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Turkish soccer politics: a mesh of murky politics and alleged corruption

Aziz Yildirim during mass anti-government protest

By James M. Dorsey

A stocky military contractor and football club president convicted on charges of match fixing is emerging as a potent symbol of mounting popular anger against politicization of Turkey’s judiciary and police force, apparent rampant corruption in the country, secularism and opposition to the country’s powerful, rival Islamists factions.

Mr. Yildirim seems an unlikely symbol. While he insists that he is innocent and that his conviction is part of a political struggle for power between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist networks, he refuses to express political opinions of his own. Instead, Mr. Yildirim conveys his opinions through what he says Turkish public opinion thinks.

Mr. Yildirim is not without rivals in his ambition to be an undeclared opposition leader as part of his bid to reverse his conviction and the banning of Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer with an estimated fan base of 25 million, from European competitions.

The death Tuesday of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year old boy who was in coma since he was hit on the head last May by a police tear gas canister during mass anti-government protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square in which soccer fans played a key role, sparked some of the most violent protests since last year’s watershed demonstrations against Mr. Erdogan. The protesters demanded the resignation of the government.

Mr. Elvan, who was only 14 when he was fatally injured while buying bread, has too become a symbol of perceived arbitrariness of police brutality and lack of accountability. No police officer has been held responsible for the incident that led to Mr. Elvan’s death.

Similarly, anti-government sentiment appears to be building in the Black Sea town of Trabzon, home to Fenerbahce arch rival Trabzonspor SK, amid the worst corruption scandal in modern Turkish history that potentially implicates Mr. Erdogan and his closest associates as well as unease that the prime minister is undermining Turkish democracy with his efforts to subject the judiciary to government control, limit access to the Internet, and curtail freedom of expression.

Fenerbahce and Mr. Yildirim’s ability to mobilize were on display last month when tens, if not hundreds, of thousands marched in Istanbul in the largest anti-government demonstration since last year’s protests on Taksim demanding justice for the club as well as for Turkey at large. Fans chanted “Establish a party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdogan,” a slogan often heard during matches of Fenerbahce, which prides itself on upholding the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire and imposed French-style secularism. Fenerbahce is considering staging a second march in Ankara later this month.

“Enough is enough. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahce fan who is close to Mr. Yildirim.

Complicating Turkish soccer’s political battles in advance of March 30 municipal elections widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Erdogan’s embattled government is the fact that the corruption scandal, Turkey’s worst ever match-fixing scandal in which Mr. Yildirim figures prominently, and question marks about the integrity of judicial proceedings that put hundreds of military officers and others behind bars is the fact that all of this is overlaid by the power struggle between Turkey’s foremost Islamist leaders.

That struggle focuses on control of Turkey’s judiciary and police force that are believed to be populated by supporters of Mr.Gulen. Mr. Erdogan has removed prosecutors who initiated the legal proceedings against alleged corruption in his government, the military as well as allegedly corrupt soccer executives, including Mr. Yildirim. He has also reassigned thousands of police officers since the corruption scandal erupted on December 17 with the arrest of sons of three Cabinet ministers and the head of a state-owned bank who allegedly had $4.5 million stashed away in his home. The prime minister asserts that his moves are designed to dismantle a state within the state.

Few doubt the corruption allegations or the fact that match fixing is a fixture of Turkish soccer, but many Turks question the integrity of the legal process and the evidence and believe that the timing of both scandals was highly political. Mr. Yildirim is appealing his sentencing to 28 months in prison and asking the constitutional court for a retrial. “There is no match fixing case, this is a political case,” he says, expecting that he will be sent to prison to serve his sentence after this month’s crucial municipal elections.

Fenerbahce is also applying to the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) to overturn its banning for three years from European championships by European soccer governor UEFA. Fenerbahce charges that the ban is unjust because it is based on an investigation by Turkey’s politicized police rather than the verdict of the court and that UEFA was manipulated by supporters of Gulen within the Turkish Football Federation (TFF).

A flurry of tapes of conversations apparently recorded as part of a massive surveillance operation has fuelled the corruption scandal that has forced four of Mr. Erdogan’s ministers to resign and brought the simmering conflict between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen into the open. On the tapes, some of which Mr. Erdogan has acknowledged and some of which he has denounced as false, the prime minister is heard talking among others to his son of moving large amounts of cash in the wake of the scandal, favouring government contractors, and seeking to manipulate Fenerbahce’s internal affairs to ensure that Mr. Yildirim, who is serving his fifth two-year term, is replaced by a chairman more loyal to the prime minister. Fenerbahce has imitated internal disciplinary measures against the prime minister, a former soccer player and member of the club.

Mr. Yildirim and his aides shower visitors with a barrage of detail and hand them a 745-page bound volume documenting his defence in what is a murky case in which it is difficult to distinguish fact from assertion.

Nevertheless, the legal procedures raise questions irrespective of whether Mr. Yildirim is guilty or not. Mr. Yildirim was tried in a special court that has since been abolished that only heard cases involving membership in an armed group and economic benefit from acts of violence.

The abolishing of the courts has opened the door to potential retrial of many of its cases, including those against the military which were used in a joint effort by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen to subject Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. Authorities have released in recent days scores of officers and others, including former chief of the general staff General Ilker Basbug who was sentenced to life in prison on charges of plotting against the government and establishing a terrorist organization.

The arrest in 2011 of Mr. Yildirim and 92 others and of General Basbug in 2012 against Mr. Erdogan’s will served as early indicators of the developing power struggle between the prime minister and Mr. Gulen. The two men fought a proxy battle over legal penalties for match fixing when the soccer scandal erupted that Mr. Erdogan won by pushing through parliament a bill that significantly reduced the penalties and arm twisting the TFF to get Fenerbahce off the hook and prevent clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated.

In an article this week in the Financial Times, Mr. Gulen denied involvement in politics and asserted that his network “worked to provide equal opportunity for all, through educational institutions, relief organisations and other civil society projects.”

At the same time, Mr. Gulen charged without explicitly naming Mr. Erdogan that “a small group within the government’s executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country’s progress” and was squandering public support with its recent actions, including “a law that gives the justice minister powers to appoint and discipline judges and prosecutors; a bill to curb internet freedoms; and a draft law that would give Turkey’s intelligence agency powers akin to those claimed by dictatorial regimes.”

The Fenerbahce case despite Mr. Gulen’s denial that he is involved in any of the scandals raises questions about his ability to control his network. Some analysts believe that aides to Mr. Gulen, a frail 73-year old, may be driving events. Mr. Gulen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that in two phone calls to Mr. Yildirim in 2011 after the soccer official turned down an invitation to visit the preacher in his self-exile in the United States. People familiar with the phone calls quote Mr. Gulen as telling Mr. Yildirim: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

In an inscription in a book Mr. Gulen sent to Mr. Yildirim in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

Mr. Yildirim is nonetheless convinced that the Gulenists sparked the match fixing scandal in a bid to gain control of Fenerbahce even if he refrains from saying so directly. “It is said that there is a powerful organization within state institutions,” he says referring to the police and the judiciary. “That is seen as dangerous. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic country with a constitution, a separation of powers and a parliamentary system. Ataturk is the face of Turkey. Any strike against this disturbs the public. It’s a real threat according to the public because the government cannot run the country. It seems that this is the situation in Turkey. People can’t trust these institutions. It’s against the public interest. If Cemaat (the Gulenist movement) wants to maintain their organization as a service to the people, they should not just think of themselves but work for the benefit of the public,” he says.

With tensions in Turkey rising, anger is spilling not only on to the streets in the wake of the death of Mr. Elvan but also on to the soccer pitch. Fans of various clubs, not just Fenerbahce, chant “Erdogan Thief” during matches.

A derby between Fenerbahce and Black Sea team Trabzonspor was abandoned last Sunday after fans of Trabzon, once a thriving Ottoman port still known for its legendary soccer club, its fanatical football fans and hot-tempered, explosive inhabitants who are quicker with a knife than with their wits, pelted Istanbul’s players and officials with smoke missiles.

Tension between the two teams has been mounting since the 2010-11 season when Fenerbahce topped Trabzon on points to win the championship. Fenerbahce’s triumph was part of the match fixing investigation that led to Mr. Yildirim’s sentencing. "Anarchy starts when justice is over," said Trabzonspor coach Senol Gunes after Trabzonspor lost the championship to Fenerbahce.

Trabzonspor, like Fenerbahce, is a politically important team for Mr. Erdogan. The prime minister has pumped money into the team and in 2005 appointed one of its former players as his minister of public works.

Trabzon has been in decline since its glorious Ottoman days with maritime trade all but drying up and railroad construction having bypassed it. Sevecen Tunc, a Turkish sports historian and author of a book on the social history of soccer in Trabzon, argues that municipal leaders believe that soccer can restore the city’s civic pride and ensure that it remains a player on the national stage.

“Trabzon fans believe in Senol Gunes’ statement. All my friends who were directly involved in the events of last Sunday or indirectly supported them quoted him .That is how they legitimize what happened. I am afraid that this violence is just a beginning and will not be limited to football because sociologically, the inhabitants of this city have no agriculture, no industry and no commerce. The only way they can put Trabzon on the map is football. Trabzon has waited for the Super League championship since 1983-84 and they won it in the 2010-11 season, at least that is what they believe. This could get dangerously out of control if Yildirim is not punished and Trabzonspor is not as yet awarded the 2010-11 title,” Ms. Tunc says.

Sunday’s violence was in part sparked by the positioning of sharpshooters on rooftops around Trabzon’s Avni Aker Stadium to protect the Fenerbahce squad, widely viewed in Trabzon as a pro-government club, in part because of Mr. Erdogan’s membership. To Trabzon fans, the message was clear, according to Ms. Tunc: “The state protects its team and sees people from Trabzon as terrorists.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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