"Watch out for the dinosaurs!" cautioned a friend from Istanbul when she heard I was visiting Ankara.
It transpired that she was referring to the Mayor Melih Gokcek's penchant for life-sized dinosaur statues (he also has a thing for giant robots), on which he has lavished municipality money.
Gokcek has a fully-deserved reputation as a colourful and somewhat-crazed character. He is one of Turkey’s leading conspiracy theorists – he believes that the Gulen movement (blamed by many for masterminding last year's failed coup) uses djinns to control people and has been working with the US to trigger earthquakes in Turkey.
He also has a supreme talent for conflict and controversy, often fuelled by his Twitter logorrhoea.
Gokcek became mayor of Ankara in 1994, at the same time Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) became mayor of Istanbul. Gokcek, 69, won five consecutive mayoral elections in Ankara and was among the founding figures of the ruling AKP – but he has now become a victim of Erdogan's attempts to refresh the party and was forced to step down in late October.
Gokcek's passion for idiosyncratic prestige projects extends to his other great hobby: football. The huge Gokcek-shaped hole in Ankara politics will likely change the footballing landscape of Turkey's capital city.
Powerful and ambitious people have long tried to use football as a tool of power and prestige in Turkey. Gokcek's footballing interventions were just weirder than most.
The power of football
As one of Turkey's most important networks of power, football links businesses, banks, the media, politicians, and prominent fans in key neighbourhoods, polishing egos along the way. Whoever controls municipalities in Turkey has access to resources, which can be allocated to loyal and useful constituencies. Municipalities often associate themselves with local football clubs.
Gokcek became mayor of the outlying Ankara neighbourhood of Kecioren in the 1980s. In 1988 he held an emergency meeting at a local football club, without the knowledge of most club members. He got himself elected as club president by 48 votes to one.
He changed the name of the club to 'Keciorengucu': 'the power of Kecioren'.
As mayor of Ankara, Gokcek became president of the city's municipal football team, and later 'honorary president' after it became illegal to hold both posts. Despite having very few fans, the club reached the Super League in 2004 with Gokcek's support and was renamed 'Ankaraspor' in 2005.
But still it attracted few fans. This was a frustrating situation for the ambitious mayor, and he turned to struggling, indebted Ankaragucu – Ankara’s best-supported club. Ankaragucu has often attracted the attention of powerful figures and has also frequently been led by people linked to rival political parties.
When the club's president left in 2009, the mayor made a move. His son Ahmet ran unopposed and was elected Ankaragucu's president.
However, under Ahmet's presidency, Ankaragucu’s debt ballooned from an already parlous 15m TL to 90m TL ($23m). The team bus was repossessed, power was frequently cut at the training ground, and Darius Vassell – a marquee signing made by Ahmet's predecessor – was thoroughly traumatised.
Meanwhile, Gokcek had lost interest in Ankaraspor, who had been forcibly relegated to the second tier (and later from the entire league) by the Turkish Football Federation, which had deemed the nepotistic connections between Ankaragucu and Ankaraspor, and rumours of a merger, a clear conflict of interest.
Ankaragucu became mired in perpetual crisis, frequently on the verge of bankruptcy and collapse. In 2011 a court annulled Ahmet's election. Successive presidents desperately tried to get Ankaragucu's finances under control by offloading the club's best players. In 2012 a weakened team was relegated to the second tier of Turkish football, and to the third tier in 2013.
With Ankaragucu in freefall, Mayor Gokcek’s interest in Ankaraspor was rekindled. The club re-grouped and began rising through the divisions. Gokcek is the club's 'honorary president'.
In 2014 they renamed themselves 'Osmanlispor' – 'Ottoman Sport' – and officially separated from the municipality. They gained promotion to the Super League the following year.
The use of Ottomanism is an AKP trope, intended to appeal to conservative, pious voters with both Islamic symbols and a swashbuckling aura of manly conquest – and is seen as an Islamist riposte to the Kemalist elites that have long dominated the state (and football clubs such as Ankaragucu).
The Anatolian leopard on Ankaraspor's old badge was replaced with Islamic crescent moons. Giant statues of janissaries were installed around the stadium. Osmanlispor's stadium and training grounds were upgraded, while the club attempted to build a fan base by supplying free tickets and transportation to the matches, and allegedly cajoling civil servants into attending.
Osmanlispor is now derided by many fans of other clubs in the city as 'Gokcekspor': a fake team and the mayor’s plaything, a footballing equivalent of a giant dinosaur or a robot in the great sandpit of Ankara.
Osmanlispor's actual president Sadik Dik has been widely viewed as a figurehead, with the Gokceks exerting real control underneath his scanty fig leaf. Melih's son Ahmet, undeterred by his Ankaragucu chastening, has taken the title of Osmanlispor's 'founding president' – and he welcomes signings, gives media statements, and harangues referees much like any other bona fide president. He also now has a plum job as a leading administrator at the football federation.
While Ankaragucu were toiling in the third tier over several seasons, Osmanlispor were qualifying for the Europa League. Even so, Ankaragucu were regularly getting attendances of two to three times the size of Osmanlispor's.
Many Ankaragucu fans accuse the former mayor of hobbling their club and using his influence to prevent them from finding financial backers – something that Gokcek has vigorously denied – and claim that, if he had lost the last election, Ankaragucu would be back in the Super League by now.
The broad consensus is that the ousting of Gokcek as mayor will be good for Ankaragucu and bad for Osmanlispor.
Ankaragucu already began clawing its way back last season – gaining promotion to the second tier. After years of promising funding for the club, with little in the way of deliverance, Gokcek did finally secure lucrative sponsorship for Ankaragucu over the summer from several companies linked to the municipality.
But many fans did not trust Gokcek to honour his financial promises. On the other hand, this newly-acquired sponsorship may be more tenuous without him as mayor.
Meanwhile, deprived of Gokcek's municipal clout, Osmanlispor's support from businesses and the municipality could dwindle.
Smaller AKP-supported clubs in the city – like Keciorengucu, currently sitting top of their division in the third tier – may also notice a change in support. Genclerbirligi – mostly supported by leftist and liberal fans – will likely keep plodding on in relative stability in the Super League, although they could be affected by uncertainty over stadiums in the city.
Gokcek's departure raises the question of whether Ankara's two new stadium projects will actually be built without him at the helm. The stadiums were meant to open in 2019, monuments that would have burnished Gokcek's attempt to win a sixth election.
Municipal elections in March 2019 will be an acid test for parliamentary and presidential elections later that year, and Gokcek has long been a liability. His 2014 mayoral victory was secured amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.
In April 2017 President Erdogan narrowly won a controversial and disputed referendum to change Turkey’s constitution and replace its parliamentary democracy in 2019 with an executive presidential system of sweeping, largely un-checked powers.
The AKP lost that referendum vote in Ankara under Gokcek's watch, and he is one of six AKP mayors of major cities that have been forced out of their positions in recent weeks. Caretaker successors will be appointed until new elections in 2019.
Mustafa Tuna – the AKP mayor of the Ankara neighbourhood of Sincan – was elected by the municipal assembly as the new interim mayor of Ankara on 6 November (although the opposition boycotted the vote).
Tuna's appointment could bode well for Ankaragucu - there are reports that his brother works for the club.
Tuna will likely clear out many of Gokcek's cadres and allies from the municipality. Ankaragucu's current president Mehmet Yiginer works for the municipality as president of Ankara's Tradesmen and Artisans Union - but it is not exactly clear just how close he is to Gokcek.
Even many of those who thoroughly dislike Gokcek have questioned whether an elected official should be so unceremoniously forced out of office, with the votes of more than a million people in Ankara rendered void.
Erdogan has stated that his party – in power since 2002 – is suffering from "metal fatigue". It has become clear that the only longstanding figure Erdogan considers immune to this malaise is himself – he intends to win a decisive presidential victory in 2019.
The purging of AKP mayors is taking place in an increasingly authoritarian climate. Currently under a state of emergency following last year's failed coup, more than 50,000 people have been arrested and over 100,000 forced out of their jobs, while in the southeast of the country more than 80 mayors linked to the left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP have been forcibly removed and replaced with government-approved figures. Some think that mayors from the main opposition CHP could be next.
AKP rule has arguably left a degree of 'metal fatigue' in football as well; the growing revenues and ambition cannot fully obscure the corrosion from mounting debt, political interference, low attendances, and clubs prone to sudden collapse.
Ankaragucu narrowly avoided ruin. Osmanlispor may not be so fortunate.
Gokcek's long reign as mayor and Ankara's footballing supremo has abruptly ended, but the fate of his dinosaurs, robots, and football club remains uncertain.
Turkey's shifting political landscape makes the footballing terrain equally volatile.