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Referee’s Resignation Speaks to Deeper Issues Within Turkish Football Culture

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Deniz Çoban, a veteran referee who has worked matches for fifteen years in Turkish football—the last eight in the nation’s highest league, the Spor Toto Superleague—bade a tearful goodbye to his profession on October 1. His resignation came days after he took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the calls he made during a 1-1 Turkish Superleague draw between Kasımpaşaspor and Çaykur Rizespor. Rizespor, who were down to nine men following two red cards, equalized with a stoppage goal from the penalty spot that came, literally, on the last kick of the match (The highlights can be seen here, courtesy of LigTV). Post match, Mr. Çoban interrupted a press interview with Kasımpaşa manager Rıza Çalimbay saying, “I apologise to you [Çalimbay], to the Kasımpaşa team, to the Rizespor team, and to the Turkish Football Federation as well as the refereeing committee and have to consider my future after this”. Apparently, he was referring to the penalty decision in particular.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.todayszaman.com/sports_coban-in-tears-as-he-bids-goodbye-to-refereeing_400305.html

 

The shockwaves from Mr. Çoban’s resignation are still resonating. He is reportedly being considered by the International Fair Play Committee for the 2015 International Fair-Play award. Youth and Sports Minister Akif Çağatay Kılıç also weighed in, noting the difficult job referees do, and the toll the stress takes on them as human beings. Today’s Zaman has posited that this resignation might have bigger consequences, since: “Çoban’s tearful trip of conscience is unprecedented. He may have been experiencing other pressures. If not, then breaking down on national TV and then tearfully resigning seems extreme, especially when neither of the teams even complained about his performance.”

 

I agree that this resignation is not just a run-of-the mill story, and it reveals a few things in Turkish society that are lurking just beneath the surface. The first is, of course, the connection between politics and football. The two teams involved, Çaykur Rizespor and Kasımpaşaspor, are both “teams” of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His family is from Rize, and some of his formative years were spent living in the city on the shores of the Black Sea. He has visited the team before, and even invited them (like Galatasaray) to his sprawling presidential palace at the end of last season. On the other side is Kasımpaşaspor, the team the Turkish leader played for in his youth. The match in question took place in Kasımpaşaspor’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium, and the president has expressed his fondness for the team before. Back in 2012, while congratulating the team for achieving promotion to Turkish football’s top league, Mr. Erdoğan wished them well and hoped that he would have a chance to watch them in person competing in European football since “it is not possible [to watch in person] locally. There are those that may be uncomfortable with this.” His wariness is understandable, since history is full of leaders who chose a team as their own for one reason or another (Franco and Real Madrid come to mind, as does Berlusconi and Milan). Given the Turkish leader’s personal relationship with these two teams it is possible that this match could have only ended in a draw; and maybe that is why we saw such an odd penalty call at the dying moments of a match that allowed a team with nine men to equalize against a full strength squad. Perhaps Mr. Çoban could not handle such a blatant manipulation of the sport. But this is all just conjecture, in a country that enjoys its conspiracy theories.

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When in Rize. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.denizhaber.com.tr/erdogan-caykur-rizesporu-ziyaret-etti-haber-50690.htm

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When in Kasimpasa: Image Courtesy Of: http://spor.milliyet.com.tr/erdogan-kasimpasa-yonetimini-kabul-etti/spor/spordetay/28.05.2012/1546214/default.htm

 

Personally, I think that Mr. Çoban’s resignation speaks to deeper issues within Turkish football. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Turks support the “Üç Büyükler”—“Three Giants”—consisting of the Istanbul sides Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe is no surprise. A 2011 poll showed that an amazing 88 percent of Turks supported one of these three teams. These three teams have also won 52 of the 59 national championships contested since 1959 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Süper_Lig#Champions). Their hegemony over fan culture and sporting success is unquestioned and, in Europe, unprecedented. These teams are, therefore, expected to win. But with that expectation comes a lot of pressure on referees. Every one of their decisions is scrutinized to the smallest detail week in and week out.

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Image Courtesy of: http://spor.internethaber.com/spor/diger-haberler/iste-turkiyenin-taraftar-haritasi-117117.html

As Today’s Zaman notes, complaining about referring is common in Turkey and referee errors happen often, as they do in other leagues. But the difference in Turkey is that fans in other leagues support other teams, often their local teams. There is not a disproportionate national focus on the games of just three teams; there is not an expectation that those three teams are going to win every game they play. But in Turkey, that is precisely what the situation looks like. Since few people choose their local team as their “main” team, the referees live a very stressful life knowing that, when they are refereeing any match involving one of the “three giants”, they have almost a third of the country scrutinizing their every move. They cannot relax, and they cannot look at things objectively. In fact, it is well known that many of these referees themselves support one of the “three giants” since they were brought up in the same football culture. As Eric Cantona famously said, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favourite football team.”

For referees, since they are human beings after all, it is no different. Even though the match that drove Mr. Çoban out of refereeing did not include one of the “three giants” it is altogether possible that the years of stress finally got to him, as Mr. Çağatay alluded to. Unfortunately, there are probably many other referees in Turkey who feel the same way but will not speak about it. Until the culture of fan support changes in Turkey, I am afraid that the quality of football—and refereeing—will struggle to improve.

 

 

Turkish Football Federation Elections: Gaziantepspor Vote to Re-Elect Yildirim Demiroren But Might Lose Their Youth Team Facilities To The Government

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On June 25, 2015 Yıldırım Demirören was re-elected as president of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) with 214 of 219 votes; 5 votes were invalid. Mr. Demirören’s tenure started in 2013 in the wake of the match-fixing scandal that Turkish football has yet to recover from and he was able to stave off the challenge of former TFF president Haluk Ulusoy who, in announcing his candidacy, criticized the federation for the controversial Passolig system. Mr. Demirören himself is a controversial figure and his time as Beşiktaş president was marked by extravagant spending—in his eight years at Beşiktaş 84 players and 8 managers were signed—that left the team swimming in debt; as an example Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque’s tenure at Beşiktaş lasted just 233 days but he and his assistants left with a severance package worth 7,961,767 Euros after interest. Still, despite his perceived shortcomings and known rapport with President Erdoğan, Mr. Demirören was re-elected by an overwhelming majority.

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Mr. Erdogan (L) and Mr. Demiroren (R). Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

Some commentators, including the daily Cumhuriyet, noted that President Erdoğan’s influence on the federation showed through. To be honest most of the article is pure speculation, such as the point about current Beşiktaş President Fikret Orman who—despite protesting Mr. Demirören earlier in the season due to the financial mess he left Beşiktaş in—gave his support to the current TFF president anyway during the elections. One of the few concrete points made is that former Ankaragücü president Ahmet Gökçek (who compounded the club’s debts from 15 million Turkish Liras to 95 million Turkish Liras), son of Ankara’s outspoken AKP mayor Melih Gökçek, will appear in Mr. Demirören’s administration.

 

What is interesting about this election, however, is the division between football clubs and—seemingly—the inability of the clubs to stand up to either the Football Federation or the government (if it is indeed influencing the federation). On June 10, 2015 the Külüpler Birliği (“Union of Clubs”)—a foundation consisting of all the teams in the Turkish Super League—met and 14 of the 18 top flight teams voiced their support for Mr. Demirören; 4 clubs including Trabzonspor, Gençlerbirliği, Kasimpaşaspor, and Osmanlispor abstained. Gençlerbirliği have always preferred to be independent, with their chairman Ilhan Cavcav having formed the foundation, and with a mainly leftist fan group (Sol Cephe) their abstention wasn’t surprising. On the other hand Kasimpaşaspor and Osmanlispor are teams known to be close to the ruling party (one is from the president’s neighborhood and plays in a stadium named after Mr. Erdoğan, the other was formed out of a team run by the Ankara municipality, Ankara Büyükşehir Belediyespor), so their abstentions were surprising. Trabzonspor’s abstention was also a surprise since their president, Ibrahim Hacıosmanoğlu, is very close to the ruling AKP. Indeed, after it became clear that Mr. Hacıosmanoğlu ended up supporting Mr. Demirören, local media in Trabzon was up in arms calling it “shameful”. 5 members of the Trabzonspor board resigned in the wake of the elections, and former club vice president Sebahattin Çakıroğlu took to Twitter to say “If I don’t spit in your face Haciosmanoğlu I have no honor”. These are harsh words in Turkey, and the division created by the election within Trabzonspor is indeed shocking.

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Choice Words For Mr. Haciosmanoglu From Mr. Cakiroglu. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

But what about the teams that supported Mr. Demirören? Despite the ongoing enmity between the government and Beşiktaş’s Carşı fan group Beşiktaş stood behind the current TFF president. Gaziantepspor, from the southeast, are another team that supported Mr. Demirören despite recent developments that warrant a mention. TÜRGEV, Türkiye Gençlik ve Eğitime Hizmet Vakfı or Turkish Youth and Educational Service Foundation, are a foundation known for its closeness to President Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, who is one of the foundation’s directors. In the wake of the December 17 corruption scandal it became clear that many officials in TÜRGEV, including the president’s own son, were involved in a scheme to buy government land for low prices. The government describes the foundation as a charity.

Now TÜRGEV has set its eyes on land belonging to the Gaziantepspor football club. A 90 thousand square meter plot of land that was rented to the Gaziantepspor football club for 49 years in the late 1990s by the Gaziantep Municipality as grounds for the club’s youth team system is being claimed by TÜRGEV. According to reports a smaller plot of land will be given to the club in return, but even that land is not slated to be for the team’s private use. Apparently the land was promised to TÜRGEV by Fatma Şahin, the only female member of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet from 2011-2013 and AKP mayor of Gaziantep since the 2014 local elections.

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Gaziantepspor’s Youth Team Facilities. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.zaman.com.tr/spor_gaziantepspor-tesisleri-turgeve-mi-verilecek_2300695.html

Of course Gaziantepspor have yet to say anything in order to not ruffle the feathers of the AKP, so perhaps their silence also explains why they pledged their support to Mr. Demirören in the TFF elections. Celal Doğan, Gaziantepspor’s president from 1993-2006 and Gaziantep mayor from 1989-2003, was a member of the CHP for ten years before being elected as an MP from the leftist Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015, spoke out about the attempted land seizure:

“Gaziantepspor’un elinden alınmak istenen bu tesis için Antepliler neden ses çıkarmıyor, anlamak mümkün değil? Burası Bilal Erdoğan’a çok mu lazım? Altyapıda yetişecek çocuklar için bu tesis daha önemli değil mi? TÜRGEV’in milyar doları var, bu yere ne ihtiyacı var? Bu kadar hırs niye? Sanırım seçimden önce verilmiş. Trene bakar gibi bakıyoruz. Verenler utansın”

“It isn’t possible to understand why people from [Gazi]Antep are staying quiet regarding this facility that is wanted to be taken from Gaziantepspor. Is this space so necessary for Bilal Erdoğan? Isn’t this facility more important for the kids who will grow up in [Gaziantepspor’s] youth system? TURGEV has millions of dollars, why do they need this space? Why is there this aggressive desire? I think it was given before the elections. We’re watching this as if watching a train. Those that gave [the facility away] should be ashamed.” 

Indeed Mr. Doğan can only watch the proceedings as if watching a train (wreck), and the analogy is fitting. Under the AKP the Turkish government has followed an aggressive policy of securing valuable land in and around city centers and sell it for a profit to various developers. This is the same trend that sparked the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and forced Beşiktaş to re-build their stadium at their own expense (land in central Istanbul is, for obvious reasons, very valuable). This is also the same trend that has sparked various urban renewal projects throughout Turkey, gentrifying neighborhoods and pushing less affluent citizens into mass government built housing outside the cities. With the precedent clear it is unlikely that Gaziantepspor will be able to keep this land since, under the current system, the government has been very successful in getting the land it wants regardless of opposition.

E-Ticketing Scheme Hits Roadblock in Turkey: What It Means For Turkey and Football

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On May 8th a court in Turkey decided to halt the new “Passolig” system “to avoid consumers being treated unjustly” according to a report in the Hurriyet Daily News. The new system had come into effect almost a month ago on April 15 and heralded an end to traditional paper tickets sold at ticket offices. Anyone who wanted to attend a match in either of Turkey’s top two divisions—the Spor Toto Super Lig and PTT First Division—had to get a card. At the time I was aghast. Having gone to many matches internationally I immediately thought of those like me—how would any foreign football fans get tickets?

The courts should be commended for making a decision that promotes both the health of Turkish civil society and Turkish democracy, not to mention Turkish football as a whole! After implementation the system led to drastically reduced attendances for Spor Toto Super Lig games. In fact, just one (1!) fan of Eskisehirspor acquired one of the new cards. Even when some clubs lowered ticket prices to just 1 Turkish Lira (0.47 USD, 0.35 EUR, 0.27 GBP) it failed to spark interest in the cards. This is mainly because in order to obtain the Passolig card it means providing a picture and personal information—which is written on the back. The card is basically a combination of an ID card and bank card (issued by MasterCard). The rather optimistic reasoning behind the need for personal information can be read as a poor attempt to justify the most blatant of moves to full-on Industrial Football:

 

PASSOLİG Card not only allows fans to safely enter stadiums without waiting in queues, but it also provides clubs a chance to know more about their fans and create new sources of income. Moreover, this card presents its users a wide range of shopping options with its widespread contracted merchants. Its personalized campaigns will both enrich and facilitate user’s lives.

PASSOLİG Credit Card, along with PASSOLİG Debit Card and PASSOLİG Cüzdan Pre-paid Card, are designed to meet all your needs.

 From: http://www.passolig.com.tr/sikca-sorulan-sorular

 

Of course, the football fans saw through this. The desire for personal information is not to create better understanding of consumers and their desires, it is more to curtail the actions of fans that the government sees as a subversive element. Over forty supporter groups signed a declaration saying “The e-ticket system does not only demote the concept of supporters to a customer, but it also files all our private data. The system aims to prevent supporters from organizing and is designed to demolish stadium culture and supporter identity.” One look at all the promotions available to Passolig card holders would support the idea that supporters are being relegated to the role of consumer and consumer alone. For now, the court’s decision is a small victory over the pervasive forces of Industrial Football. But that is not the only victory.

The simple fact that an NGO—the Supporters Rights Solidarity Center (Taraf-Der)—successfully applied to the consumers’ court is in itself a victory for Turkish civil society. Of course, when the first hearing of the case is heard September 25 we will see just how far-reaching this victory is. But it does ensure that the new season will start without the Passolig cards, and therefore certainly represents a victory.

One of the basic facets of a representative democracy (like Turkey) is respect for NGOs that represent the people—one need only look at the victories of the NAACP in the United States to understand this. This is the reason that this court decision should be heralded, especially if it leads to substantial changes in the Passolig card system next fall. While it is extremely difficult to predict how things will play out in the ever changing and extremely complicated halls of the Turkish justice system, I feel that the ultimate outcome of this case will provide a bellwether for the state of—and health of—Turkey’s democracy going forward. As Turkish football is an extremely profitable sector in the Turkish economy I hope that the judges treat this case with the importance it deserves.

 

Note: The statistics posted below are from Sendika.org, a socialist website that—in their own words—aims to “say hello to the proletariat and row against the neo-liberal tide”. With the disclaimer about the website’s politics out of the way, please see how the Passolig card system effected attendances for a few matches in its first weekend, the 30th week of the Turkish Spor Toto Superleague season. Personally I take these numbers with grain of salt, but they still give a good idea of the situation:

Kayseri Erciyesspor-Trabzonspor

Attendance: 11,000

Attendance for the previous home match against Elazigspor: 23.550

Akhisar Belediyespor-Kayserispor

Attendance: 1,100

Attendance for the previous home match against Eskisehirspor: 2,500

Gaziantepspor-Genclerbirligi

Attendance: 4,200

Attendance for the previous home match against Kasimpasaspor: 8,000

Bursaspor-Elazigspor

Attendance: 20,000

Attendance for the previous home match against Galatasaray: 23,500

Besiktas-Fenerbahce

Attendance: 20,000

Attendance for the previous home derby against Galatasaray: 77,512

 

The stands at the Istanbul Ataturk Stadium were left empty during Besiktas’ match with city rivals Kasimpasaspor:

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Image Courtesy of: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/court-halts-controversial-football-e-ticketing-plan.aspx?pageID=238&nID=66193&NewsCatID=362

 

Just 285 Passolig owners made the trip to watch Kayseri Erciyesspor face Trabzonspor at the Kadir Has Stadium in Kayseri. Along with 2000 season ticket holders (exempt from the Passolig Card system), it meant just 2,285 fans were in attendance.

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Image Courtesy of: http://www.posta.com.tr/spor/HaberDetay/-Passolig–basladi-tribunler-bos-kaldi-.htm?ArticleID=224823