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As the Geopolitical Rivalry Between Turkey and Greece Reveals Itself in Football (again), How Does It Reflect Current Views Towards Nationalism and the Nation?

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After Osmanlispor’s European season came crashing to an end following a 0-3 loss at home to Greece’s Olympiakos, the story of the match has slowly revealed itself to be more than just football itself: It is a story that involves an age old geopolitical rivalry that is being re-interpreted in the context of a world-system that is in flux. Globalism or localism? Is the response to globalism chauvinist nationalism that pits countries against one another in a zero-sum game, or is it a more civilized form of nationalism that views countries as equal actors on a world stage? While this struggle has played out most prominently in Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union during “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, it is a struggle that is far from over. Interestingly, the struggle even played itself out in a relatively insignificant Europa League tie between Turkish side Osmanlispor and Greek side Olympiakos FC.

Scholars of history will be familiar with the Greco-Turkish rivalry, a contentious relationship rooted in geopolitics since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Given the history, any matchup in European football between Greek and Turkish sides is bound to be a contentious affair. This year’s match was no exception since Osmanlispor itself is a team that represents the neo-Ottoman identity that the current Turkish government is building itself around.

“Osmanli” is Turkish for Ottoman; Osmanlispor FK can be loosely translated as “Ottomansport Football Club”. The team was originally Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor, the team of the Ankara municipality, and run by controversial Ankara Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek before being re-named to “Osmanlispor”. While the history is complicated, the team is, clearly, the team of the government. Their “Ottoman” name is not just a coincidence; it is meant to re-enforce the neo-Ottoman visions of the ruling government in the field of sports. The team’s main fan group Akincilar even have a Twitter handle that is written in Arabic characters while the picture they Tweeted ahead of the Olympiakos match features players charging out of a sepia-toned mist; it is an image evocative of historic art depicting the Ottoman cavalry charging into battle.

 

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The picture Osmanlispor’s Fan Group Tweeted Ahead of the Olympiakos Match Features Players Charging Out of a Sepia-Toned Mist. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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The Image Tweeted By Osmanlispor’s Fans Is Thematically Similar to Artwork Depicting the Ottoman Cavalry (Sepahis) Charging into Battle Out of a Cloud Of Dust. Image Courtesy Of: https://postimg.cc/image/5pa34tsij/

 

This kind of neo-Ottomanism is loosely connected to increasing religiosity and Turkish nationalism as well. Ahmet Gokcek’s (the son of Ibrahim Melih Gokcek) tweets show this synthesis well. Using football as a base, he sends messages that combine notions of Turkish nationalism with Islamic rhetoric. The first Tweet came after the first leg draw with Olympiakos—“Elhamdulillah” means “Praise be to Allah” in Arabic. His other Tweets, centered around the matches of Turkish teams in European competition, combine similar religious messages with images of the Turkish flag and the badges of Turkish football clubs: One says “May the Lord not embarrass our teams in Europe”, with Mr. Gokcek’s signature beneath the words. The team’s coach, Mustafa Resit Akcay, himself said (before the second leg) that “we [Osmanlispor] will feel pressure because of our name and because of representing our country”. Here we clearly see a connection between the nation and the Ottoman past.

 

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Ahmet Gokcek Thanks Allah For Osmanlispor’s Draw. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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Ahmet Gokcek’s Tweets Show the Relationship Between Turkish Nationalism, Islamism, Neo-Ottomanism, and Football. The First Carries an Image of the Turkish Flag Resembling a Blood Stain (Connecting the Ideas of War and Nationalism); The Latter Tweet Carries the Caption “Our Prayers Are With You…” While the Quote in the Image Reads “May the Lord Not Embarrass Our Teams in Europe” in the Context of the Turkish Star and Crescent. Images Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ahmetgokcek?lang=en.

 

Perhaps the most interesting pre-game Tweet came before the first leg when Istanbul Basaksehirspor (another team essentially created by the ruling AKP government) wished Osmanlispor luck by saying “Good luck on your trip to Byzantine”. Clearly Basaksehirspor’s Tweeters are not very familiar with history since “Byzantium” was the Byzantine Empire’s name for…Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire encompassed both Anatolia and Piraeus (where Olympiakos is from). In short, the Tweet can be seen as framing the match in terms of a historical rivalry between the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires that has carried over to the modern nation-states of Turkey and Greece.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ibfk2014?lang=en

 

After Olympiakos’ victory some segments of the Turkish press were upset at an Olympiakos tweet which returned the favor. Olympiakos Tweeted—in English and Greek—a message that reads “A triumph for all Greeks! Greece who knows how to win!”. The image accompanying the tweet consists of Olympiakos’ badge and the Greek flag; it is a fusion of football and Greek nationalism—perhaps a deliberate fusion in direct response to Basaksehirspor’s Tweets (and Ahmet Gokcek’s Osmanlispor Tweets) which fuse Turkish nationalism and neo-Ottomanism.

It is clear that the pre-match and post-match Tweets from both sides reflect forms of chauvinistic nationalism. Yet, the Greek press (according to Turkish media) actually praised the Osmanlispor fans for a banner during  the match which read—in Greek, Turkish, and English—“Dear Neighbor Friendship Will Win” [Author’s Note: The Turkish, “Dostluk Kazansin Komsu” translates more accurately as “Dear Neighbor May Friendship Win”. For it to be “Friendship Will Win” it would have to have been phrased as “Dostluk Kazanir”].

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/komsu-bu-pankarti-begendi-osmanlispor-2402475-skorerhaber/

 

The banner itself reflects the disconnect between traditional nationalist representations of the nation and the present pressure for “globalism” in the face of globalization. While Osmanlispor’s fans tried to put out a public message of “fair play”, the team’s fans—after Olympiakos’ first goal—ended up throwing objects onto the field (a fact only reported in a few media outlets, such as this play-by-play account of the match).

 

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Please See Minute 54. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.karar.com/spor-haberleri/canli-anlatim-osmanlispor-olympiakos-kac-kac-baskentte-kritik-uefa-mucadelesi-anlik-anlatim-397490#

 

The message on the banner was just words; not only was it poorly translated but it was—given the fans’ later actions—also not heartfelt. On the other side, while the Greek press may have praised Osmanlispor’s message of friendship, ahead of the match they were busy claiming that the grass in Osmanlispor’s stadium was painted green to cover up the fact that it was dead. Again, the spirit of “fair play” is only alive in the discourse surrounding the banner in the stadium; everywhere else the discussion (from both sides) is quite antagonistic.

This tension between what nationalism should be—and how it should be expressed—in the current international climate is a fascinating one. Personally, I do not believe that the divide need be one between chauvinistic nationalism driven by the perceived superiority of one nation over others on the one hand and over-hyped messages of (often faked) “friendship” and “tolerance” on the other. Rather, it should be an acceptance that countries—like football teams—all exist in one inter-connected environment. This does not mean that one country (or football team) is intrinsically better than another (this is the kind of sentiment that encourages violent forms of nationalism and fandom—in some cases hooliganism) but it does recognize that each country has a right to put itself first. The answer to what nationalism “should” be in the context of a rapidly changing international environment is still open to debate, and it will be interesting to see how this process is reflected in the football world going forward.

Turkish Football Federation Elections: Gaziantepspor Vote to Re-Elect Yildirim Demiroren But Might Lose Their Youth Team Facilities To The Government

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On June 25, 2015 Yıldırım Demirören was re-elected as president of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) with 214 of 219 votes; 5 votes were invalid. Mr. Demirören’s tenure started in 2013 in the wake of the match-fixing scandal that Turkish football has yet to recover from and he was able to stave off the challenge of former TFF president Haluk Ulusoy who, in announcing his candidacy, criticized the federation for the controversial Passolig system. Mr. Demirören himself is a controversial figure and his time as Beşiktaş president was marked by extravagant spending—in his eight years at Beşiktaş 84 players and 8 managers were signed—that left the team swimming in debt; as an example Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque’s tenure at Beşiktaş lasted just 233 days but he and his assistants left with a severance package worth 7,961,767 Euros after interest. Still, despite his perceived shortcomings and known rapport with President Erdoğan, Mr. Demirören was re-elected by an overwhelming majority.

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Mr. Erdogan (L) and Mr. Demiroren (R). Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

Some commentators, including the daily Cumhuriyet, noted that President Erdoğan’s influence on the federation showed through. To be honest most of the article is pure speculation, such as the point about current Beşiktaş President Fikret Orman who—despite protesting Mr. Demirören earlier in the season due to the financial mess he left Beşiktaş in—gave his support to the current TFF president anyway during the elections. One of the few concrete points made is that former Ankaragücü president Ahmet Gökçek (who compounded the club’s debts from 15 million Turkish Liras to 95 million Turkish Liras), son of Ankara’s outspoken AKP mayor Melih Gökçek, will appear in Mr. Demirören’s administration.

 

What is interesting about this election, however, is the division between football clubs and—seemingly—the inability of the clubs to stand up to either the Football Federation or the government (if it is indeed influencing the federation). On June 10, 2015 the Külüpler Birliği (“Union of Clubs”)—a foundation consisting of all the teams in the Turkish Super League—met and 14 of the 18 top flight teams voiced their support for Mr. Demirören; 4 clubs including Trabzonspor, Gençlerbirliği, Kasimpaşaspor, and Osmanlispor abstained. Gençlerbirliği have always preferred to be independent, with their chairman Ilhan Cavcav having formed the foundation, and with a mainly leftist fan group (Sol Cephe) their abstention wasn’t surprising. On the other hand Kasimpaşaspor and Osmanlispor are teams known to be close to the ruling party (one is from the president’s neighborhood and plays in a stadium named after Mr. Erdoğan, the other was formed out of a team run by the Ankara municipality, Ankara Büyükşehir Belediyespor), so their abstentions were surprising. Trabzonspor’s abstention was also a surprise since their president, Ibrahim Hacıosmanoğlu, is very close to the ruling AKP. Indeed, after it became clear that Mr. Hacıosmanoğlu ended up supporting Mr. Demirören, local media in Trabzon was up in arms calling it “shameful”. 5 members of the Trabzonspor board resigned in the wake of the elections, and former club vice president Sebahattin Çakıroğlu took to Twitter to say “If I don’t spit in your face Haciosmanoğlu I have no honor”. These are harsh words in Turkey, and the division created by the election within Trabzonspor is indeed shocking.

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Choice Words For Mr. Haciosmanoglu From Mr. Cakiroglu. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

But what about the teams that supported Mr. Demirören? Despite the ongoing enmity between the government and Beşiktaş’s Carşı fan group Beşiktaş stood behind the current TFF president. Gaziantepspor, from the southeast, are another team that supported Mr. Demirören despite recent developments that warrant a mention. TÜRGEV, Türkiye Gençlik ve Eğitime Hizmet Vakfı or Turkish Youth and Educational Service Foundation, are a foundation known for its closeness to President Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, who is one of the foundation’s directors. In the wake of the December 17 corruption scandal it became clear that many officials in TÜRGEV, including the president’s own son, were involved in a scheme to buy government land for low prices. The government describes the foundation as a charity.

Now TÜRGEV has set its eyes on land belonging to the Gaziantepspor football club. A 90 thousand square meter plot of land that was rented to the Gaziantepspor football club for 49 years in the late 1990s by the Gaziantep Municipality as grounds for the club’s youth team system is being claimed by TÜRGEV. According to reports a smaller plot of land will be given to the club in return, but even that land is not slated to be for the team’s private use. Apparently the land was promised to TÜRGEV by Fatma Şahin, the only female member of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet from 2011-2013 and AKP mayor of Gaziantep since the 2014 local elections.

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Gaziantepspor’s Youth Team Facilities. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.zaman.com.tr/spor_gaziantepspor-tesisleri-turgeve-mi-verilecek_2300695.html

Of course Gaziantepspor have yet to say anything in order to not ruffle the feathers of the AKP, so perhaps their silence also explains why they pledged their support to Mr. Demirören in the TFF elections. Celal Doğan, Gaziantepspor’s president from 1993-2006 and Gaziantep mayor from 1989-2003, was a member of the CHP for ten years before being elected as an MP from the leftist Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015, spoke out about the attempted land seizure:

“Gaziantepspor’un elinden alınmak istenen bu tesis için Antepliler neden ses çıkarmıyor, anlamak mümkün değil? Burası Bilal Erdoğan’a çok mu lazım? Altyapıda yetişecek çocuklar için bu tesis daha önemli değil mi? TÜRGEV’in milyar doları var, bu yere ne ihtiyacı var? Bu kadar hırs niye? Sanırım seçimden önce verilmiş. Trene bakar gibi bakıyoruz. Verenler utansın”

“It isn’t possible to understand why people from [Gazi]Antep are staying quiet regarding this facility that is wanted to be taken from Gaziantepspor. Is this space so necessary for Bilal Erdoğan? Isn’t this facility more important for the kids who will grow up in [Gaziantepspor’s] youth system? TURGEV has millions of dollars, why do they need this space? Why is there this aggressive desire? I think it was given before the elections. We’re watching this as if watching a train. Those that gave [the facility away] should be ashamed.” 

Indeed Mr. Doğan can only watch the proceedings as if watching a train (wreck), and the analogy is fitting. Under the AKP the Turkish government has followed an aggressive policy of securing valuable land in and around city centers and sell it for a profit to various developers. This is the same trend that sparked the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and forced Beşiktaş to re-build their stadium at their own expense (land in central Istanbul is, for obvious reasons, very valuable). This is also the same trend that has sparked various urban renewal projects throughout Turkey, gentrifying neighborhoods and pushing less affluent citizens into mass government built housing outside the cities. With the precedent clear it is unlikely that Gaziantepspor will be able to keep this land since, under the current system, the government has been very successful in getting the land it wants regardless of opposition.