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.


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Two Well Paid Men:


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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.