Turkey’s Wild Ride at Euro 2016: The Social Fabric of a Country as Viewed Through Football

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The controversies surrounding the Turkish national football team at Euro 2016 have provided an interesting case study of Turkish society from a Sociological perspective. The team—in keeping with its character—left it to late, coming through with their backs against the wall. Just as they did in 2008, during their magical run to the Semi-finals, and in the qualifying round, Turkey defied the odds to be in position to qualify for the second round as one of the four best third-placed teams in the group stage following a spirited 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic (Perhaps their prayers worked, at least for a night). Unfortunately, progress depended on other matches—either Hungary had to defeat Portugal or both Ireland and Sweden had to fail to win against Italy and Belgium, respectively. In the end, Gabor Kiraly and his amazing sweatpants couldn’t keep Ronaldo from salvaging a draw for Portugal, and Italy’s “B team” (which was really a “C Team”, considering the weakness of this year’s squad) allowed the Republic of Ireland a 1-0 victory, edging Turkey out of the cup. It begs the question: Why not take care of your own business, instead of being forced to rely on favorable results from elsewhere?

The Turkish side looked uninspired against a Croatian team (who many have pegged as one of the possible outsiders to challenge for the title) in their first match, going down 1-0 to a brilliant Luka Modric strike. Turkey’s Ozan Tufan was busy fixing his hair when Modric was busy scoring the winning goal (A video can be seen here). In terms of goal differential, however, a one-goal loss was not so bad and Turkish coach Fatih Terim downplayed the “hair incident”. In their second group match, against defending champions Spain, the story was similar. Turkey looked non-existent and, perhaps intimidated more by the Spanish side’s pedigree than their ability, went down 3-0. Given that the Croats were able to defeat Spain in their final group match, it is very possible that Turkey psyched themselves out; after all Spain is a bigger “name” than Croatia and Turkish sides have typically struggled with an inferiority complex when facing football teams with strong backgrounds both at the club and international level. After the Spain match—where Turkish star Arda Turan was whistled down by his own fans—the criticisms of the Turkish football team reached new heights.

The criticism came from all segments of society, and was not just confined to the football pitch. Coach Fatih Terim—nicknamed “the Emperor”—is an admittedly polarizing figure within Turkish society, but his daughter deserved better. The male-dominated nature of Turkish society showed its ugly face when his daughter, fashion writer Buse Terim, was insulted on social media pages; some uncouth individuals wished her unborn child dead. Such shocking insults are unacceptable and show the larger-than-life importance of football to some people. Ms. Terim, for her part, will take legal action against the perpetrators.

To understand why there is so much anger directed at Mr. Terim and his family, it is useful to look at some of the numbers uncovered by Rahmi Turan, taken from a Forbes study. Fatih Terim is one of the highest paid coaches at Euro 2016, earning 3.5 million Euros a year. This is more than Vincente Del Bosque, the coach of defending champions Spain (2.7 million Euros) and Joachim Low, coach of world champions Germany (2.8 million Euros). It is fifteen times more than the wage of Croatia’s coach (250,000 Euros)—the same Croatia that defeated Turkey in game one. What is more concerning—and what goes to show how important football is interpreted to be in Turkish society—is Mr. Terim’s wage as it relates to the normal citizen. Forbes’ study took the average yearly Turkish wage as 18,000 US Dollar; using that figure Fatih Terim’s wage is exactly 2,900 times greater than the average wage in Turkey. No other coach comes close to this. While Mr. Del Bosque and Mr. Low make just 65 and 82 times the average wages, respectively, of their countries, the closest challenger to Mr. Terim is England’s Roy Hodgson. The England manager makes 4.5 million Euros a year, but that corresponds to just 143 times the average wage in England. Although I enjoy Mr. Terim for his unique nature, it is not hard to see why some people are put off by his at times pompous attitude—especially when the team he coaches is not doing well while he counts his money. And it is not just the coach who is being paid astronomical amounts.


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2016/yazarlar/rahmi-turan/fatih-terimin-maasi-dunyada-dudak-ucuklatti-1282164/

Two Well Paid Men:


Image Courtesy Of: http://is-a-cunt.com/2016/04/roy-hodgson-2/


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/fotogaleri/39024–fatih-terim-in-halleri/5

Members of the Turkish side were paid a 500,000 Euro bonus just for qualifying for the final tournament, and when all of it was not paid in time some footballers apparently got upset. Turkish Football Federation President Yildirim Demiroren paid the remaining 200,000 Euros owed to the players before the Croatia match so as to placate some members of the team, upsetting many fans. The players—symptomatic of the wider issues within industrial football—see money as more important than national pride, or indeed even than just being a normal footballer doing their job. In fact, just a few other countries gave qualification bonuses. With the situation spiraling out of control coach Fatih Terim met Federation president Demiroren at the latter’s house in Cannes for a summit; the fact that the president of a country’s football association should have a house in Cannes is just a small example of how much money there is floating around Turkish football. As they say in Turkish, “Bal tutan parmağını yalar/One who holds the honey licks their finger”.

The use of football for economic as well as political gains has been going on for years in Turkey and this tournament is no different. Rahmi Turan’s column notes that the Turkish Football Federation invited 900 people to the tournament; by contrast, richer countries such as England and Germany brought far fewer (17 and 44, respectively). The Cumhuriyet newspaper reported on 13 June 2016 that TRT (the main state-owned channel, that has broadcast rights for Euro 2016) brought 93 people to cover the tournament; other countries brought teams of around 30 people. An opposition MP brought the issue up to Parliament, asking why public funds—by way of tax revenue—were being used to send state employees on what amounts to a glorified vacation. Many speculate that the reason so many people have been brought to France by various elements of the Turkish state is that a Euro 2016 excursion is a present offered by the Turkish state to favored individuals. The carrot of attending Euro 2016 may be offered as part of the patron/client relationships that have become commonplace in Turkish political culture.

In this climate—with so much money and influence to be had—it is not surprising that so many people should weigh in to voice their opinion towards Mr. Terim and the national team. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rhetorically asked the public if they were not ashamed of how they insulted star Arda Turan and coach Fatih Terim and his family. Mr. Erdogan added that such rude insults are not befitting of Turkish manners or Turkish culture.

Another one to weigh in was—most surprisingly, perhaps—a Professor of History at Marmara University. While I am not opposed to academics giving their opinion on sporting matters (!), Professor Ahmet Şimşirgil’s comments—which interestingly melded neo-Ottoman Islamic rhetoric with football—came during an unrelated program aired on Turkey’s state owned TRT following Turkey’s loss to Spain. The Professor said that “those who understand history can also understand football. We need to first teach our footballers history. You have to teach them how those (Ottoman-era) wars were won, how they happened; how can a footballer be made from a man who doesn’t know history…”. Professor Şimşirgil referred specifically to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror’s conquest of Istanbul, where “seventy-thousand people knew where they had to be”, a comment on the way Turkey’s players looked lost on the pitch against Spain. Professor Şimşirgil went on to criticize Mr. Terim for the ignorance of his comment that he would “observe the Ramadan fast for his players” during the tournament (another comment that Mr. Terim got flack for from a Muslim scholar/TV Personality). The Professor’s comment sparked a polemic with Mr. Terim that is still ongoing, with Mr. Terim vowing to no longer answer questions posed by TRT and the Professor reminding the Coach that his opinions were not those of TRT; indeed the Professor challenged Mr. Terim to meet him for a discussion on another channel.

With Turkey now eliminated from the tournament, Mr. Terim is sure to have some time on his hands—lets see if he accepts the challenge. Regardless of how the polemic plays out it is clear is that football still holds an important place in Turkish society and politicians know that, given the large amounts of money that are involved, football is not a sector to be ignored.

Euro 2016’s Poor Quality Puma Kits: “I Hope Puma Doesn’t Produce Condoms”

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These humorous words belong to Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri complaining about Puma’s Switzerland kit; an unprecedented four shirts were ripped during the Swiss side’s draw with France. Puma claim that the error stems from a batch of material where “yarns had been damaged during the production process, leading to a weakening in the final garment.” Later, it came out that the damaged shirts had actually been made for Puma in Turkey by the Istanbul based company Milteks. The company’s president Kemal Bilgingüllüoğlu said it was possible that the shirts were exposed to extreme heat when the name and number sets were applied by heat press. Mr. Bilgingüllüoğlu said he had no knowledge of where the name and number sets were applied. Seeing as how nine of the twenty-four teams participating in Euro 2016 had their shirts made by Milteks, such an error is alarming and raises other questions about industrial production in Turkey.


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/554521/Puma__Yirtilan_formalar_Turkiye_de_uretildi_.html


Image Courtesy Of: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/20/football/shaquiri-switzerland-football-shirts-puma-condoms/

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to promote Turkey as a rising power in the world, as well as a sound destination for foreign investment. Even though some commentators question whether Turkey’s rise may be coming to an end, the country is still a destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Despite such figures, however, inflation remains dangerously high and industrial output is down. These trends–coupled with growing instability in the region—should be of concern to Turkish politicians.

I have written about the extreme capitalism enveloping Turkey, characterized by large construction projects throughout the country. But construction alone cannot provide long-term economic development; production must also increase. Unfortunately, Turkey does not produce large-scale industrial goods for export. And now, as Euro 2016 has shown, the country cannot even produce a polyester football shirt. A simple football shirt may not seem like an economic bell-weather in most cases, but in this instance it does provide an interesting example through which to begin thinking about the future of the Turkish economy.

The Failure of Turkish Diplomacy Through Sports: The Interesting Case of Muhammad Ali

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Despite knowing nothing about boxing (since I am a football fan), even I know that Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest”. Evidently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also knows that and he somehow attempted to turn the late Boxer’s funeral into his own personal propaganda show. Fortunately—most importantly for the sake of the late great boxer—Mr. Erdogan’s move failed. This attempt by the Turkish politician to use sports as a diplomatic tool is, however, not unprecedented and its utter failure is reminiscent of past moves by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to mix sports and politics in the international realm. Just like the foreign policy of the party Mr. Erdogan founded, however, these moves have tended to make more enemies than friends—spelling disaster not only for Turkish foreign policy but the country’s international reputation as a whole.

After Muhammad Ali’s death on 3 June 2016, the Turkish president expressed his plan to attend the two-day funeral services on 9 and 10 June. Turkish columnist Rahmi Turan immediately wrote a column in the opposition daily Sozcu about how Mr. Erdogan’s ill-timed visit to the United States—coming just days after yet another deadly bombing hit Istanbul on 7 June—actually had historic precedence. While it did indeed seem strange at first that a leader should leave his country in the midst of such instability, a deeper look shows that the tenuous connection between Muhammed Ali and Turkey goes back exactly forty years to 1976. When Ali visited Istanbul in 1976 it was then assistant to the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who has been called “the father of Turkish Islamism”, that greeted the legendary boxer at the Istanbul airport. The Boxer’s visit was turned into a political stunt to further the interests of Turkish political Islam. Forty years on, history is repeating itself.

Mr. Erdogan wanted to use Muhammad Ali’s funeral in a cynical attempt to push his own image. He said Ali stood up for those who were oppressed, praising his stance against the Vietnam war…ignoring the fact that—as many Turkish Twitter users pointed out—anyone who refuses to take part in Erdogan’s war against Turkish Kurds risks being branded a traitor. He spent money that came out of taxpayers’ pockets to visit the United States, taking his wife, children, and son-in-law with him, as well as the head of the ministry of religious affairs. Some saw this as a glorified family vacation. Perhaps it was—but it didn’t have a happy ending. Al-Monitor noted how Mr. Erdogan’s visit “scored no points”: He was not allowed to make a speech, he was not allowed to place a cloth from the Kaaba on the casket, he was unable to deliver his gifts to Mr. Ali’s family, and the head of the Turkish ministry of religious affairs was not allowed to make a speech. Mr. Erdogan was not featured in any pictures during the proceedings, and decided to leave a day early. Opposition media suspected that the abrupt departure came because Mr. Erdogan learned that Rabbi Michael Lerner would speak out against Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority; Mr. Erdogan himself explained that staying was “unnecessary” because the ceremony would have “no religious aspect”. In the end the burial went on despite Mr. Erdogan’s absence and it was his fans—15,000 of them to be exact—who made up the majority of the crowd that sent “The Greatest” off.

Thankfully the world’s most famous boxer was sent off by his fans in a way befitting of the People’s Champion, despite the designs of one particular foreign head of state. Unfortunately, Mr. Erdogan’s actions were not befitting of the country he represents and this is yet another example of a politician who has let power go to his head. To attempt to use another person’s funeral for political gains is despicable and is certainly not in the spirit of Muhammad Ali or the religion of Islam; one can safely say that Mr. Erdogan lost by decision here after Ali’s final knockout.

May Muhammad Ali Rest In Peace, my condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans.

The Top Matchups of Euro 2016: A Historical/Political Perspective

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With the 2016 European Football championships set to kick off in France just days from now on 10 June the continent—and the world—has been whipped into a football frenzy. Sadly, the shadow of another “F-word”—fear—also looms large over the current tournament. Interpol has warned that there is a ‘high threat’ of a terror attack, while British and American governments have warned their citizens to be vigilant during the tournament that runs from 10 June to 10 July. I have written about security concerns during major tournaments in the past, and this event—following the November 2015 attacks in Paris that targeted a football match—is certainly a prime target. Worryingly, it was reported that up to 82 of the 3,500 workers hired to provide extra security during the tournament are on French terror watch lists despite being screened by French intelligence. Given that this tournament is being played in the context of current political and cultural tensions—a climate where even wearing a Crusader’s outfit to support England will “offend” Muslim sensibilities (I personally find the costumes more comical than offensive)—it is interesting to take a look at a few of Euro 2016’s matchups that will hold interest for the historically minded fan in terms of political history.


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3628876/BBC-mocked-article-offensive-England-fan-costumes.html

11 June 2016: Albania – Switzerland, Stade Bollaert-Delelis (Lens)

Even though the countries are miles apart literally and figuratively, this match is important in the context of recent demographic changes stemming from geopolitical developments. Tirana is a little less than 1,000 miles from Bern and Albania’s Gross National Income (in Purchasing Power Parity) is 10,980 USD to Switerland’s 59,160 USD–a full one sixth of the wealth. Yet on the football field, the two are closer than geography and economics can explain. The population of Switzerland is almost four percent Albanian, following emigration stemming first from the collapse of communism in 1991 (Albania had been a very closed society during the Cold War) and then from the 1997 unrest in Kosovo (fallout from the Balkan wars). Now, both Switzerland and Albania have several players that can play for either side. The Daily Mail noted nine Albanian players eligible to play for Switzerland and seven Swiss players eligible to play for Albania.

Albanian Players

Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3359484/Euro-2016-s-confusing-draw-Switzerland-vs-Albania-brothers-face-players-taking-country-birth.html

Most of the Albanian/Swiss started their footballing careers at well-developed Swiss football academies and decided to return to play for their parents’ country (with a less-developed youth system) while others decided to play for their adopted country. The career paths of these “sports migrants” reflects the dynamics of international labor migrants—they choose to move abroad due to economic “pull” factors and send remittances to relatives back home. In this case it is not cash remittances that return to the home country, but human capital in the form of well-trained footballers representing the Albanian national team. Particularly interesting will be the case of the Xhaka brothers; Taulant and Granit will line up on opposite sides of the ball on 11 June This dynamic that transcends sports is what makes the Albania-Switzerland match a must-see, if only to see the reactions of players when they score goals. During the 2014 World Cup the state of the Swiss national team was discussed in terms of changing European views on immigration; even if this match may not have such wide-spread implications it will be interesting to watch how players reconcile the competing nationalisms they represent on the field with those they may hold in their hearts and minds.


14 June 2016: Austria – Hungary, Stade de Bordeax (Bordeaux)

Bordeaux will host a fascinating matchup on 14 June, and scholars of European history can be forgiven for doing a double-take when they see the names of Austria-Hungary side-by-side on the TV screen. From 1867 to 1918 the Austrian Empire and Kingdom of Hungary were united in a constitutional union as one of the world’s great powers. After the era of empires came to an end following World War One, Austria and Hungary became separate nation states but the sporting rivalry continued. Due to the many matches the two played against each other while known as the Austria-Hungarian Empire, this fixture is the second most played in international football–there have been 136 meetings so far between the two countries! The 137th installment of the rivalry is the first between the countries since 2006, when Hungary stole a 2-1 victory in Graz. Interestingly, Bordeaux will be just the 8th different city these teams have faced each other in and only the third match to be played at a neutral site; Hungary won 3-0 in Stockholm during the 1912 Olympics while Austria earned a 2-1 victory in Bologna during the 1934 World Cup. Hungary leads the all-time series 66 wins to 40. (All statistics from RSSSF http://www.rsssf.com/tableso/oosthongres.html)

One Becomes Two–The Flags of the Two Nations Above the Old Flag of the Empire. Images Courtesy of Wikipedia


NOTE: The following two matches apparently face a high risk of terrorist attack (http://www.unian.info/world/1368011-ukraine-poland-match-at-euro-2016-under-threat-of-terrorist-attack.html

16 June 2016: England – Wales, Stade Bollaert-Delelis (Lens)

 This matchup between two members of the United Kingdom may not seem exciting on paper, but is certainly interesting historically. Despite having been conquered by England in the 13th century Wales has still maintained a distinct cultural identity, exemplified by continued use of the Welsh language (the string of seemingly endless consonants without vowels seems strange to the eyes of a native English speaker and has always fascinated me on a personal level). The first meeting between the two nations took place in 1879 with England taking a 2-1 victory. That this rivalry dates back to the formation of the modern game in and of itself makes this a matchup worth paying attention to. The two countries played one another yearly (excepting the years interrupted by WWI and WWII) until the end of the British Championships in the mid 1980s. Since 1984 (the last time Wales tasted victory in the series) there have been 4 meetings; England has won all four matches with Wales failing to score during this period.

I suspect the competition in the match itself will be of top quality; fans will remember Manchester United star Ryan Giggs’ famous comment from 2002: “It still bugs me when people ask if I wished I’d played for England – I’m Welsh, end of story. It’s the question that’s bugged me more than any other over the last 10 years. I’d rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn’t born or which my parents didn’t have anything to do with”. With such strong nationalist sentiment surrounding the game I am sure Wales will be up for the match, we shall see if they can snatch their first victory over the three lions in 22 years. (In the series England leads with 66 wins to Wales’ 14).

16 June 2016: Germany – Poland, Stade de France (Saint-Denis)

I anticipate that this match will be good not only on paper, but on the field as well. It pits the defending World Champions Germany against a rising star, the dark horses of Poland. Since the late 18th century, when Polish lands were partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, Poland has had a complicated relationship with their neighbors to the west. While Poland regained independence in 1918, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 started the second World War. Since then relations between Germany and Poland have been contentious at times, even though they are now partners within the European Union.

Historically Poland has not fared well against Germany militarily and in football the results are not very different. This meeting between Poland and Germany is the third time the two geopolitical rivals will face each other in a major international football tournament in ten years; Poland lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2006 World Cup and 2-0 in the 2008 European Championships. This time, however, things might go differently for the Poles. During qualification Poland scored their first victory against Germany; the 2-0 win in 2014 was Poland’s first in a series dominated by 13 German wins and 6 draws. Many pundits peg Poland’s Robert Lewandowski—who plays in Germany for Bayern Munich—as the best striker in the tournament and he will shoulder much of the responsibility for Poland in a tournament that could see them go far. Avenging their past losses to Germany may also be on the cards for Poland this summer in France.


A Geopolitical Clash Looms on the Pitch. Image Courtesy Of: http://bundesligafanatic.com/poland-players-in-germany-bundesliga/

Football, Politics, and Islam in Turkey: May 2016

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When a country’s president is former footballer, the connection between politics and sport can be more apparent. At the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Congress on 22 May 2016, where new Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim pledged his allegiance to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the festivities took an interesting turn. Spectators at the conference did a tifo consisting of choreographies; images of Mr. Yildirim, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Mr. Erdogan were raised to the rafters by spectators.


Images Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/ak-partililerden-uc-lidere-koreografi-40107385

This show was strangely reminiscent of football supporters’ Tifos. Here is a list of 10 great looking choreographies from around the world and fans of both Galatasaray and Fenerbahce have put on similar shows in Turkish football. The Galatasaray choreography shows the team’s ownership of Istanbul’s geography but showing a lion advancing towards the Bosporus Bridge while Fenerbahce’s combines the team’s badge with Turkish nationalism by using an image of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The tifo at the AKP conference, by contrast, confirms the old saying about Turkish politics—people support political parties as if supporting a football team.


Image Courtesy Of: http://spor.milliyet.com.tr/koreografi-tepkisi/spor/spordetay/23.04.2012/1531627/default.htm


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/kadikoyde-muthis-koreografi-40005855

The football analogies, however, do not stop there. President Erdogan, wary of criticism, offered that—perhaps—parliamentary groups should not have observers since in the football world matches can be played without fans if fans misbehave. Therefore, the reasoning stands, if politicians misbehave then they should not be able to observe in parliament. The liberal Cumhuriyet offered a sarcastic second solution: Why not just disband parliament? But President Erdogan has gone to great lengths to prevent criticism from all walks of society. On 20 May 2016 the Turkish parliament voted to lift immunity for MPs, a move targeting MPs from the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who are accused of being part of the terrorist PKK) and MPs from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who have had charges of “insulting the President” levied on them. Outside of politics, on 31 May 2016 the 2006 Miss Turkey Merve Buyuksarac was convicted of insulting President Erdogan through social media postings. In this climate, it isn’t that far fetched that the President would consider treating parliamentary sessions like football matches.

Another important development happened at the Black Sea club Trabzonspor. The team’s new coach Ersun Yanal has decided to ban his players from sporting beards, with a 25,000 Turkish Lira (About 8,000 US Dollars) fine for appearing in a match with a beard. The player most affected by this will be Aykut Demir, who has been known as much for off the field incidents as for his on field play. Mr. Demir, born in Holland, has reflected the changing currents in Turkish society since transferring to Ankara’s Genclerbirligi in 2009. His nickname is “Commando”, stemming from his love of weapons and his strong sense of Turkish national pride according to Hurriyet. While at Genclerbirligi he posed for a photo shoot decked out like Turkish special forces, complete with war paint and a blue beret. These days, however, he has taken to appearing in public dressed in Islamic garb—complete with a beard even a haji would be proud up. With the arrival of Mr. Yanal, however, Mr. Demir’s beard will have to go. That Mr. Demir has taken a more outwardly pious appearance is no surprise given the gradual Islamicization of Turkish society; what is interesting is that Mr. Yanal has moved to distance his players from this kind of appearance. We will keep watching to see if other teams make similar moves in the future, since Genclerbirligi’s chairman Ilhan Cavcav made a similar move two years ago.


Mr. Yanal Apparently Does Not Fear the Beard. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/trabzonsporlu-aykut-demirden-olay-fotograf-40012107