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Strange Bedfellows: Hitman or Club President? The Most Recent Example of Football’s Relationship With Politics in Turkey

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As someone who follows the relationship between Turkish sports and Turkish politics I’ve seen a lot, but this latest story is pretty bizarre to say the least. It has all the makings of a (maybe B-) murder mystery: The “playboy” football club president/drug lord, the rebel/dissident/coyote, the spies from an international intelligence agency, and a deadly shootout on the streets of north London. I would certainly have made for interesting reading—perhaps even a foreign film—if the story weren’t completely true, according to documents acquired by The Times that were cited by BBC Turkish.

According to the story released on 27 September 2016, the documents show that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was behind the shooting of a Kurdish dissident living in North London in 1994. Kurdish dissident Mehmet Kaygisiz was shot in the back of the head while playing backgammon at a café in London’s Newington Green. At the time, Mr. Kaygisiz was apparently on a Turkish government “kill list” due to his links to the Kurdish terrorist group the PKK, as well as his activities in heroin trafficking and acting as a coyote for Kurds illegally entering the UK. According to the BBC’s story the murder was covered up and portrayed as being part of a feud between warring families involved in a twenty-five year turf war that raged in London between different groups within the Turkish and Kurdish mafias involved in drug trafficking (The original story from 1994 is available here). According to British authorities, alleges the BBC citing The Times, it was a perfect cover story: Kurdish groups were involved in drug trafficking in order to fund the PKK’s operations anyway, so the embarrassing story of an extra-judicial killing—perpetrated by one NATO country in the capital of another NATO country—wouldn’t be uncovered for what it was.

The alleged government sponsored hit man in this case is Nurettin Guven, the former president of the Malatyaspor football club. While Mr. Guven has denied involvement with this murder, he himself has had his share of run-ins with the law; according to The Independent he drew “police attention for drugs and weapons offences in mainland Europe and was given a jail sentence in absentia in France”, subsequently he “remained in England for ten years despite French extradition attempts. After a stint in a French jail (7 years to be exact), Guven was released in Turkey, where he is believed to remain”. While some news outlets have been keen to focus on this story either because of its relevance to illegal immigration into Britain or because of the proof it might offer of Turkey’s MIT conducting assassination operations on foreign soil, I will focus on Mr. Guven’s role as president of a football club.

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Government Sponsored Hit Man or Playboy Football Boss? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3809576/Turkey-responsible-state-sponsored-murder-London-s-streets-Turkish-heroin-boss-accused-shooting-dissident-cafe.html

An article in Four Four Two details one of the most bizarre stories you will hear in world football. As president of Malatyaspor in July 1988, Mr. Guven pulled off what many believed at the time to be a transfer coup. He had successfully convinced three stars of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup squad, Carlos Roberto Gallo, Eder Alexio de Assis, and Serginho Chulapa, to join Malatyaspor. The analogy Four Four Two uses is that such a transfer, at the time, would be equivalent to the three stars of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup—goalkeeper Marcos, striker Ronaldo, and midfield maestro Ronaldinho—suddenly signing up to play for an average side in central Anatolia. While Malatyaspor had been successful the season before, finishing fourth in the league, there really wasn’t much there (and, arguably, still isn’t—it’s a sleepy town in east-central Turkey).

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The Three Brazilians Sign on For Their Anatolian Adventure Along with Mr. Given (Second From Left). Image Courtesy Of: http://fourfourtwo.com.tr/2015/04/19/malatyadaki-brezilyalilar/

Still, because of Mr. Guven’s outlandish claims, his club—and city—were in the spotlight. At the time Turkish clubs could only play with two foreign players but Mr. Guven was confident that he could find a way around it, such was the close relationship between the club president and Turkish political figures. He claimed that the Brazilians were “Turkish anyways”, and that he would even adopt Eder as a son (so as to make him a citizen, of course). His plan was to import cars duty free—in the Brazilians’ names—and sell them in order to recoup some of the transfer fees; he even called for Turkish president at the time Turgut Ozal (who was also from Malatya) to help the team!

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Central Anatolia Is Far From Brazil…Image Courtesy Of: http://fourfourtwo.com.tr/2015/04/19/malatyadaki-brezilyalilar/

Eventually this close relationship between Mr. Guven and the political establishment worked—teams were allowed to have three foreign players as long as no more than two were on the field at the same time. Unfortunately for Malatyaspor, however, one of the Brazilians (Eder) had already returned to Brazil. He would never return, while Serginho and Carlos (who conceded 6 goals in a game for the first time in his career while at Malatyaspor) continued their stint in Turkey. It wasn’t what they had expected: They were courted on the shores of the Bosporus in Istanbul, but they ended up in a land-locked provincial town. Serginho was promised 500 million Turkish Liras (About 400 thousand dollars), a Mercedes, and a villa in Istanbul; instead by October he had only just 1.7 million Liras and was staying at a former goalkeeper’s old apartment. Goalkeeper Carlos had also been promised a villa, instead he got a room at the team’s facilities. As Four Four Two notes, however, Carlos stayed on in Turkey for 2 years—for him it wasn’t about the money, it was about upholding the contract he signed. But that is the only bright spot in a gloomy story.

By the beginning of October of 1988 Malatyaspor were mediocre, with nine points from two wins, three draws, and three losses. Mr. Guven resigned from his position as club president and skipped town. His promise of bringing both Maradona and Ruud Gullit to Malatya never materialized, neither did his promise of making Malatyaspor Turkish champions. They would finish the season in 12th place and be relegated at the end of the 1989-1990 season; Mr. Guven—for his part—would end up arrested in France with 29 kilos of heroin and an 18 year prison sentence. Now, in 2016, he is accused of being a hitman in the pay of Turkish intelligence.

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Mr. Guven Is Still In the News These Days, Responding to Match-Fixing Accusations Relating Back to His Fateful Presidency. Image Courtesy of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas/status/400900457792430080/photo/1

The story of Malatyaspor’s tumultuous 1988-1989 season is certainly amusing. At the same time, it also is an example of the ills that have tormented Turkish football for years. On the one hand, there is the triangle of government—business—football that has only been reinforced by the growth of industrial football; as sport becomes more and more of a money maker, the government pays more attention to it. On the other hand there is club president Nurettin Guven. He represents the trend of businessmen and political figures who acquire football teams, sometimes in order to cover up illegal doings elsewhere and legitimate their incomes. Most of the time, these people eventually abandon the teams when the going gets tough (please see the example of Fethullah Gulen and Nisantasispor I mentioned earlier or the famous case of Arkan and OFK Beograd. Cases like Mr. Guven’s go to show that both football and politics are closely related to one another and, when large sums of money are involved, the underworld is never far away either.

Half Built Stadiums and Promises Left Unkept: Turkey’s Political Landscape Seen Through Stadiums

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On 10 June 2015 Turkey’s Cumhurriyet newspaper ran an interesting story focusing on one of the “wreckages” to emerge from the ruling AK Party’s 13 year old rule: Half built soccer stadiums. In 2010 the then Minister for Youth and Sports, Suat Kilic, oversaw the beginning of a rapid stadium-building project “950 Sport Investments” (950 Spor Yatirimi) for the AKP government. This program has been continued by his successor Akif Cagatay Kilic (no relation), and there are currently twenty-six new stadium projects in twenty four different cities at various stages of development. So far only one of those stadiums, Mersin Arena in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, has been completed and brought into use but it was plagued by a grass problem that left Superleague side Mersin Idman Yurdu without a stadium for over a month and a half. And it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the other projects either.

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Malatya’s New Stadium? Image Courtesy of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/spor/295569/Enkazin_buyugu_spor_insaatlarinda.html

The stadiums were supposed to be finished in time for the elections that just passed; instead work on many is stalled as fifty-six of the construction firms involved (15 of which work directly with the Ministry of Youth and Sports) have either gone under or been unable to complete the projects due to a lack of funds. The owner of one of the construction companies in question committed suicide last year over debts he was unable to pay. Some of the stadiums where construction has stalled are in the eastern cities of Bingol, Batman, Hatay, and Malatya. The article’s author Arif Kizilyalin notes that the fact that so many of these stalled projects are located in eastern Turkey is not a coincidence. With the AKP recognizing that they could lose votes in the southeast (which they did) they wanted to win over young voters by promising stadiums and new sports infrastructure. In order to make it happen before the elections the government directed construction firms to work fast, promising extra payments after the elections. With money also needed to fund the campaign, however, extra money for the construction projects dried up. Now there are many half-built stadiums in cities that, frankly, have no need for them anyway!

Seventeen of the stadiums are being built for teams currently outside of the nation’s top flight. For instance Samsunspor, who recently missed out on a spot in next year’s Superleague by losing the second division play off final, will play in the second division next year at a new stadium, a 33,919 capacity UEFA approved ground with seven restaurants and shopping mall included. Hardly the kind of stadium one would think a second division side needs while Turkey’s oldest top flight team, Besiktas, are still without a stadium.

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Samsun’s New Stadium. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sondakika.com/haber/haber-samsun-stadyumu-yeni-sezona-hazir-7280985/

 

The Besiktas club had hoped that their new Vodafone Arena in central Istanbul would be ready to open on September 15 2015, but the Istanbul Metropolitian Municipality has decided to stop the construction. The reason given for the stoppage is that the stadium’s roof is over the stipulated height limit of 34 meters, but the team claims that the final height will be 32.70 meters, more than a meter less. Given that Besiktas’s fan group, Carsi, have been targeted by the government this latest development does not come as too much of a shock. In fact back in October of 2014 the sports daily Fanatik ran a story asking “What country’s team is Besiktas?”. The article points out that while so many stadiums are being built in the country, Besiktas’s is the only stadium being built without government money. To add insult to injury the team was forced to play in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, which takes about two hours to get to from Besiktas district on public transportation, and pay 100,000 Liras per game for the privilege. It should be noted that the figure was increased from 50,000 for last season. For comparison’s sake, Galatasaray were allowed to play at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium for free while their new stadium was being built. Maybe this is because Besiktas didn’t give the land from their old stadium to the government, as Galatasaray did, and—with the stadium’s view of the Bosphorus making it prime real estate—are now paying the price for it (literally out of their own pocket).

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Current State. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29169739.asp

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The Proposed Plan. Image Courtesy of: http://stadiumdb.com/designs/tur/bjk_inonu_stadi

 

The fact that even the building of stadiums has become a political issue in Turkey shows the results of the AKP’s uncontested 13 year rule. By making even the smallest issue—from a football team’s stadium to the residency of the President to a park—political, the governing party has created an “Us Vs. Them” siege mentality in order to win votes. But votes are all that could ever be hoped to be won from such a strategy, certainly not real democracy or–evidently–new stadiums.