Turkish football emerging out of the shadows by Ejber Özkan – You can follow Ejber here
In the summer of 2011 something extraordinary happened: I joined the Turkish army on national duty requirement for expats.
I was cut off from the world, no internet, phone or TV for 21 grueling 42 degree heat filled boot camp days in this strange and often bewildering coming of age ritual. Most of my comrades were under the age 40 – it was more Dads Army than a lean mean fighting machine. I thoroughly and somewhat unexpectedly enjoyed every moment of it. It was the first time that I spent an inordinate amount of time with ‘my kind’.
On the Saturday they let us out of the camp to visit the local town. It was a rare occasion we got a chance to catchup with the world and my newfound comrades and I couldn’t believe what was unfolding in the Turkish footballing world.
Aziz Yildirim had been arrested for match fixing following an investigation during the 2010-2011 season.
Up and till then hadn’t been paying much attention to the Süper Lig, mainly because Galatasaray were so bad (up and till the final 3 weeks they actually flirted with the bottom 3).
At the time Bursaspor and Trabzonspor were growing forces in the league and genuinely looked like toppling the established order of the big three Istanbul outfits and offering genuine hope that the Turkish league was becoming more competitive.
So how did we get here? conspiracy is in the Turkish culture like yoğurt, baklava, simit and Turkish carpets.
I won’t delve into the match fixing scandal here specifically, but I will say that as chance happens new laws came into place to clamp down on fixing and consequently some teams were “caught” fairly clearly on tape using various methods to bribe opposition players to play better against their direct opponents with promises of transfers and of course cash. The fact is unfortunately although this has been going on for many years, the teams that got caught out were the first and perhaps last ones to do so ‘officially’ through police surveillance.
Conspiracy theories and counter conspiracies have been thrown down ever since. The accused have long since been released and managed to get a retrial citing politically motivated (“parallel”) forces at work all along from the very beginning.
The teams involved were banned from Europe very soon after July. The federation president resigned mainly because laws of the federation at the time the teams guilty of involvement had to be relegated. He wasn’t prepared to relegate anybody, certainly not two of the three biggest clubs in Turkey. A new federation president came in at the request of the ruling government with the aim to clean up the game. They immediately changed a 50 year old rule that essentially wiped out the automatic relegation following court rulings. They followed that up in the coming months with their own investigations which announced that “thankfully” the match fixing had not been taken on the field of play and that was it as far as they were concerned.
Everyone happy?, well not quite, everyone had split, Fenerbahce vehemently pursued clearing their name. Trabzonspor equally went after the trophy that they claim was taken from them. Galatasaray took the opportunity to regroup and appointed a president that went and spent a huge amount of money on players and the enigmatic coach Fatih Terim.
Meanwhile the new president of the federation decided that the league was in fact not competitive enough and devised a playoff system that introduced the top four playing yet more games against each other “post season”, I did tell you that they finished level right?
What followed in 2012 was games and bans and escalation of stadium violence. The TFF promised to stop stadiums being empty as a result of the bans so they introduced a policy of only allowing women and children fans for free – as punishment – and this made much news across the world.
On the pitch the players also got caught up in the rows and particularly Trabzonspor vs Fenerbahce games resembled war on the pitch.
Unsurprisingly the end of season playoff games turned into organised chaos and a way for the fans to vent their anger on the system.
Terim in the meanwhile had quietly built a team that could once again take advantage of what was going on around them to claim another title. Because of the way the playoffs had been designed the decider came at arch rivals Fenerbahce. Unsurprisingly this game was fraught and often bordered on dangerous on and off the field, a draw meant that Gala could pick up the trophy In front of the Fenerbahce fans. Fener fans rioted on the way out and refused to let Gala pick up the trophy. However, the Lions gala players and coaches refused to leave until they got the trophy.
This standoff continued for a while,eventually the Federation president arrived and presented the tin cup in the dressing room area. Senor Terim then instructed the players to go out on the pitch and celebrate like champions. This was quickly followed by the Fener authorities switching off all the lights and turning on the sprinklers while players celebrated in the dark. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons, this of course provoked further violence and several incidents across the country occurred as a result.
In the 2012-2013 season Galatasaray got even stronger with inclusion of Drogba and Sneijder and even reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League and beating Real Madrid. The TFF meanwhile introduced another bizarre rule change – the infamous foreign player ruling. The idea in theory was to try and enforce Turkish players get more playing time but in reality all it meant was expensive imports spent a lot of time shopping in the Grand Bazaar and consequently Turkish born players prices quadrupled overnight, teams paid over the odds for Turkish youth players that had the smallest hint of ability.
Meanwhile away fans continue to be banned in the league.Despite this home fans somehow manage to still get their teams banned from having ANY crowd at all and several games were played behind closed doors.
Galatasaray held on to the title in 2013, but early in 2013-14 season Terim was urged by the TFF to help save the Turkish national team (which had its own capitulations). This call allegedly came from the highest echelons down, it was an offer that Terim had to say yes too. The knock on effect meant Galatasaray were forced to sack him and Mancini promptly came in. In the meanwhile Fenerbahce vs Trabzonspor games continued to be as lively as ever and further fighting continued before,during and after games between the new found rivals.
The following season a new stadium was opened in a smaller suburb of Istanbul which was named after Terim and was inaugurated with an incredibly surreal friendly that included the prime minister and the federation president against a bunch of former Turkish and other internationals players as well as some well to do celebrities. The prime minister scored the goal of the game and the TFF president got booed throughout.One suspects it’s very difficult to say no to something like having your name named after a stadium.
In the 2013-2014 season Fenerbahce managed to get into Europe through an appeal via CAS and managed to get to the semi final of the Europa League that season, much to UEFA’s embarrassment.The rest of the league suffered with Galatasaray and Besiktas struggling to cope with the foreigner rule. Fenerbahce swept to the title comfortably and consistently used their off field problems to create a siege mentality both through their own TV channel and sports writers that used to play for them.
The TFF wasn’t done yet,In the summer of 2014 a new law came into play where everyone who wanted to go to game had to buy a ticket on a electronic identity card plus credit card. The aim was to help identify and refuse entry for trouble makers and let families get back into games, Did I tell you the company that had won the tender to produce these cards turned out to be a relative of the prime minister?
What happened surprised everyone (no one).
More than 70% of the stadiums were empty with the major fan groups refusing to buy tickets. Consequently most games were played in virtually empty stadiums. What was quite interesting or amusing despite this new service is that teams continued to get partial or full stadium bans for misbehaving and unruly fans.
The league campaign was suspended for a week after the armed attack on the Fenerbahce team bus. The near fatal shooting of the Yellow Canaries coach during it’s hasty exit from an away match near Rize almost resulted in an unprecedented footballing massacre but as usual there was no follow up.
The TFF did however, have time on the next morning to attend (along with Fatih Terim) a petrol station opening ceremony. The newly elected president of Turkey called the captains of all the top flight clubs for a chat at his new 2000 room palace. The captains promising to behave and show respect to each other. The following weekend unsurprisingly a 22 man brawl broke out when Galatasaray lost away to Trabzonspor.
2014-2015 season culminated in a frenzied title race which saw Besiktas and Fenerbahce implode. Galatasaray meanwhile rediscovered the art of defending and managed to keep five clean sheets in their last six games – and win five out of those six – to lift the title for a record 20th time and earn the right to wear the fourth star.
I had a great time during my national service, but one thing that I found fascinating was spending time with 400 compatriots. I can say now that everything that happened in the Turkish league does correspond to the Turkish way of life.
No matter how bizarre or comical this all sounds, Turks tend to just accept it and with a shrug of the shoulders we have a saying “this is Turkey” (burası Türkiye ).
I just hope that the kind and hospitable nature that Turkish culture does have somehow comes through and they can avert further disaster. Once dubbed the sick man of Europe, Turkey emerged and managed to find its way out of social, economical and empirical crisis. Hopefully somehow they can do the same for their football culture.