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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.

A Spring Thaw in Relations Between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus On and Off the Field

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On March 30, 2015 the president of the Turkish Cypriot Football Association (CTFA) made a statement that breaks from the usual rhetoric heard from the leadership of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). According to the ABC News report the President of the football association, Hasan Sertoglu, has already sent a letter to FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke informing him that “that the Cyprus Turkish Football Association is bringing its statutes in line with international norms” in order to join the already recognized Cypriot Football Association. To his critics, Mr. Sertoglu had this to say: “This is not a political issue. We’re doing it for the future of our youth . . . You can scream at me all you want, you won’t be able to stop us.”

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Cyprus Turkish Football Association President Hasan Sertoglu (L) and Cyprus Football Association President Costakis Koutsokoumnis shaking hands on November 5, 2013 in Zurich. Image Courtesy Of: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/cyprus-football-eyes-reunion-60-divorce-192036218–sow.html

Unfortunately, his critics are many. Last week Serdar Denktas—the son of former TRNC President Rauf Denktas–reportedly broke off relations with the CTFA and last week sent letters to the presidents of Turkish Cypriot football clubs “condemning the decision as ‘suicide’ for the Turkish Cypriot political cause”. ABC News also reports that a move to by the Turkish Football Federation’s President Yildirim Demiroren to open a branch in the TRNC was rejected by FIFA.

 

The island of Cyprus has been divided between Turks in the north and Greeks in the south since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded in response to a coup in Greece due to fears that Cyprus would be united with Greece under the plan of enosis. Since Turks and Greeks had been living on Cyprus since Ottoman times the invasion changed lives on the island forever. Even after the fall of the Berlin fall, Nicosia is Europe’s last divided city. Even if Cyprus’s European Union accession was, arguably, not in line with international law (as it is a divided island), it went through and has resulted in vastly different fortunes for those living on either side of the UN ceasefire line. The Greek side in the south has flourished both economically and in football terms; the Turkish side has languished in both, mired in an international no-man’s land and recognized only by Turkey.

In 2004 there were hopes for unification when 65% of Turks voted positively for the UN backed referendum, but when 75.8% of Greek Cypriots rejected the plan the status quo continued. The rejection by the Greek side was predictable, given the economic disparities between the two communities at time. While the TRNC has experienced healthy growth since the failed referendum, geopolitics still reigns supreme: Turkey does not want to face encirclement by Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given Greece’s Aegean islands on Turkey’s west coast, a fully Greek Cyprus would threaten Turkey in the south as well, creating a potential blockade scenario.

While it is clear that the politicians on both sides of the island—and on the mainland—are mostly opposed to furthering the unification, some other important news concerning the island came out on the same day that Mr. Sertoglu rebuffed his critics in the footballing world. On March 30, 2015 the TRNC’s foreign minister Ozdil Nami announced that the TRNC would halt their search for gas off the coast of Cyprus in order to resume peace talks. Back in October of 2014 the Turkish search for offshore hydrocarbons, in response to similar actions by the Cypriot government, provoked Cyprus to suspend peace talks with Turkey. It was posited that the energy search was just an excuse to end the talks, of course, but the end result was firm.

Just five months later it seems that relations have thawed, and Mr. Nami, speaking to state-run TV channel BRT, said that they had decided to withdraw the Turkish ship searching for gas off the TRNC coast as a “display of good-will” in response to the Greek Cypriot side’s similar withdrawal. While it does not seem that these two events are related—the CTFA’s letter to FIFA was sent earlier—Mr. Sertoglu’s confidence to voice such a harsh response to his critics was most likely born out of this relative thawing of relations.

 

If this “spring thaw” is not part of an April Fool’s day joke then it would seem that the seemingly innocuous world of football may yet prove to be one of the first concrete forms of cooperation between the hitherto opposed communities on the island. Even so, much more will have to be done to assuage the geopolitical concerns of both sides for a lasting reconciliation—and possible reunification—to take place on the island. Even in the footballing world, an agreement will not come easily. Mr. Sertoglu stated that either side could walk away from any potential deal: “The CFA [Cyprus Football Assocition] will not be the boss in the north. We have the right to abandon the agreement, but we have no such intention . . . We want to be FIFA members for the benefit of our people.” His counterpart in the CFA, Costas Koutsokoumnis, himself noted that it will “take some time” for Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides to play in a unified league.

 

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Barbed wire on a wall near the soccer pitch inside the United Nations controlled buffer zone separating the dived capital of Nicosia. Image Courtesy Of: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/turkish-cypriot-soccer-president-back-deal-30001361