Turkish football needs a real housecleaning

Turkish football needs a real housecleaning

As soon as Galatasaray won the Turkish football championship for 2011-12, after an exhausting 90 minutes in the home stadium of its “eternal rival” Fenerbahçe, Saraçoğlu Stadium on the Istanbul’s Asian side, on Saturday, May 12, the whole city and even parts of the country turned into a sort of battleground.

This resulted in hundreds of injuries, hundreds of vehicles destroyed (including two police cars overturned and burned by petrol bombs) and more shame for Turkish football, which is already involved in match-fixing probes and allegations of corruption in general.

Football has never been just football: Money and politics have always been part of it. Football in Turkey has always been a part of the power game in Turkey as well; up until the arrest of its chairman Aziz Yıldırım in June 2011, Fenerbahçe used to be known as “the Republic of Fenerbahçe.” “Fener” is known as the most popular club in Turkey, claiming more than 20 million supporters across the country. One of the rare points in common between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the leader of the main opposition Republiacne People2s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is that they both support the 105-year-old team of the yellow and navy blue colors. The chairmen of the other major teams, Galatasaray (107 years old) and Beşiktaş (109) were treated as though they were more powerful than some ministers up until that arrest. Being the chairman of Fener used to bring with it something more powerful than parliamentary immunity.

Yıldırım is under arrest on charges of participating in organized crime and corruption by fixing matches. Most Fener fans, who used to be loyal citizens of Turkey, have gradually become sworn opponents of the government. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan is trying to convince Michael Platini, the head of the UEFA, the European Football Federation, not to force Fenerbahçe to drop out of Turkey’s Super League next year. What Erdoğan wants is to punish the clubs’ officials individually, but not the clubs as institutions. But that is exactly what has happened in France, Italy and Greece in previous similar cases.

It is not clear what the UEFA will say. There is a chance that they will wait for the court case to end. The Turkish legal system, of course, is infamous for its extended trial periods, which is not peculiar to this case, but is one of the main justifications for the ongoing (under criticism for being slow itself) legal reform process.

For a country that wants to host the 2020 European Football Championship in Istanbul, what is happening here? The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) seems to be in a deadlock, and has no credibility in the eyes of the people after a series of steps taken seemingly with no foresight, one of which was first announcing a playoff system for the final four, and then announcing that the system was bad and wouldn’t be repeated next year. Another was arranging things so that the most tense match of the season was the final game of the year, allegedly under the influence of TV broadcasting rights lobbies. 

The mood in Turkey right now supports clean politics, a clean judicial system, clean finance and clean governance. Football, as an institution that influences millions, cannot remain untouched. What has been done before now has been like sweeping dirt under the rug, when Turkish football needs a real housecleaning in order to move on with integrity.

violence, hooligan,