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Turkey Wins…and Loses at the Same Time

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Due to a bizarre combination of events (such as Kazakhstan’s improbable victory over Latvia) Turkey made it through to the finals of the Euro 2016 Football tournament after a Selcuk Inan freekick sealed a 1-0 victory over Iceland. The result should have been a cathartic moment for the Turkish nation following a deadly bombing in Ankara that killed at least 95 people on Saturday, October 10 2015. Reports say the perpetrators came from a tea house in Adiyaman that recruits for ISIS; the fact that even I have written about this before suggests that security forces should have known that an attack like this was imminent. Sadly, they weren’t aware. And sadly, the match was not the cathartic moment it could—and should—have been.

The match was held in the central Anatolian city of Konya, widely known for its conservative identity. Before the match a minute of silence was arranged to remember the victims of the Ankara Bombings. But the fans in Konya didn’t allow it to stand. They jeered and booed, and finished the minute out with resounding calls of “YaAllahBismillahAllahuAkbar”—God Is Great, as the Gulenist newspaper Today’s Zaman reported without an inkling of analysis. Turkish football fans bashed the insensitivity of the Konya crowd—in the video Iceland’s players and the referees are visibly uncomfortable as they shift on their feet and play with the hems of their shorts as the “AllahuAkbar” is clearly audible. For what its worth, Konyaspor’s fan group Nalcacilar issued a statement, claiming that the whistles were to “prevent small protests that were forming [in the stadium]” and that social media interpreted it as a general protest. The group added that they are “against anything that wants to break beautiful Turkey’s unity and togetherness”.

Whatever the group says, their Facebook profile says otherwise. On their Facebook page a picture was posted one day before the match. The image is of Turkish flags hanging from the rafters of the stadium, ringing the field; the caption reads “Ya ALLAH BISMILLAH”.

1 Day Before Match

The fans clearly tie Islamic rhetoric to a football match; the national community and the religious community are united. Immediately after the match, the same Nalcacilar group posted a video of the protests. Their caption reads “The moment of silence was not allowed in Konya…”. They call the dead “peace-loving traitors” (Baris sever vatan hainleri) and call the moment of silence “meaningless” (anlamsiz). To me, this renders their post-controversy statement meaningless. And many football fans feel the same way.

Saygi Durusu

One Tweet displayed on the leftist birgun.net says “Konyada saygı duruşunda yuhalayanlar tekbir getirenleri Maraştan Sivas’tan Suriye’den biliyoruz/We know those who booed the moment of silence and chanted the tekbir [Allahu Akbar] from Maras, Sivas, and Syria”. The criticism here is evident. The Tweeter is referring to the Maras massacre of December 1978 when over 100 Alevis were killed by right-wing Turks, the 1993 Madimak massacre in Sivas when 35 Alevi intellectuals were burned alive, and the ISIS led slaughter of non-Sunni Muslims in Syria. Indeed, the sentiments expressed in Konya have been expressed in much bloodier ways in the past. It is a nationalist/Islamist undercurrent within Turkish society that has occasionally raised its head with disastrous consequences, and one that now wants to equate all Kurds and leftists with the labels “terrorists” and “traitor”. It is, for lack of a better term, a dangerous latent Islamo-fascism lying just beneath the surface of Turkish society. It is the same undercurrent that expresses itself in the Turkish state’s ambivalence towards ISIS. And it is related to many other issues within Turkish society. Take, for instance, gender relations.

The same Konyaspor fan group, Nalcacilar, posted a picture of two Turkish fans sandwiching a blonde, female, Iceland fan. The female does not look especially happy in the picture yet, in the version of the picture posted pre-match, the caption reads “Dostluk Boyle Olur/This is how Friendship Is”. One could question the caption’s veracity, of course, but the second posting is even more upsetting. The same picture, posted after the match, has a different caption: “Vurur Yuze Ifadesi Nasil Koydu Bi Tanesi?/It can be seen in your expression how one of them put(did) it”.

Pre Match (Below):

 

Pre Match Nalcacilar

Post Match (Below):

Post Match Nalcacilar

The comment is a play on words taken from a poor rhyme (Ifadesi/Tanesi) in the lyrics of a popular Turkish pop song by Merve Aydin. There is no equivalent translation in English so I have included a literal translation; the most important point is the use of “koydu”. The Turkish verb Koymak means “To Put”. Of course, Turkish football fans give it a clearly sexual connotation when—after victories—they collectively ask the rhetorical question “Koyduk mu?/Did we put it [in/on]?”. To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Turkish language the problems with this Nalcacilar post are obvious; most glaringly it is the implicit sexual statement written below the picture that is disrespectful to the female in this case. In fact, the four captions visible below the photos also express displeasure. Regarding the pre-match posting, one Facebook user writes (with a touch of irony): “Bu dostluk değil bence 🙂/I don’t think this is friendship :)”. Another adds “Kaldırın bence bu fotoyu.Konyalıya yakışmaz.BİZ KONYAYIZ!/I think [you should] un-post this photo. It is unbecoming of Konyans. WE ARE KONYA!”. Regarding the post-match posting, one respondent writes “abazalığın başkenti/The capital city of the horny”; another writes “Müslamanız[sic] diye geçinirsiniz oruspu[sic] çocukları/And you all claim to be Muslims, sons of bitches”. The tension between masculinity and Islamism is uncovered in the responses of some Facebook users, and shows the underlying tensions evident in Konya’s stance regarding recent political events in the country. That the country is currently deeply divided is undeniable; all we can hope is that cooler heads prevail since disrespecting a moment of silence for the deceased is not reflective of wider Turkish society, believers and non-believers alike.

 

 

Referee’s Resignation Speaks to Deeper Issues Within Turkish Football Culture

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Deniz Çoban, a veteran referee who has worked matches for fifteen years in Turkish football—the last eight in the nation’s highest league, the Spor Toto Superleague—bade a tearful goodbye to his profession on October 1. His resignation came days after he took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the calls he made during a 1-1 Turkish Superleague draw between Kasımpaşaspor and Çaykur Rizespor. Rizespor, who were down to nine men following two red cards, equalized with a stoppage goal from the penalty spot that came, literally, on the last kick of the match (The highlights can be seen here, courtesy of LigTV). Post match, Mr. Çoban interrupted a press interview with Kasımpaşa manager Rıza Çalimbay saying, “I apologise to you [Çalimbay], to the Kasımpaşa team, to the Rizespor team, and to the Turkish Football Federation as well as the refereeing committee and have to consider my future after this”. Apparently, he was referring to the penalty decision in particular.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.todayszaman.com/sports_coban-in-tears-as-he-bids-goodbye-to-refereeing_400305.html

 

The shockwaves from Mr. Çoban’s resignation are still resonating. He is reportedly being considered by the International Fair Play Committee for the 2015 International Fair-Play award. Youth and Sports Minister Akif Çağatay Kılıç also weighed in, noting the difficult job referees do, and the toll the stress takes on them as human beings. Today’s Zaman has posited that this resignation might have bigger consequences, since: “Çoban’s tearful trip of conscience is unprecedented. He may have been experiencing other pressures. If not, then breaking down on national TV and then tearfully resigning seems extreme, especially when neither of the teams even complained about his performance.”

 

I agree that this resignation is not just a run-of-the mill story, and it reveals a few things in Turkish society that are lurking just beneath the surface. The first is, of course, the connection between politics and football. The two teams involved, Çaykur Rizespor and Kasımpaşaspor, are both “teams” of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His family is from Rize, and some of his formative years were spent living in the city on the shores of the Black Sea. He has visited the team before, and even invited them (like Galatasaray) to his sprawling presidential palace at the end of last season. On the other side is Kasımpaşaspor, the team the Turkish leader played for in his youth. The match in question took place in Kasımpaşaspor’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium, and the president has expressed his fondness for the team before. Back in 2012, while congratulating the team for achieving promotion to Turkish football’s top league, Mr. Erdoğan wished them well and hoped that he would have a chance to watch them in person competing in European football since “it is not possible [to watch in person] locally. There are those that may be uncomfortable with this.” His wariness is understandable, since history is full of leaders who chose a team as their own for one reason or another (Franco and Real Madrid come to mind, as does Berlusconi and Milan). Given the Turkish leader’s personal relationship with these two teams it is possible that this match could have only ended in a draw; and maybe that is why we saw such an odd penalty call at the dying moments of a match that allowed a team with nine men to equalize against a full strength squad. Perhaps Mr. Çoban could not handle such a blatant manipulation of the sport. But this is all just conjecture, in a country that enjoys its conspiracy theories.

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When in Rize. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.denizhaber.com.tr/erdogan-caykur-rizesporu-ziyaret-etti-haber-50690.htm

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When in Kasimpasa: Image Courtesy Of: http://spor.milliyet.com.tr/erdogan-kasimpasa-yonetimini-kabul-etti/spor/spordetay/28.05.2012/1546214/default.htm

 

Personally, I think that Mr. Çoban’s resignation speaks to deeper issues within Turkish football. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Turks support the “Üç Büyükler”—“Three Giants”—consisting of the Istanbul sides Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe is no surprise. A 2011 poll showed that an amazing 88 percent of Turks supported one of these three teams. These three teams have also won 52 of the 59 national championships contested since 1959 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Süper_Lig#Champions). Their hegemony over fan culture and sporting success is unquestioned and, in Europe, unprecedented. These teams are, therefore, expected to win. But with that expectation comes a lot of pressure on referees. Every one of their decisions is scrutinized to the smallest detail week in and week out.

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Image Courtesy of: http://spor.internethaber.com/spor/diger-haberler/iste-turkiyenin-taraftar-haritasi-117117.html

As Today’s Zaman notes, complaining about referring is common in Turkey and referee errors happen often, as they do in other leagues. But the difference in Turkey is that fans in other leagues support other teams, often their local teams. There is not a disproportionate national focus on the games of just three teams; there is not an expectation that those three teams are going to win every game they play. But in Turkey, that is precisely what the situation looks like. Since few people choose their local team as their “main” team, the referees live a very stressful life knowing that, when they are refereeing any match involving one of the “three giants”, they have almost a third of the country scrutinizing their every move. They cannot relax, and they cannot look at things objectively. In fact, it is well known that many of these referees themselves support one of the “three giants” since they were brought up in the same football culture. As Eric Cantona famously said, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favourite football team.”

For referees, since they are human beings after all, it is no different. Even though the match that drove Mr. Çoban out of refereeing did not include one of the “three giants” it is altogether possible that the years of stress finally got to him, as Mr. Çağatay alluded to. Unfortunately, there are probably many other referees in Turkey who feel the same way but will not speak about it. Until the culture of fan support changes in Turkey, I am afraid that the quality of football—and refereeing—will struggle to improve.