HistoricELO Look at Turkish Soccer ft. ClubELO

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Designs by @danielnyari

Even though Mr.Dingo (or Dingo Bey in Turkish) dabbles in all kinds of predictive analysis-paralysis his background is in historical studies. Without historical context he does not think he can make any predictions; even qualitative explanations, or basic story lines just make him more comfortable. Soccer analytics is moving along fast but due to the lack of historical data we do not have much context. Was Pele better than Maradona analytically?  By dingoR or any other model? We could perhaps go back to World Cup tapes and collect their stats but then what about the context? 5-6 games every four years does not really prove much and I doubt we can get many of Pele’s games on tape from Santos days.Even if we did how would we compare Brazilian league of 60s to Serie A of 80s?

Unfortunately I do not have the answer to that question for you. But I know of a site that might provide us with a lot of historical context for European Club Football; clubelo.com . I previously wrote about ELO models in here; so I will not explain what ELO is; anyways it is explained very well on the site. Clubelo is an amazing site that was created by Mr. Lars Schiefler. You can check the current club rankings and read his very informative articles.  I spend most of my time in historical rankings and today I am going to write about Turkish soccer history using clubelo and eloratings as my guides.While there is an inherit problem with predicting future events based solely on past performance( ELO or similar systems tend to be weaker for club teams at season starts when a lot from the previous year might have changed, i.e. Monaco or Anzhi this year) I think ELO system is perfect for providing historical context:


Both clubelo and elortaings have the same trajectory for Turkish soccer; strong  early 1960’s, then a period of decline until late 1980’s and meteoric rise into early 2000’s that peaked with the generation that won Galatasaray the UEFA cup in 2000 and finished third in 2002 World Cup with Turkish NT. Post-2002 there has been some decline which seems to have been stabilized in club level recently. (I think club success for larger countries foreshadows NT success- any analysis on this?) Ratings below are as of 02/18 of that year.

graph (1)

 Amateur Soccer Era- Early Days to 1960s

As in many countries around the world, introduction to soccer to Ottoman Empire was through British ships(naval or commercial)  in the late 19th century. First the foreigners living in the empire’s cosmopolitan port cities, Salonica, Izmir and Istanbul started playing, then it spread to  Christian and Jewish populations living in these cities and finally to Muslims. These cities(except for Salonica which was ceded to Greece in 1912) and Cukurova region-a cotton producing area with few urban centers that was well-integrated into global economy- and Ankara- which became the capital in 1923- formed the backbone of Turkish soccer until 1960’s.

Success wise there is not much to report until 1950s. Considering there were considerably much fewer countries in pre-WW2 years  a ranking between 40-50 was quite poor. Then Turkish national team first qualified for 1950 Brazil World Cup(which it chose not to participate) and then 1954 Switzerland by eliminating Spain. 1950s and early 1960s was the golden age of amateur Turkish soccer. In the world cup squad of 1954 all the players except a couple were born in the cities mentioned above; there was an ethnic Greek (Lefter Küçükandonyadis- who is considered to be one of the 2 best Turkish players of pre-1990s with Metin Oktay) and a Jew (Rober Eryol) in the starting eleven. Many were from middle or upper middle class families having picked up soccer in schools such as Galatasaray Lycee.

There was a similar story going on all around the world except perhaps Britain. In early 20th century soccer was an urban pastime .Therefore, it is not a big surprise that small but highly urbanized countries such as Uruguay and Hungary were very successful until 1960s. Then soccer spread to smaller towns and rural areas and sheer demographics started taking over.

End Of an Era Late 1960s- Mid 1980s

Here we can start using club ELO data from clubelo to track Turkish soccer. Only 3 teams are sufficient to write the history of Turkish football until late 1970’s; Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas; all from Istanbul(they all claim to have 10- 20 million fans but sometimes can hardly get 30,000 together for games ;)). Highest ELO rating by decade will tell us a bit about their performance. These teams were always on top in those decades;the fact that their ELO scores dropped did not mean other Turkish teams were catching up but just that they were losing substantial ELO points to European teams:

1960s 1970s 1980s
Galatasaray 1526 1488 1527
Fenerbahce 1513 1464 1470
Besiktas 1529 1366 1508

and following are the lowest ratings ever achieved by these clubs:(year in parenthesis)

All Time Low
Galatasaray 1235(1982)
Fenerbahce 1200(1987)
Besiktas 1187(1981)

So what happened to Turkish soccer between 1960s-1980s?

I think the answer is two fold;  absolute and relative. In absolute terms there was definitely a decline. The very fabric of Turkish cities that created the success in the amateur era disappeared in 1960s. There were large waves of migration starting in 1950s.(in 1950 Istanbul had 1,000,000 people,now perhaps closer to 15,000,000) Rapid rise of population forced the better high schools(historically prominent in sports education) to dedicate more time to academics and less to extracurricular activities as number of young people trying to get  into colleges multiplied.  Much of the non-Muslim populations were forced to emigrate and many of the oldest clubs in Turkey were closed. (This was not something new-A.E.K. and PAOK of Greece were formed by players  who left Turkey in 1920s.)

But the real decline was in relative terms to rest of Europe. One of the main reasons Turkish national team has done so well in 1950s and early 1960s was the fact that Turkey did not participate in WW2. Other than large declines in male populations in most of Europe there was tremendous destruction of infrastructure. Hunger was a constant even after the war; winter of 1945-6 is infamous for widespread famine all across Europe. One cannot expect much from a generation that grew up in these circumstances. Therefore European countries such as Turkey, Sweden(WC finalist 1958), Spain(EC winner-1964) and Portugal(WC 3rd-1966) which did not participate in WW2 all had their 20th century golden ages in that era.

As most of Europe recovered and started investing in sports programs(not only in cities but all areas)- relative decline of Turkish soccer became catastrophic. In late 70s and early 80s it was considered  “honorable”  to lose to most European teams by just 1 goal. Only teams Turkey could beat were countries whose populations were under 1 million or so. England beat Turkey 8-0 in one infamous game that I still, unfortunately, remember very well despite being very young at the time.

Yet late 1970s and early 1980s also brought some hope for the future in the form of Trabzonspor.  Trabzon is a relatively small town on the Black Sea coast. The city’s club was formed in 1967- other clubs existed before in the town but were insignificant. In 1970s smaller Istanbul,Izmir and Ankara  teams that constituted the rest of Turkish first division in 50s and 60s were being relegated and replaced by provincial teams such as Trabzonspor.  Trabzonspor got promoted in 1974 and in 1976 became the first team outside of big 3 to win the league. Not only that; but most players were born and raised in or around Trabzon. This was good news for Turkish soccer as it signaled provinces were ready to contribute. At an age when import substitution was a la mode even in soccer- very few foreigners played  in Turkey. Same was true of  most of Europe, this was the golden age of small city teams. Leeds Utd., Nottingham Forrest, Gladbach dominated their domestic leagues and European  soccer and Trabzonspor was the Turkish representative.

Late 1980s-Today

1980s was mixed for Turkey. Economy was opening up but soccer still lagged behind. Provinces opened up a new source of talent for bigger Istanbul teams and Trabzonspor’s domination was over by mid 80s(after winning 6 titles in a decade).  Early 80s were the absolute low for Turkish game, then something happened.

The meteoric rise of Turkish soccer started in mid 80s.   Before going in further let’s have a look at ELO scores of big 3 again:

  1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s
Galatasaray 1526 1488 1527 1651 1718 1661
Fenerbahce 1513 1464 1470 1567 1700 1672
Besiktas 1529 1366 1508 1562 1697 1598

We can just focus on Galatasaray to understand the recent rise of Turkish soccer. This link provides Galatasaray’s  ELO rating since 1960’s. No wonder I love soccer so much- between mid 80s -when I started watching – until 2000- the year I graduated from college it was a one way train of unprecedented success.*

Other than the demographic affect of getting whole of Turkey to contribute to the talent pool there were two other significant factors that contributed to the rise. One is the rise of TV money in sports(which arrived fairly late to Turkey-until early 90s there was only a couple of channels run by the state). Facilities were modernized,scouting was improved and quality and quantity of foreigners coming to Turkey increased. As Turkey is relatively large market the TV money is more substantial than most European countries and this explains part of the out-performance of Turkish clubs in recent years vis-a-vis smaller Central/Eastern European clubs that were more successful in preceding decades.

For the other factor we have to go to Germany. In the aftermath of WW2 Germany-seriously lacking workers- asked Turkey to send migrant workers for a few years. Not surprisingly most of them stayed over and started having families. By 1980’s 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks who were born and raised in Germany started showing up in the rosters of Bundesliga teams.  By late 1980s they started pouring into Turkey(in 2002 WC more than 25% of squad was born and raised outside Turkey- similar ratio to current Turkish League(this last data point from @barisgrckr)).  These players not only brought in more physical trait of soccer but also a new understanding of professionalism. A lot of German coaches- most importantly Derwall which transformed Galatasaray in mid 1980s- found it relatively easy to work in Turkey and became successful and trained a new generation of Turkish coaches. Mustafa Denizli only coach  to win the league with all 3 bigs and take Galatasaray to European Cup semifinals was Derwall’s apprentice. Fatih Terim worked under Sepp Piontek as  Turkish  U-21 coach before becoming the most successful Turkish manager ever.

What’s Next for Turkey?

Demographics/economics wise Turkey should be fine which should help Turkish soccer. Yet there might be challenges. Emerging economies tend to swing rather violently and Turkish clubs do not prepare well for downturns(who does?). At some point Turks in Germany will become more integrated and better ones will not come to Turkey(Ozil).  Also corruption/match fixing/ political intervention will hold the sport back as well as the foreign player limitation rules that have been introduced in recent years.  Turkey, with Mexico and Russia can end up being a soccer country which always underachieves due to having a fairly large domestic soccer economy and bad policy which prevent players from gaining experience in major leagues.

Finally, a big thanks @clubelo for providing this free resource! Can you please change the black background?:)


* A Note on Family

As I was writing this it made me realize something. My grandfather who was born in 1922 in Istanbul was a huge soccer fan all his life. He became a member of  Fenerbahce club in 1954 and when he died in 2006 was the oldest(membership year wise not age) member alive. My father was born in 1956 and does not like soccer at all. He only watches few World Cup games. I am obviously a big fan. My grandfather’s youth/early adult life coincided with the first golden age of Turkish soccer. My father’s youth was reverse; he only saw declining teams and constant defeats versus European teams. We already went over mine. So did success make us bigger fans?

Perhaps one can ask “well, there are a lot of fans in their 50s and 60s right now; how come they were not turned off like your father?”. Valid point. Maybe they did not go to games as I am pretty sure my grandfather took my father.  Since games were not televised they did not witness European clubs thrashing Turkish teams year after year live.


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