On 31 August 2016 the national football teams of Turkey and Russia met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya for a friendly match ahead of the first qualifiers for the 2020 World Cup. Both Turkish and Russian media framed the match as a sign of improving diplomatic relations between the traditional geopolitical rivals. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was reportedly going to be invited to the event, Russian news agency Tass published a rather curt item stating that Mr. Putin would not be attending.
Mr. Putin’s decision to not attend the friendly match—which, by the way, ended in a 0-0 draw—may not mean that this installment of “football diplomacy” has necessarily failed but it is worth looking at Turkey’s past forays into sports diplomacy for context. Despite the fact that the relationship between the two countries is much better than during the last meeting between Turkish and Russian teams, when Lokomotiv Moscow faced Fenerbahce Istanbul last February, Turkey’s previous experiences in this field didn’t go quite according to plan.
Two Football Loving Leaders. Russia’s Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) Both Enjoy Their Football. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.turkiyehabermerkezi.com/eu/images/haberler/2016/07/turkey_hosts_russia_for_first_friendly_match_h2407_b9392.jpg
Back in 2008, Turkey’s then-president Abdullah Gul accepted an invitation from his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian to attend a world cup qualifier in the Armenian capital Yerevan. It was the first visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state and even the visa controls were waived for visiting Turkish fans. These, of course, were heady times for Turkish foreign policy, and the desire to emulate the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s was running high in both countries. Writing in 2010, the Economist was correct in noting that the normalization of relations between the two countries—and the resultant opening of the borders—would take a long time.
Sarkisian (L) and Gul (R) Cheer On Their Countries (Top). A Nice Sight: Large Armenian Flag Side By Side With Turkish Flags at Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium (Bottom). Both Images Courtesy Of: http://www.worldsoccer.com/features/footballs-greatest-rivalries-turkey-v-armenia-366683
Six years on, the hopes born out of the so-called “football diplomacy” are dead in the water, and an Armenian commentator writing in 2015 went so far as to call current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “The Football Player Who Killed ‘Football Diplomacy’” . Later in 2014, with Mr. Gul out as President, the hopes for any rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia fell by the wayside even though this failure was most likely not the fault of individual leaders. The limits of football diplomacy were uncovered when realist geopolitics—driven by nationalist hard-liners on both sides—pressured their respective leaders to back down from normalization.
The story of one Armenian footballer, Aras Ozbiliz, is indicative of the failure of “football diplomacy” on the individual level as well. The 25 year old footballer was born in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district to Armenian parents, where he lived until emigrating to the Netherlands in the mid 1990s. There he joined Ajax Amsterdam’s youth team, quickly moving up the ranks. Although eligible for the Dutch national team Mr. Ozbiliz chose to play for Armenia and, after receiving citizenship in 2011, made his debut for the Caucasus republic in 2012 in a match against Canada. In 2015 while at Russian side Spartak Moscow he allegedly had a rift with Turkish/Swiss coach Murat Yakin, whom Mr. Ozbiliz claimed left him out of the team due to his Armenian heritage (this claim was later denied by the player himself), but it meant that he was no longer wanted in Moscow. His landing place, after a circuitous route around Europe, was his birth city of Istanbul and Besiktas. After signing a 4.5 year contract in January 2016, the Turkish-Armenian lawmaker Selina Dogan wrote on her Facebook page that she hoped the player’s transfer would “strengthen ties between Armenian and Turkish societies.”.
Ozbiliz In Action for Spartak. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.rferl.org/content/armenian-soccer-player-turkey-besiktas/27513271.html
Unfortunately these ties have yet to be strengthened, both on and off the field. Thankfully Mr. Ozbiliz has not been in the headlines for the wrong reasons (likely because he has only appeared in one match for Besiktas so far), and he doesn’t look to be featuring soon; Ozbiliz was left out of Besiktas’ Champions League roster. Meanwhile, off the pitch, a group of Turkish nationalists attempted to march on the German consulate in June 2016 after Germany’s decision to term the 1918 evens “genocide” (a decision the Germans have since been going back on). In an ugly display, the marchers chanted “the best Armenian is a dead Armenian” proving that these old hatreds cannot be plastered over with a few football matches. Since this post is not about Turkish-Armenian relations per se, I will not go into the depths of a (borderline irrational) hatred that certain segments of both countries have for one another (after all, I will never forget the unbelievable fact that an Armenian-American once brandished a knife at me in high school solely due to my being half-Turkish), but I believe that such nationalist paroxysms do reflect the limits of sports diplomacy.
Even though we want to believe that sports can transcend difference and emphasize the commonalities we all share, it is a fact that realist geopolitics is a strong force. Unfortunately, old animosities die hard and sport can just as easily open old wounds (as we saw during the Serbia-Albania match in October 2014) as it can (at least try) to heal them (as we saw with South Africa’s rugby team after the end of apartheid). We will see if the recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey that was reflected on the soccer pitch will survive the test of time given new developments such as Turkey’s recent incursion into Syrian territory in a bid to secure the southern border. Personally, I root for sports-related diplomacy to be successful regardless of the context; realistically, I know its limitations all too well.