Turkish PM pays remarkable visit to Trabzonspor

Turkish PM pays remarkable visit to Trabzonspor

Turkish PM pays remarkable visit to Trabzonspor

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a visit to Trabzonspor Aug. 27. AA photo

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a visit to Trabzonspor yesterday, in an apparent bid to win over the Black Sea football club, which has been at odds with the authorities since the match-fixing case.

Erdoğan’s visit to Trabzonspor, the only non-Istanbul member of Turkey’s storied “big four” elite, is significant on more than one level, as it is aimed at mending the ties between the state and Trabzonspor. It also comes at a time when the interaction between sport and politics has become increasingly more controversial.

The Trabzonspor board and fans have been hitting out at the state since the match-fixing case began, claiming that they should have been awarded the 2010-11 Turkish championship. A court found several Fenerbahçe board members, including the club chairman Aziz Yıldırım, guilty of manipulating that season’s games, but the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) refused to ban more than half a dozen clubs involved in the scandal. The TFF decision at the time was issued with an odd statement that argued that “although there were efforts to manipulate games, this was not reflected on the pitch.”

It was widely believed that Yıldırım Demirören, the former Beşiktaş chairman and one of Turkey’s leading businessmen in the last decade, was handpicked by Erdoğan for the TFF hot seat. The fact that the prime minister himself has never hidden his stance on the TFF’s match-fixing decision seems to chime with the belief he has expressed all along that “clubs should be separated from individuals.” At the time, Erdoğan said that clubs with millions of supporters, such as Fenerbahçe, should not be harmed from the faults of their officials. He made his stance clear to European football’s leading men, including UEFA President Michel Platini, during their visit to Istanbul for the UEFA Executive Committee meeting in May 2012, just weeks before Turkish court and the TFF were set to announce their decisions.

Fenerbahçe fan Erdoğan

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s fondness for football and Fenerbahçe is well-documented. He played as a defender for an amateur side in Istanbul in the 1970s, and even to this day he likes to spice up his political speeches with carefully-calibrated football references. However, his stance in the match-fixing case is perhaps not solely related to the fact that it involves his favorite football team. In fact, he was on a tightrope there. Relegating one of Turkey’s leading football teams after a highly-politicized case could have meant upsetting millions of people.

To this day, many Fenerbahçe fans believe that the match-fixing case was a plot all along to dethrone chairman Yıldırım and take over the most coveted seat in Turkish football. Among all things, a speech last year by Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar did not bode well for the government. Never known for his political correctness, Bayraktar said the government was “conducting fine-tuned work to give Trabzonspor its trophy.” His statement caused a major backlash among Fenerbahçe fans.

Up to now, however, that “fine-tuning” has not worked. Former Trabzonspor chairman Sadri Şener has made appeals to every single (relevant and irrelevant) organization that he could find, risking making himself look like a deranged man single-mindedly fixed on the trophy, and even potentially sacrificing his relations with the political power. His successor, İbrahim Hacısalihoğlu, has played it cooler. Only three months in the helm, he made it clear that he was standing by Erdoğan – literally, he was with the prime minister at the government’s massive Kazlıçeşme rally that was held as a riposte to the Gezi Park protests that were ongoing at the time.

Yesterday’s meeting with Trabzonspor represented a key turning point, indicating that Erdoğan was mending ties with one of Anatolia’s strongest football voices. It is clear that he would not want a road accident as his party heads to local elections next year, especially at a time when the fans of Istanbul’s big three all have their reasons to take against Erdoğan. Galatasaray fans are fuming over the TFF’s “expropriation” of Fatih Terim, after it was made clear that Erdoğan himself wanted the Lions boss to take over the vacant Turkish national team job. Beşiktaş supporters are threatened with being left without a stadium if they chant political (read: anti-government) slogans during their time as guests at Kasımpaşa’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium. The Fenerbahçe faithful were already angry with the match-fixing case.

So, at a time when sections of the Istanbul giants’ stadiums are rebelling, (although there are significant sections of stadiums refusing to the join anti-government protests), Erdoğan is seeking peace on one front. His moves could also be read as a message to embrace the heartland of Anatolia, which has been the powerhouse of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domination over the last decade. It will be hard to make amends with the notoriously defiant Black Sea people of Trabzon, who still badly want that trophy, but Erdoğan will try.