in the Ottoman Empire, and football was seen as a release.
By now, two other clubs of note had formed in a city that was widely being called Istanbul. They were, of course, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. Despite becoming the league’s first champions in 1924, a league that was quickly sweeping the nation as the biggest sport, the 1930s represented an era of flux in the pecking order.
As Beşiktaş succumbed to a decade of mediocrity, their cross-town rivals dominated the football scene. During this period Turkey also became a Republic, ended centuries of Ottoman rule to embrace democracy and pave the way for a new direction.
Beşiktaş would rise again – like they would do so many times in the years to come – and became national champions in 1944 and 1947. In an era that was overshadowed by war, particularly the gruesome and harrowing events at Gallipoli, football took a back seat for many in a nation that was embracing closer ties with the West.
With war left behind and progress palpable, the Turkish First League was created in 1959, the first such professional league system in the nation. Unsurprisingly, Beşiktaş were at the forefront of its inception, finishing third in their debut season and winning the title a year later.
Just as they had been the trailblazers for the growth of football in Turkey, they carried the torch once again, only this time to the west. Taking part in the European Cup in 1960, they became the first Turkish side to register a win against a renowned European outfit, defeating Rapid Vienna 1-0 in Istanbul.
Read | A Tale of One City: Istanbul
The rest of the 1960s would see Beşiktaş play out some of their most consistent football. Under the progressive leadership of Yugoslav manager Ljubiša Spajić, Beşiktaş wowed fans up and down the country with free-flowing, exciting football. In complete contrast to their no-nonsense manager, the side played counter-attacking, technical football. It resulted in two league titles, in 1966 and ’67, and a Turkish Super Cup victory in 1968.
So symbolic of the club’s long history, a decade of relative success was followed by a decade of anonymity in the 1970s. Registering only a Super Cup win in 1974 and a Turkish Cup win in 1975, the decade saw 10 managers come and go through the gates of the Inonu, among them the great Yugoslavia and Partizan forward, Miloš Milutinović.
Fortunately for Beşiktaş, the predictability of an era of silence naturally gave way to a revival in the 1980s. As the club found some stability in the dugout, results improved, with a surprise league title win in 1982 completely reversing the fortunes of a club that was now firmly in the shadows of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. Staggeringly, the club only scored 38 goals in 32 games to cement their league title on the back of a miserly defence.
Beşiktaş again lifted the league title in 1986, in one of the most intriguing seasons of Turkish football ever witnessed. Despite going the season unbeaten, Galatasaray had to settle for a runners-up spot as a free-scoring Beşiktaş netted 65 goals in 36 games. The club also made it all the way to the quarter-finals of the European Cup, eventually succumbing to the power of Valeriy Lobanovksyi’s Dynamo Kyiv.
Fortunately for Beşiktaş, it was just the start of their greatest period of dominance, led by the unlikely figure of Englishman Gordon Milne. One of Bill Shankly’s first signings at Liverpool, Milne was a popular midfielder, intelligent in possession and ruthless in his quest to win it back. It was under Shankly that he also learnt his craft as manager.
Joining Beşiktaş from Leicester City, Milne quickly forged a legacy in the capital through three of the club’s greatest stars – Metin Tekin, Ali Gültiken, and Feyyaz Uçar – known to Eagles fan as Metin-Ali-Feyyaz or MAF. They were the bedrock of Milne’s record-breaking time at the Inonu, both his greatest period as a manager and the club’s.
Tekin and Feyyaz had come through the Beşiktaş academy and were already established stars at the club. It had been through their quality on the field that attendances had risen again during the 1980s. They were joined by Gültiken in 1984 – another academy graduate – as the club’s recruitment programme in the capital began to pay dividends.
Between 1990 and 1992 Beşiktaş won the league three times in a row. They were the dominant force in Turkey and registered the first – and to date, only – unbeaten league-winning season in the competition’s history in 1992.
Above all else, this Beşiktaş team was one moulded in the image of their English leader. Milne was a humble, jovial character, larger-than-life and intelligent in his understanding of the game. Despite boasting three of the greatest Turkish players of that era, Milne ensured they remained grounded and respected the history and values of their famous black and white kit.
Milne’s system was basic, and Beşiktaş won the title on the back of their talented trio and some direct, aggressive football. Goals were scored off crosses and the team utilised their wingers to great effect. With him, Milne brought a slice of old England to the new, progressive Istanbul. That two worlds have always collided in Istanbul seems an apt way to describe Gordon Milne’s time there.
A period of regression followed for Beşiktaş, who were now looking abroad for the best playing and coaching talent. Until their next title win, seven of their eight coaches came from abroad, with the illustrious names of Christoph Daum, John Toshack, Hans-Peter Briegel and Nevio Scala all trying their hand at the job to little success. In the end, current Zenit Saint Petersburg boss Mircea Lucescu brought the title back to the İnönü in 2003.
In their centenary year, it was apt that Turkey’s oldest sports club lifted the title. With a squad that boasted the excellent talents of İlhan Mansiz, Antônio Carlos Zago, Daniel Pancu, Sergen Yalçın, Tayfur Havutçu and Óscar Córdoba, the club recovered its standing at the top of the domestic game under the exciting leadership of Romanian Lucescu.
It would be a long six years before the club won the title again. With the likes of Vicente del Bosque and Jean Tigana having failed to win the title, it was former Altay legend and Galatasaray and Turkey coach, Mustafa Denizli, who brought the title back to İnönü. In an era of financial trouble, it was just the tonic the club needed.
With the flamboyant Matías Delgado orchestrating the club’s title success in 2009, few could’ve predicted at the time that the club would go another seven years without a title. Last season’s triumph, led by the goalscoring exploits of a resurgent Mario Gómez, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone in reality – after all, Beşiktaş is a club well-versed in the art of stepping up to the big table then quickly hiding back under it. It’s a club that has always won in short but memorable spurts.
Beşiktaş, Istanbul’s ‘Black Eagles’, the oldest and once most revered club in one of the world’s oldest cities, have long been the trailblazers for Turkish football. It was they who fought against Ottoman rule to become the first registered sports club in Turkey, they who helped awaken the sleeping beast that was football Istanbul. It was Beşiktaş that made Turkey believe that they could compete against the might of Europe; that they could even attract the might of Europe to the east.
In a city with two other historic footballing institutions, Beşiktaş helped grow the sports to become the most passionately supported in the country. They have developed a number of Turkey’s most outstanding players through their much-vaunted academy, and established methods of training and playing that have long since been adopted by other clubs across the nation.
They may only be Istanbul’s third club in the eyes of so many unaware of their history, but they were the Constantinople’s first club long before they were Istanbul’s third.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem