Germany flagIzmirspor was founded by a group of Turkish immigrants in 1978, and by the time the club changed its name to Türkiyemspor in 1987, the club had risen meteorically to the Landesliga, then the fourth tier of German football.

Attendances for the level were remarkable, with around 1,000 fans present for most games, and an incredible 11,949 (or even more – plenty of fans without tickets found their way into the stadium) for the big derby with Hertha BSC, as the Old Lady’s slump to the Oberliga (then 3rd division) coincided with yet another promotion for Türkiyem.

Harald Aumeier was a Türkiyemspor fan during these halcyon days, and remembers them well. “We were the number one in Berlin for one year,” he recalled, “Hertha went down to the Oberliga, to our league, and we had more fans than Hertha in this year.” That Hertha won 2-0 in the packed Poststadion was of no consequence to Aumeier – his ‘number one’ has little to do with what happened on the field.

To him, like to many Turkish immigrants at the time, Türkiyemspor was a symbol, a rallying point, and having more fans than the city’s biggest team was an enormous fillip to the immigrant community in Berlin. According to Aumeier, “You constantly hear racist things because you have black hair; you look a little bit different … every time you feel that you are not equal. And then came Türkiyemspor. Türkiyemspor showed on the field that if we have equal conditions and equal rights, we can win. And we give the winning feeling to the people who were losing all the time.”

Aumeier also remembers how Türkiyemspor had to train in the parks at Hasenheide and Teufelsberg due to the lack of appropriate pitches, a situation that culminated with the team training outside the Rathaus Kreuzberg as a protest in 2008. As Berlin’s highest ranked team after Hertha BSC and 1.FC Union, Aumeier felt Türkiyemspor’s needs were being neglected because of the fact of being a club formed by immigrants.

“It’s structural racism, for me. Nothing more, nothing less,” he says, “because we have no lobby, we have no people on the inside … It’s so frustrating to see how the German majority looks at us.”

Dr Peter Beckers, deputy mayor of Kreuzberg, on the other hand, took the time to explain the significant efforts by the district of Kreuzberg to give the club what it needs. “We’ve really spent a lot of money on Türkiyemspor,” he said, “no other team in the Bezirk (district) got … an investment like that.”

“The problem is that when a team doesn’t get what they want, they always feel discriminated against,” he continued. “That’s not unusual and part of the job. What is unusual is that a team like Türkiyemspor gets a pitch rented by us from a neighboring district that costs us €80,000 every year… so other teams look at that and ask, why Türkiyemspor? Why are they given preferential treatment?”

Cumali Kangal is the former chairman of the Türkisches Sportbegegnungszentrum (TSM), an umbrella organisation created to support multicultural sporting organisations. He gives the impression the various governmental agencies that he had dealt during with his time as chairman of the TSM had done their utmost to facilitate Türkiyemspor with the limited resources available to them, but the issue is simply that Kreuzberg does not have the resources to provide every football club with what they need. “The Sportamt just don’t have any options,” explains Kangal, “there aren’t enough pitches. They don’t seem to have any money.”

Dr. Beckers, while certainly seeming to do his best to facilitate Türkiyemspor, gave the impression that he is not completely aware of the importance of a sense of belonging to the non-German sections of the local community, and even less aware that not all clubs with a foreign name are the same. When asked about the importance of Türkiyemspor in Kreuzberg, he replied, “We have lots and lots of teams with Turkish names.”

Such an opinion reveals a lack of awareness of the reasons behind the founding of many immigrant cubs in the seventies and eighties. While Türkiyem was originally intended to be a club for people from Izmir, it quickly broadened its horizons to include not only all of Turkey, but everyone who wanted to join, regardless of where they were from (this, however, would not immediately be clear if one examines solely the name – ‘Türkiyem’ means ‘my Turkey’). Many other clubs have clear political leanings, or represent a specific minority – Hilalspor, for example, was founded by Muslims for Muslims.

The international make-up of the Türkiyemspor team in the nineties also forced the DFL (German football league) into a change to their rule that only allowed three non-Germans per squad in the top divisions. After the change, non-German footballers would be considered to be German for footballing purposes if they had played for five years in Germany, at least three of which were as a junior player. It may not seem like much in these days of EU-driven free movement of workers, but at the time, it was a monumental change that validated and recognised the contribution of thousands of non-German football players in Germany. This one piece of legislation set the wheels in motion that finally led to a Turkish-born player representing Germany at international level – Mustafa Dogon in 1999.

As Aumeier says, “Türkiyemspor showed the young people that you can come here and no one will say, you’re a bad Turkish guy, you’re bad people from Afghanistan or something like that – you come to Türkiyemspor and you are Türkiyemspor. Nothing more. Every single person is welcome.”

Downturn inevitable

But this feeling that the club belonged to everyone made a downturn in its fortunes inevitable. It was precisely what large numbers of immigrants needed at a difficult time for the integration process in Germany, but as needs diverge over time, they cannot all be fulfilled. Should the club’s priority be youth development? Or should the focus be the high-profile men’s team? Can they exist without each other?

The one thing that Aumeier, Kangal and Beckers all agree upon is that the death of Türkiyemspor had a lot to do with how unprofessionally the club was run. One can excuse this fact perhaps for the initial decade, as the club’s founders came to terms with the magnitude of the task and just how much potential the club had. That unprofessional leadership still blights the club some twenty years after the glory days is a damning indictment on the enormous number of presidents and board members that have been through the Türkiyemspor revolving doors.

Aumeier, as usual, does not mince his words. “We need Nachhaltigkeit,” he says. “Sustainability. Long-term planning. Our problem is that we have no structure. OK. We can live with no structure; a little bit of anarchy is good for everybody. But every year we change our board members. Or two times, three times.”

He goes on to explain how old presidents do not speak with new presidents, how important documents disappear with each revolution – each time, it seems, the club is forced to start again at the beginning as all the relationships built up (with other teams, with sponsors, with fans) fall by the wayside. “Nobody can make a club run long-term like this,” he says frustratedly.

These constant clashes have been a large contributory factor in the rapidly decreasing fanbase over the years – fans were consistently alienated as the club necessarily honed and developed its ideology. Nothing makes a fan lose interest as quickly as the feeling that his or her input is not valued within the club, and with the close, almost emotional connection that the fans had with the club in the late eighties, it seemed as though everyone had their own idea of what Türkiyemspor should do, what players they should sign, who the president should be, what the club should be.

So what does the future have in store for Türkiyemspor? As illustrated by the continued excellent performances by the youth and women’s teams, Türkiyemspor is far from dead. But for the men’s team to achieve on-field success one can’t help but feel that large-scale structural changes are necessary – here, professionalism and sustainability are the key words. The securing of online betting giant Betfair as shirt sponsor was a step in the right direction, but typically, there was a hitch – the Berlin football association does not allow betting companies to appear on jerseys. Just as typically though, Türkiyemspor found a way around the issue. A strip of masking tape over the‘t’ in ‘Betfair’ and the Türkiyem jerseys were adorned with the slogan ‘Be fair’ – a very Türkiyem solution to a very Türkiyem problem.

Both St. Pauli and 1.FC Union have both shown in recent years that it is possible to remain loyal to the community the club represents while running it as a sound, financially-viable business. That those teams are currently in such a healthy financial state is due to that precise reason – their fans feel involved in the running of the club, and also as though their input is valued. Quite literally, you can’t put a price on loyalty, especially when combined with firm, professional, non-emotional, financially aware leadership.

Türkiyemspor are a long way away from filling stadia as easily as St. Pauli and Union do, but the fanbase is there. It’s just dormant, alienated by years of on-pitch mediocrity, but also by the lack of communication, ambition without clear structure, and arbitrary personal allegiances to the conflicting factions within the club.

One cannot help but be struck by a glaring irony when watching Türkiyemspor play. On the field, players communicate in German, Arabic and Turkish – and no small measure of success is achieved. Togetherness, co-operation and communication are evident as the players work as a cohesive unit to achieve their common goals. If only that strategy was implemented at boardroom level, Türkiyemspor would be a force to be reckoned with.

By Stephen Glennon

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona