This summer has been a historic one for Munich football, and not only because of Bayern’s Champions League heroics. While 1860 Munich fans have needed to look on in some envy as they linger in the German third tier, another side has set a milestone in its quiet yet confident emergence to the forefront of the city’s football scene.
Türkgücü Munich are, in the words of their CEO Max Kothny “totally unique”. While Bayern are still basking in their dazzling performances in Lisbon, Türkgücü have their own historic achievement in 2020 to reflect on – becoming the first club founded by migrants to reach the professional leagues in Germany by gaining promotion to the third tier.
Ironically for a club that was founded in 1975 by Turkish immigrants, they are currently without a stadium to call their home, but at the same time are dreaming big. “We were still in the sixth tier in April 2018,” Kothny says from one of the portacabins that currently forms the club’s offices. “Three promotions in three seasons – not even Leipzig or Hoffenheim could manage that, but we did,” he adds proudly.
In a further sign of the club’s humble recent past, they share their municipal training facilities with various amateur clubs and even school PE classes, while occasionally having their training sessions drowned out with noise due to the owner of the clubhouse there renting it out for weddings and stag parties. Their attendance last season averaged a modest 460 spectators, yet they will play some matches this season at Munich’s 70,000-capacity Olympiastadion.
Like Hoffenheim and Leipzig, Türkgücü’s ascent so far has been powered by a wealthy benefactor. Its president Hasan Kivran has a rock-solid connection to the club, having played for its reserve team 30 years ago before pursuing a career in business.
Kivran is, therefore, able to reminisce himself on the club’s most glorious era to date – a four-year spell at the turn of the 90s in the third tier of German football, at that time the amateur Bavarian League. “The club was much more Turkish back then,” Kivran said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, talking about how Turkish Gastarbeiter migrants would excitedly look forward to matches at the weekend. Indeed, attendances of up to 12,000 were recorded in derbies against 1860 Munich.
A decline in interest throughout the 1990s has been attributed to the introduction of satellite TV to Germany and availability of televised Turkish football. Insolvencies and mergers ensued as the club just about continued in various guises in local lower leagues before Kivran, who operates a leasing company, began backing them in their current form in 2016.
Kothny is optimistic that once fans are allowed back to matches, they will flock to see the ambitious club in action. He attributes their small attendances in the lower leagues to low-level opposition and the fact they previously had to play outside of Munich, in Heimstetten.
With that ground failing to meet criteria for third-tier football, a long debate developed in Munich about where Türkgücü could play. with the result being that they are to divide their home matches this season between the Grünwalder, home to 1860, Bayern Reserves and Bayern Women, and the iconic Olympiastadion, which last hosted regular football 15 years ago. “There are 3.5 million people of Turkish descent in Germany,” Kothny says, “and with some incredibly interesting opponents, I think we’ll increasingly manage to attract the Turkish community to our home games.”
Amid the fierce discussions in local media and politics about where Türkgücü should play in the third tier, Kivran openly suggested moving temporarily to Germany’s industrial west, which has a much larger number of people with a Turkish background than Munich. Kivran treads a fine line between valuing the club’s local identity – with a new club badge designed after he became involved in 2016 that shows the Bavarian flag in equal size to the Turkish flag – and portraying the team as upstarts, telling Süddeutsche Zeitung, “I know we annoy people in Munich.”
Kivran has business connections in Turkey and has explored the possibilities of gaining an international push to its ambitions. The club has entered initial discussions with Fenerbahçe about a possible co-operation, although it has realised unless it reaches the 2. Bundesliga it will be difficult to take players from Turkey due to their non-EU status. Kothny says contact with Fenerbahçe and other major Istanbul clubs has continued as it seeks to learn from their expertise in organisation and marketing.
The club’s management sees itself as having a start-up mentality and it has shown a fondness for experimentation and quick thinking as it aims to continue its aggressive climb up the divisions. In what some might see as ruthlessness, Reiner Maurer left the club despite coaching them to promotion after negotiations on a new contract failed.
Robert Hettich left as CEO by mutual consent in February and was replaced by 23-year-old Kothny. As many as 15 signings were made in the summer, and ten players left. Sometimes contract talks went unresolved, with lead striker Patrick Hasenhüttl, son of Ralph, leaving for Unterhaching.
Kothny says: “There is a huge gap between the levels of our regional league and the third Bundesliga. We saw after a week or two of pre-season training and a couple of friendly matches that some players just weren’t good enough, and we saw where we had to improve the squad.” With a reported budget of €1.7m last season, the club should have the resources to compete in the third tier.
Alexander Schmidt, who was previously in charge of cross-city rivals 1860 Munich, was recruited as Türkgücü’s new coach in the summer. He has promised to implement a high-pressing and hard-running playing style, with the club aiming to be in the top half of the 3. Liga by the end of the season and targeting the 2. Bundesliga by 2023. If they can achieve that, what else would be possible? “You have to aim as high as you possibly can, otherwise it can get boring,” answers Kothny.
Türkgücü declares on its website that it is politically neutral. That isn’t always easy, Kothny admits, with the Turkish community in Germany the subject of fierce debates in identity politics at times. “We quite simply have to remain neutral, even if it disappoints some of our fans who might engage in Turkish politics, as we are about football,” Kothny says.
The club strives to be a progressive force for its community, though. Türkgücü’s youth set-up has been praised for its integration work, including from Cacau, the Brazil-born former Germany international who once played at the club and now is an integration commissioner for the DFB.
“You can see every young footballer, wherever they are from, feels at home when they come to play for us,” says Kothny. Its youth ranks these days reflect the wider sources of integration into Germany than was the case in its first years as a Turkish-community club.
Kivran seemingly wants the club to take pride in its identity but not to be defined solely by it, saying everyone has a role to play in integration. He finds it amusing at away matches when the club gets referred to as “the Turks” despite opponents frequently featuring several players with Turkish names.
Türkgücü’s current squad has five players with some Turkish background, and while the club has sought to keep a strong Turkish influence in the past, Kothny says from the level of the third tier, player quality has to be the decisive factor in transfer policy, not background.
Now they are in a national league, concerns have been raised about the reaction Türkgücü might prompt from fans in the former East Germany, where extremism is particularly prevalent. “I’m relaxed about that. I haven’t ordered an armoured bus,” Kivran says.
Anyone opposing the club out of their own bigotry should prepare for them to stay around, after all. Despite rumours that Kivran has already threatened to withdraw his funding in internal club disputes, Kothny says the investor “lives and bleeds for the club”. “We are aiming to get the club to stand on its own feet as soon as possible, and I think we can do that in professional football.”
Improvements to their training facility and an actual office building are due to come into use next year as further parts of the jigsaw Türkgücü are hurriedly trying to put together. Seeing how far their ambitions take them in the years ahead should be truly fascinating.
By Dan Billingham @d_billingham