Fenerbahce are in crisis.
One of Turkey’s most successful clubs and a former European giant are looking up from the bottom of a league they used to dominate.
“At the beginning of the season, if we had to write the worst scenario, no one could have predicted the current situation,” club president Ali Koc said.
The Istanbul side sit in the relegation zone, second from bottom in the Turkish top-flight – the Super Lig – and 22 points behind leaders Istanbul Basaksehir.
On Monday they face Bursaspor, Fenerbahce’s first league match since the winter break.
“This is the big story everyone is talking about,” Turkish football expert Bagis Erten told BBC Sport. “Although there is a championship race, Fenerbahce is the best subject to talk about – will they survive?”
It is a remarkable fall for the 19-time Super Lig champions after a second-place finish last season – only Galatasaray, with 21 domestic titles, have a better pedigree.
Fenerbahce have never been relegated and since the league started in 1959, the lowest the team has finished is 10th in the 1980-81 season. They have not finished outside of the top four since 2002-03.
Imagine Liverpool or Arsenal being in the Premier League relegation zone this season and you’ll get the picture.
So what’s happened?
A ‘poor quality’ squad with ‘average’ foreign signings
The side were once famous for their foreign imports, with players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Alex, Nicolas Anelka, Roberto Carlos and in more recent times Dirk Kuyt, Nani and Robin van Persie.
But their struggling team nowadays features the likes of former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, Spurs striker Roberto Soldado, on-loan Swansea winger Andre Ayew and Leicester’s record signing Islam Slimani, who is on loan at the club, and Frenchman Mathieu Valbuena.
“This is the weakest squad for 20 years,” adds Erten. “The quality of the team is really poor.”
“They have young players that are not allowed to play much, average foreign players and older local guys – the match is not working.”
A manager who ‘lost the connection’ – like Mourinho
Dutchman Phillip Cocu, who had won three league titles with PSV Eindhoven, was sacked in October after just four months in charge at Fenerbahce – losing five of his 10 league games.
Erten said: “Could you have expected better from a different manager? Could Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp have done any better? I am not so sure. With that kind of team you do not expect them to be successful.
“The results were terrible. The board wanted to make it work, Koc wanted to make it work. But Cocu lost the connection with players, the fans. He was like Jose Mourinho at Manchester United – a good manager but no one believed in him.”
A 3-0 defeat against Akhisarspor in December was so bad, Koc reportedly cancelled his players’ flights home and made them make the five-hour bus journey back to Istanbul.
Former Turkey manager Ersun Yanal returned to the club in December for his second spell in charge.
Money problems and possible FFP breaches
Fenerbahce’s problems also stem from Uefa financial fair play rules (FFP), which limit the club’s spending power.
FFP ‘break-even’ rules require clubs to balance spending with their revenue.
New president Koc took over last summer, ending Aziz Yildirim’s 20-year reign who had spent big towards the end of his tenure to “keep his seat”.
Koc brought in Tottenham and Liverpool’s former director of football Damien Comolli as sporting director.
In December, Koc said the club had to make a profit of 60m euros this year under FFP, which he says is “not possible”.
With the financial restrictions in place from Uefa, the club has had to target young, lesser-known talent.
“They made a new kind of team, with a talented young manager – it had been like the first pages of a great story, but it has not been written like that,” said Erten.
Koc has suggested in the media that the club may not be able to comply with FFP rules and would sacrifice competing in Europe to focus on becoming champions of Turkey again.
“Perhaps the next year we will make the next squad to be the champion in the league rather than going to Europe,” Koc is reported to have said.
“Everything depends on success and winning in Turkey, it is not like Brighton or Tottenham – you have to be champion,” says Erten. “This is the only criteria of success.”
“Koc is one of the richest men in Turkey, but he cannot spend his own money on Fenerbahce because of financial fair play.
“He made a statement recently saying he may prefer not to go into European competition, but instead create a good group of players with his own money.”
Is there hope?
There is optimism that Yanal can turn the situation around and the Turk has said he is aiming to win the club’s 20th league title, which would earn a fourth star on their shirt.
The 57-year-old won Fenerbahce’s last league title in 2013-14, in his previous spell in charge, but resigned due to disagreements with the club’s board.
Despite their domestic trouble, Fenerbahce are still in the Europa League and play Zenit St-Petersburg in the next round.
“There have been many critics for him [Yanal], but he is now the saviour,” says Erten.
“This is the bottom, so he can not do any worse. They are not bothered about cups, only league success.”
“No one believes they will be relegated, probably a top 10 or a top six finish. If they can get back to the top six it will be a success.”