Turkey is a country where if you expect the most absurd thing to happen…it may very well occur. The latest such event happened in Istanbul’s Sancaktepe neighborhood a few days ago on April 8th. The local soccer stadium—which up until then had been named “Sancaktepe Hakan Şükür Stadium”, after the footballer who is arguably Turkey’s most famous—is now just plain old “Sancaktepe Municipal Stadium”. Workers were sent to the stadium to take down the old lettering just days after the AKP’s victory in local elections (In English and Turkish). And, in further insult to injury, two days ago—April 13th 2014—Hakan Şükür’s name was also erased from the Esenyurt municipal stadium in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district (In Turkish). Now, how did we get here?

Even casual fans of European soccer will recognize Hakan Şükür’s name—after all, he was Turkey’s marquee player in the late 1990s and early 2000s, scoring 51 goals in 112 appearances for Turkey (One of those was the fastest goal in World Cup Finals history, a strike after just 10.8 seconds against South Korea). On the club level he was Galatasaray’s talismanic striker, finishing third in the European Golden Boot competition with an astounding 38 goals in 1996. After helping Galatasaray win the UEFA cup in 2000 (the only Turkish club success in Europe) he moved to Italian giants Inter Milan for a season and a half before a few unsuccessful stints with Parma and Blackburn Rovers. He returned to Galatasaray to see out his career, winning two league titles and a cup title before retiring at the end of the 2008 season.

After retirement from football Mr. Şükür decided to try his hand in yet another game—this time it was the game of Turkish politics. On June 18, 2011 he became an MP from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party. This did not come as a surprise to his legions of fans; Mr. Şükür did not hide his piety during his playing days and some circles criticized him for creating a rift between religious players and non-religious players in the locker room during his final years at Galatasaray.

For a while this was a boon for the AKP, especially because many times people in Turkey choose to support political parties as they would a soccer team—fanatically and unquestioningly. His eminently recognizable name on the ballot no doubt helped bring in many new voters for the AKP. In the wake of the corruption scandal that rocked the AKP in December, however, Mr. Şükür chose to resign from the party on December 16, 2013 but still remain a member of parliament as an independent. It has been thought that he was under orders from the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen—Prime Minister Erdoğan’s backer-turned-enemy—who, from exile in the hills of Pennsylvania, has waged a war on the AKP by uncovering the corruption scandal through his vast network of supporters within the Turkish judiciary and domestic police force. Mr. Erdoğan responded by going on a witch-hunt of sorts, reorganizing domestic security forces and government offices in a bid to rid them of Gülenist supporters.

But the Prime Minister is now continuing his assault. In a move typical of his populist style of rule he has now taken on Mr. Şükür in the very arena he made his name in—sports. This is surely the simplest way to shame Mr. Şükür for abandoning the AKP, a well-played political move by Mr. Erdoğan which carries very little risk but could bring great reward in terms of political and social capital within Turkey. In fact, it is possible that Mr. Şükür was seen as a “soft target” following a few incidents involving him in the past weeks. After the AKP victory in the elections Mr. Şükür said that “we must respect the election results as a part of democracy”. The public responded by asking “When you left the party you were elected to you didn’t care about the public’s choices, did it just now come to your mind?” (In Turkish). Later, he was even attacked April 2nd 2014 at the funeral of a late Turkish soccer coach, where an unidentified man said “You betrayed our Prime Minister and our country!” before being dragged away (In Turkish). Such words show how closely many in Turkey identify with Mr. Erdoğan, and how they take any slights to him personally.

Mr. Şükür, for his part, seemed amused by the ridiculous nature of developments. Following the events at Sancaktepe stadium he tweeted to his 746,000 followers “Instead of having your picture on a wall, have your name heard in the world :)”. He followed this up with another tweet following the disappearance of his name at Esenyurt Stadium: “May no one forget: The most solid and final nameplate is your tombstone. And everyone lies beneath that stone not with their name, but with the account of their truth in servitude”(In Turkish). The religious underpinnings to this last tweet were, I can only assume, intentionally blatant.

Who knows what will happen in the coming days, but this much is certain—Prime Minister Erdoğan has started moving against his enemies, as he promised following his election victory when he announced that “they will pay”. Though this is a small step aimed at one former disciple, it would be fair to assume that more wide-ranging and concrete moves will be made in the coming months.

 

Note: All translations are mine.

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Hakan Şükür From Football (Image from: http://ball72.com/hakan-sukur.html) . . .

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To Politics (Image from: http://www.zaman.com.tr/_hakan-sukur-ak-partiden-istifa-etti_2184204.html)

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Workers were sent to the Sancaktepe stadium to take down the old lettering just days after the AKP’s victory in local elections (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/26182417.asp)

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Esenyurt Stadium Before (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/26215754.asp) . . .

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And After (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/26215754.asp)

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