When Besiktas arrive at Anfield on Thursday night, they will see the first signs of redevelopment, the white boards of a construction site and digging behind the main stand.
The two teams are separated by a continent but share a common problem: what to do with a romantic, atmospheric but outdated stadium. Liverpool, after many false starts, are redeveloping their old home, adding 13,000 to the capacity for 2016-17.
Besiktas, though, have taken different medicine. They have knocked down their famous old Inonu Stadium, the loudest ground in Europe. This year they are on the road, and will host the second leg at the Olympic Stadium, outside Istanbul, which Liverpool know very well.
Next season the old Inonu site will reopen as the Vodafone Arena, a thoroughly 21st-century stadium, a symbol of the construction and telecoms booms in Turkey. The Besiktas president, Fikret Orman, believes the new ground will make it possible for his team to win trophies like this one in future.
“We want to win one of the Uefa competitions, and we can,” Orman told The Independent in December. “If you think about Besiktas, we have a huge fan base of more than 20 million and a 130-year history. It will be a nice stadium, with a good income, and the budget will be more than €150m [£110m] per season.”
It feels implausible, given the corruption and underachievement that have plagued Turkish football. But there is potential for real growth, especially from the Istanbul teams. Even if, for some Besiktas fans, it means losing what made them so special.
The Inonu Stadium, in Istanbul’s central Besiktas district, was a unique place. When Liverpool played a Champions League game there in 2007, it broke the noise record for a football match. It was the home of the carsi, the club’s anarchist anti-government ultras. But since it has been knocked down, Besiktas have lost some of that intimidating edge.
For last season and this one, Besiktas play most of their home games – including the second leg of this tie – at the open bowl of the Olympic Stadium, out on the western edge of Istanbul’s sprawl. “The football atmosphere is terrible, because of the running track,” Orman admits. “The fans do not feel like they are close to the pitch. To get to the stadium takes one and a half hours, and nobody wants to come. The stadium holds 75,000 people, and when there are 23,000 fans it feels empty.”
To counteract this, Besiktas have even played outside Istanbul. In December they met Trabzonspor in Konya – “like Spurs playing in Leeds” says manager Slaven Bilic – took 40,000 fans and won 3-0.
Bilic has built an impressive team, who top the Super Lig ahead of its richer rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. Both Bilic and Orman speak admiringly about Manchester United’s Class of ’92. “I have read Sir Alex Ferguson’s book,” Orman explains, “he said you cannot build a team of foreigners, you need a local heart and good local players.”
Seeking the best Turkish players – and to fulfil the nationality quotas which will be loosened next year – Besiktas have signed young, hungry Turks who grew up in western Europe: Gokhan Tore, Kerim Frei, Olcay Sahan and Tolgay Arslan. They work harder than their big-money rivals and could well be champions when they open the new ground in the summer.
The Vodafone Arena will hold 41,903 fans and Orman believes it will deliver the revenues to catch up with Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, already in new grounds. “Look at Arsenal,” he says, “their stadium income is now more than their competitors’. People want more luxuries, and they will pay for it.” So the new stadium, thanks to its main sponsor, will have “100 per cent wifi”, and, Orman hopes, will be an “entertainment centre” for the city.
All of which sounds very familiar to anyone who has been to any new stadium in Europe, most of which have failed to recreate their old feeling. But Besiktas are meant to be different. The carsi ultras are fiercely opposed to Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and led the Gezi Park protests against him in 2013. While Besiktas received no government funding for their new stadium, there are fans who believe Orman is too close to the Erdogan regime.
Orman wants to keep sport and politics separate, to retain the support of the fans and government, despite their differences, steering his club into the profitable 21st century. “We are here to manage the sports clubs, not to make political points,” he says. “We want to separate it.” For the fans who see Besiktas as a symbol of passion and resistance, the division is not as simple.
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