Yanked from the Rabbit Hole

by quavaro

How corruption in Turkish football has disillusioned fans of the game

“Curioser and curioser!”, exclaimed the precocious seven and a half year old Alice when the top of her head slammed into the ceiling after she grew nine feet in her “Adventures”. It wasn’t immediately clear to her what had happened – had the room shrunk or had she grown? Was it something she’d recently eaten? With the clear simplicity of a child’s perception, she knew immediately that something was afoot, and there were more curiosities to come.

The mood around much of organized football isn’t so much childlike wonderment as it is cynical skepticism, with mostly luridness and sensationalism to look forward to for the fans of many leagues around the world. An intense problem of match-fixing is consuming the game of football from South Korea to Finland.  Other investigations have begun in Israel, Greece, China, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, El Salvador, Germany, Italy and Hungary.  Examples include a Hungarian referee extending an Under-20 match between Argentina and Bolivia by over ten minutes following heavy betting that there would be a goal in the last five minutes and Togo infamously sending a “fake” team to face Bahrain in an international friendly last September.  FIFA linked the cases of match-fixing to illegal gambling and other criminal activities coming out of Southeast Asia.

In the midst of these global match-fixing revelations and the creation of a $20 million FIFA funded unit in Interpol dedicated to cracking down on suspicious behavior, dozens of high ranking officials in Turkish football must have felt their neckties get a little tighter.  Following the arrest of the chairman of Turkish champions Fenerbahçe SK Aziz Yıldırım two weeks ago, and the subsequent arrests of over 60 other top officials in the Turkish football world including the chairman of runners-up Trabzonspor and head coach of Turkish Cup champions Beşiktaş, a marked fever spread amongst bicolor crowds marching through every part of a country with an already impassioned footballing culture.  The fever is born of dissatisfaction and humiliation.  Dissatisfaction with a championship caliber year and/or European berths which suddenly mean much less and humiliation with the detention of powerful team directors whose stature within and in some cases outside football rivaled that of generals.

Beşiktaş conspicuously returned their Turkish Cup to the federation pending the resolution of allegations (a move that can be described as both brash and vaguely insincere).  Fenerbahçe fans, faced with the prospect of not only losing their championship but of also being relegated to division two, in their traditionally neurotic need to feel insulted took to marching over the Bosphorus Bridge in support of Yıldırım, denying all allegations and threatening anyone who dared to accuse the team of transgressions (the crowd later turned violent and had to be dispersed by police using teargas).  Meanwhile Trabzonspor fans, despite the equally heavy charges against their team’s chairman for going to bed with Fenerbahçe in a season that went down to the wire, decried the Istanbul side and claimed they should be awarded the 2011 championship.

So was there any substance to the claims of match-fixing in the Turkish Super League last year or was this all just an elaborate conspiracy?  Reflecting on the sheer mass of arrests that have occurred, the largest in the country since the European-wide scandal that broke out in Germany last year, and the way in which the last half of the season came to pass is certainly enough to give one pause.

Fenerbahçe didn’t look like a team fit to win a championship at the start of the season but they won 16 of their last 17 games (with one tie) ending the season deadlocked with Trabzonspor on points but winning the crown on goal differential.  The accusations for match-fixing include the selection of particular referees, strikers being offered money to not score, and goalkeepers deliberately failing to save a goal.  Police records indicate Yıldırım had called the Turkish Football Federation to tell them “give me Cüneyt [referee Cüneyt Çakır]” for the crucial derby between his club and Beşiktaş.  Sure enough, Çakır was the man presiding over affairs on February 20th, a vital 4-2 victory for Fenerbahçe.

Adding to the mounting concerns with the state of organized football in Turkey is the outside influence of government and military institutions.  One man who could attest to this ubiquitous influence is former Fenerbahçe player Cemil Turan who, as detailed in Yalçın Doğan’s “The Republic of Fenerbahçe”, was kidnapped by Air Force Commander and fanatic Fenerbahçe fan Muhsin Batur, with the aid of infamous bandit Sultan Demircan, in the early seventies to allow his team to sign the young prospect ahead of rivals Galatasaray.  Turan went on to an illustrious career with the club winning three championships while being the league’s top scorer each time.  After retirement he became an important figure in Fenerbahçe’s organization, and after the match-fixing scandal hit the club he was implicated as well, accused of using Fenerbahçe funds to influence several Bucaspor players in a game that saw the Istanbul outfit come back from a 3-1 deficit to win 5-3.  Another comfortable 6-0 win over Ankaragücü was suspicious for similar reasons.  Turan is currently jailed in the same Istanbul prison as team chairman Aziz Yıldırım.

Among the 19 Turkish Super League games currently being investigated for match-fixing from this season the one most scrutinized, most curious, came on the last day of matches in a game between Fenerbahçe and Sivasspor with 23-year old Sivasspor goalkeeper Korcan Çelikay’s performance taking the spotlight.

The decisive match’s high 4-3 score line was seemingly above suspicion but further review, including this 6th minute goal from Brazilian international Santos (focus on Çelikay’s left hand) and this 42nd minute strike from Selçuk (both go-ahead goals), makes the events seem a bit more sour.  Çelikay was one of several players arrested amid the match-fixing allegations along with Fenerbahçe striker Emmanuel Emenike, and Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyespor strikers İbrahim Akın and İskender Alın, both of whom played against Beşiktaş in the Turkish Cup Final.

Yıldırım was arrested three weeks ago and outside of a few sojourns to nearby Şişli Etfal Hospital due to claims of heart palpitations has been there ever since.  Known to have conspicuous ties with the Justice and Development Party, the current ruling party in Turkey, Yıldırım and Fenerbahçe are in a very shaky, though politically favorable, state.  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an avid Fenerbahçe fan who also serves as a member of their congress, might have an undisclosed say in the matter before all is said and done, and has already slyly called for a swift resolution before Fenerbahçe’s image is blemished.

Fenerbahce will have powerful figures in their corner during the judicial process.

After authorities seized several cases of documents and files from Fenerbahçe’s headquarters, which are still being reviewed behind closed doors, there are still so many unknown factors in this incident.  One can only speculate as to how much, if any, hard evidence can actually implicate certain individuals or whether it’s all rendered to cut no ice with the dissimulated Turkish judicial process.  No obvious barriers to any team thus far have come from FIFA who’ve promised only a cursory eye on proceedings, while UEFA has allowed all accused teams with European berths to play their games in the face of possible bans in the future.

With Fenerbahçe shares dropping on the Istanbul Stock Exchange by 35 percent, it can be said that team head Aziz Yıldırım’s image has been most affected by the proceedings.  His brash and often thuggish stance in the world of Turkish football was both disturbing to the game and a threat to its essence.  In one instance he had a television commentator fired from a popular sports channel for making certain claims about him that he found offensive.

Roses painted red: How long will Fenerbahce fans stand by Yildirim's side?

Following his arrest, Yıldırım’s image was reduced from that of a fearless trailblazer to that of an abject, wiry thin-haired man with pudgy cheeks that seemed to hold up his trademark lightly-tinted, gold rimmed glasses, as he was being paraded around Istanbul from police van to jail and back again.  Yıldırım can still make his threats however, when, during his stay at the Cardiology Institute of Istanbul University while still in custody, he remarked “Though the blame seems to be forced onto my head…if I talk, everyone will burn!”–perhaps evoking the Queen of Heart’s cry of “Off with their heads!'”  Even with the support of the most fanatic Fenerbahçe fans who are willing to look the other way on anything for their club, the likelihood that he holds on to his position as club president is more than a little doubtful.  (A few hours after this article was written, Aziz Yıldırım released a lengthy, desultory open letter on Fenerbahçe’s official site in which he stated that once he “cleared the hurdle” of current charges against himself and the club he would leave his post as team president.)

Galatasaray, Turkey’s most popular and most successful football club recently made headlines with the high-profile signing of Uruguayan goalkeeper and Copa América hero Fernando Muslera, the most expensive goalkeeper transfer in Turkish football history.  The club themselves have not been implicated in the match-fixing thus far and may have their woeful record from last season and one of the worst finishes for the Istanbul giants in years to thank.  The club, through newly elected president Ünal Aysal, issued a statement against the Turkish Football Federation for not acting quicker on the fate of the teams involved while expressing their pride at being on the outside of this season’s match-fixing allegations saying “blowing air won’t put out this fire”, a statement that was met with wild accusations of opportunism from clubs involved in the scandal.  Though that’s probably not the case (outside of a little ribbing following a rough season), the club has been releasing press release after press release on the matter, each one more confusing than the last (I dare you to try and get pass this dizzying bulletin from their English language website on one read through).  Galatasaray, the goat of the 2011 Turkish Super League season, are now suddenly sitting pretty with a less than humble disposition and absolutely no European prospect next year.

With the postponement of the Turkish Super Cup which was scheduled to be played on the last day of July between two clubs involved in the match-fixing scandal, the Turkish football season is off to an inauspicious and, for the fans of the game, disheartening start.  The fans want a justified resolution to the allegations and a clean league where teams can play fair without outside influence and distractions.  The Turkish league is full of young, talented Turkish players as well as world-class foreigners like Milan Baroš, Ricardo Quaresma, Felipe Melo, and Guti to name a few.  Obstructed by greed and soiled by corruption, the beautiful game shouldn’t have to wait for the catheterization of insidious individuals and their disgraceful actions and it’s a shame that it’s forced to.

And what about the psychological effect on fans of clubs implicated of cheating?  There are millions of passionate, die-hard fans that live and breathe football in Turkey.  And when matches fall well below the standard of competition and play out more like the Queen of Heart’s croquet game fans will be left starving for the genuine game (imagine trying to passionately root for a side in a match like this).  When a team bizarrely stumbles through an entire half of a season undefeated with 16 out of 17 wins the entire league becomes suspect, the level of the game falls and the standard of play amongst teams and their players declines.  A toppling of playing cards that ends with the suffering of fans who feel it the most; fans who feel cheated, dejected and who believe their teams have become cheap.  And some of those fans turn violent.

Yesterday, 60 minutes into the first game of the year at Fenerbahçe’s home ground – a friendly match with Shakhtar Donetsk – enraged Fenerbahçe fans stormed the pitch.  The humiliating invasion of Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium by brainless thugs began comically enough when this shaved yeti rumbled onto the pitch.  The tame (and noticeably thinner) security staff at the stadium first attempt to physically subdue the creature before trying instead to kindly negotiate him off the pitch (how congenial of them).

Because it's less offensive than wearing paper bags.

After that all hell breaks loose.  At a time when one might think Fenerbahçe fans would have remembered the last time they fatefully invaded a pitch and the subsequent embarrassment they try to outdo themselves as bewildered Shakhtar players look on (the expressionless, eye-carved Aziz Yıldırım masks added an extra special touch of sycophantic delirium).  Of course the fanatical buffoons in this video don’t represent all of Fenerbahce fans just like other hooligans don’t represent their teams.  But it must be said that these are the obvious psychological effects on a team’s supporters following fairly traumatic times, and it doesn’t look like it will get any better anytime soon.  The frontpage of “Antu”, one of Fenerbahce’s biggest support groups, paints a pretty bleak picture (the inscription reads: “Even from the gallows, “Fenerbahce” will be our last word!”  I guess that would be gallows humor minus the humor.)

Football is growing in Turkey, domestically and internationally, and it should be allowed to grow.  But it should be obvious that as a league and its teams grow, the lovers of football will have to be more suspicious and increasingly wary of unusual occurrences below the standard of the game; sadly, our focus as spectators is forcibly diverged from the wonderful crosses, precision passing and breathtaking goals to the curious misses, the curious amount of stoppage time at the end of games, the curious little move by a goalkeeper’s hand in a crucial game and the curious actions of certain referees and other officials outside of the game.  When Alice hit her head on the roof should she have questioned the peculiar event or should she have chosen to ignore it instead, thereby clinging onto what was left of her innocence?

When the heads of Turkish football fans hit the roof it caved in on them.  And it’s turned them into untrusting fans detached from the game and the team they love.  Given all the match-fixing scandals that have rocked the world over, no fan base seems to have been more disconnected with their incriminated team than the fans in Turkey.

Corruption has bred cynicism and cynicism can destroy even the most beautiful and innocent aspects of life; instead of chasing the white rabbit we’re chasing our skepticism.  But if the game we watch is untainted then it won’t matter whether the team we’re rooting for wins or loses because we’ll still be fascinated by what football gives us.

Enduring the discomfort of avoiding cynicism while taking in the beauty of the game when its played honorably is the price the fans must pay to honor the name of football.

– Can Turhan (twitter)