Turkey, as late as the middle of March, was planning to play on. The country had started to record its first cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and many players were confiding how uncomfortable they were with the idea of the league’s continuing. No matter, the country’s sports minister declared. The games, that weekend, would go ahead, albeit without fans.
For the richest leagues in Europe, the economic consequences of the pandemic, and the subsequent hiatus and even the games without fans, would be unwelcome. In Turkey, they sat somewhere between unfathomable and existential.
Even before the coronavirus struck, the teams of the Super Lig were already operating with some $2.6 billion in debt. They, and by extension Turkish soccer, could not afford a shutdown.
Most of that debt belongs to Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, as well as Trabzonspor. Much of it relates to unpaid taxes, though the collapse of the lira, the country’s currency, has not helped. All four teams have breached UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations in recent years.
But largely, it is the consequence of years of financial mismanagement, in which Turkey’s major teams bought high and sold low, paying vast salaries in euros to veteran, imported stars. The Super Lig has the oldest average age of 31 European leagues, according to the CIES Football Observatory.
By January, it had become clear that the situation was no longer “sustainable,” as Yildirim Demiroren, the head of the Turkish soccer federation, put it. “The big clubs are, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt,” said Caner Eler, the editor of the sports magazine Socrates.