Before Friday evening’s match in Ankara with Gençlerbirliği the Galatasaray football team became the first Turkish football club to visit the sprawling newly built Ak Saray palace. President Erdoğan’s palace has been criticized for many reasons, including its cost (estimated at 615 million USD but which has been, conveniently, kept secret), its size (President Erdoğan corrected critics by stating that the palace actually has more than 1,150 rooms—NPR missed this important fact), its location in the Atatürk Forestry Farm (AOÇ) (10,000 trees where uprooted, 3,000 chopped, and imported new trees—some costing up to 2,000 Euros—where planted but failed to thrive in the new ecosystem), and its overall extravagance which serves as a slap in the face to a country and its people where the average income is 10,972 US Dollars.
Seemingly oblivious to the obvious connotations of such a visit Galatasaray’s board decided to accept the invitation to become the first football team to visit Mr. Erdoğan’s palace.
Of course such visits are normal in the United States where championship winning sports teams are invited to the White House. Such visits serve as tradition, and tend to be free of any political message. But then again, Turkey is a very different place than the United States, and reactions to the visit varied. Galatasaray’s vice President Abdürrahim Albayrak called the palace the “Sultanate Palace” and defended it, saying that critics where just “jealous”. Mr. Albayrak also presented Mr. Erdoğan with a Galatasary jersey complete with number 53, the license plate code of both men’s home province Rize.
On the other hand one of the team’s board members, Selim Arda Üçer, responded to Mr. Albayrak’s comments during the visit via twitter with a post commemorating the 95th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s visit to Ankara with the hashtag #27Aralik 1919 (27December1919).
Similarly footballer Olcan Adın chose to take to Twitter and “like” a few Atatürk pictures while also hiding from the camera during his team’s photo shoot with the Turkish leader.
Even if Mr. Albayrak claims that the visit was mainly in order to bring to the president’s attention the problems with the metro leading to the Ali Sami Yen arena it seems that there may have been other motives that lie somewhere beneath the surface.
On December 17 Galatasaray President Duygun Yarsuvat made comments that shook the Turkish football world during an interview with Milliyet Newspaper’s Atilla Gökçe. According to Mr. Yarsuvat the match-fixing investigation that landed Fenerbahçe Chairman Aziz Yıldırım in jail is linked to conservative cleric Fethullah Gülen:
“Fethullah (Gülen) grubu, Aziz Yıldırım’dan 50 milyon dolar istedi. Aziz Yıldırım da Fenerbahçe de bu parayı vermedi. Ondan sonra malum süreç başladı…. Henüz sonlanmayan bir süreç!”
“The Fethullah [Gülen] group asked Aziz Yıldırım for 50 million dollars and Aziz Yıldırım and Fenerbahçe didn’t give this money. That’s when the process started…a process that has yet to end!”
On December 25, 2014 former Turkish Police Chief Hanefi Avci, author of a book that outlines the links between Gülen and the Turkish Police force, spoke on Haber Turk TV about the match fixing case and underlined this connection:
“Aziz Yıldırım’a haksızlık yapıldı. Yapılan tüm operasyonlar cemaatin kontrolünde yapıldı. Aziz Yıldırım bir dönem NATO ihalelerini yöneten kişi olarak biliniyordu. Cemaat Aziz Yıldırım’ı buradan çıkarmak istiyordu. Cemaat organları Aziz Yıldırım’ı hedef gösteriyordu.”
“What was done to Aziz Yildirim was wrong. All the operations where made under the Cemaat’s control. Aziz Yildirim was known as the one who ran the NATO bidding [Industrial companies that Mr. Yildirim owns shares in took defense contracts for the Turkish Army and thereby NATO]. The Cemaat wanted to get Aziz Yıldırım out of here. The Cemaat showed Aziz Yıldırım as the target.”
The link between Mr. Gülen and Mr. Yıldırım has been posited before, most notably by Professor James M. Dorsey. At the time Mr. Yıldırım himself viewed the investigation as a struggle between Mr. Gülen and Mr. Erdoğan, since the latter is a Fenerbahçe fan who had stood up to the Gülen group’s attack on Fenerbahçe. Now, however, it seems like things may have changed; Sporx.com released a few pages from the match fixing case’s files on December 12 which described the Fenerbahçe fans who gathered outside the courthouse in support of Mr. Yıldırım during his hearings as “a group that calls themselves Fenerbahçe fans [but are] actually a group made up of provocative elements looking to create tension and violence in the community”. Mr. Dorsey also mentioned this possibility in his article:
“In standing up for Mr. Yildirim, Mr. Erdogan hoped to garner support among millions of fans of Fenerbahce, the crown political jewel in Turkish soccer. Many of those fans however joined supporters of Istanbul arch rivals Besiktas JK and Galatasary SK in manning the front lines last June in mass anti-government demonstrations. Mr. Erdogan’s government has since sought to criminalize militant fan groups.”
While Mr. Gülen’s possible role in the events is indeed plausible, the fact that it has now been said by a member of the Galatasaray club is a notable development; it furthers the divide between Mr. Gülen and Fenerbahçe supporters and puts Mr. Erdoğan in a positive light, confirming him as one who was not against Fenerbahçe and Mr. Yıldırım. Therefore the invitation to Ak Saray may be some sort of a reward for the club and a move by President Erdoğan to ingratiate himself to Galatasaray supporters who support him politically as well. When taken in the context of the files obtained by Sporx.com and the government’s possible shifting view on Fenerbahçe and their fans post-Gezi, it might also be President Erdoğan’s attempt to consolidate his influence on one of Turkey’s leading clubs—Galatasaray—whose fans where divided during the Gezi events. With Beşiktaş’s fans staunchly in the opposition camp, and Fenerbahçe’s fans labeled as at least moving in that direction, perhaps it is Galatasaray that the Turkish leader is looking to gain popular support from for now. After all, falling foul of the football fans can have devastating consequences.