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