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Football in Turkey: A force for liberalisation and modernity?

The relationship between football and society in Turkey is unique and complex. Behind the corruption and fanaticism lies a culture that is challenging outdated social attitudes and leading Turkey's European aspirations.

More than 41,000 women and children filled Sukru Saracoglu Stadium to watch Fenerbahce play against Manisapor in Istanbul on 20 September 2011. Turkey came up with a radical solution for tackling crowd violence at football matches - ban the men and let only women and children in. Under new rules approved by Turkey's football association, only women and children under the age of 12 will be admitted to watch games - for free - involving teams which have been sanctioned for unruly behavior by their fans. Flickr/Football Gallery. All rights reserved.

The kick-off in an Istanbul derby (between Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Besiktas) is said to not just start a football match, but also "pause life for 90 minutes" in the entire Turkey. The passion with which Turks follow football is is well known even beyond the country's borders. From Paolo Maldini to Sir Alex Ferguson, from Pierluigi Collina to Ryan Giggs, the heavyweights of the game have attested to the zeal of Turkish football fans. Giggs, for instance, characterized his appearance against Galatasaray in Istanbul's Ali Sami Yen stadium as "one of those memories that will always stick with you".

Football, however, is not just a hugely popular and competitive sport. It is also a major social force transcending, crisscrossing, and at times, reinforcing gender, ethnicity, ideology and other fault lines. The national and international media have widely covered corruption, violence, and other negativities surrounding Turkish football, drawing attention to the dangerous levels of football fanaticism, while the more positive consequences of the game have gone largely unnoticed. In reality, the unruly passion and antagonism of fans, the bickering of club directors and the cacophony of stadiums disguise a force with mindbogglingly complex social effects.

A universalizing and modernizing force?

Caught between its Ottoman roots and European aspirations, Turkey is a country in search of a new identity, a familiar argument goes. If this is true, football could be one of the major forces that tip the scales in favour of Europe. In each football season, the eighteen clubs playing in the top tier of Turkish football (the Turkish Super League – TSL) compete to earn a place in UEFA competitions. Most people never come into contact with the Customs Union or the EU accession talks, but millions of fans live through their favourite team's journey to succeed at the European stage – week in, week out. It should not be an overstatement to say that, for many, football is one of their country's most important gateways to Europe.

Besides playing a role in the country's integration into Europe, football punctures parochialism in other ways. It erodes regional boundaries if not totally transgress them. Regional rivalries cannot resist the fact that football market is strictly performance and profit oriented. Players who do not do well in Istanbul end up in another part of the country (or vice versa), while there is an even bigger flow of players and coaches between different regional clubs competing in the first and second tiers. Given that Turkey is a country with relatively strong regional identities, the way football moves people around the country – and with each move alters allegiances – is remarkable.  

Football also affects the facts and perceptions of multiculturalism. For instance, the Istanbul three enjoy a Turkey-wide appeal. Particularly, Galatasaray is thought to have a huge level of support in Turkey's fragile South East among the country's Kurdish population. In the late 1980s and the 1990s when the Kurdish insurgency peaked, the government attempted to make the most out of this social capital by hosting some Turkish cup matches in various towns in the South East of the country. Although in the hands of the state, this can turn into a tool for social engineering and manipulation of ethnic sensitivities, on its own, it is an important source of binding ties between different ethnic subgroups.

In addition to its universalizing role, Turkish football plays a related modernizing role. The most conspicuous example is the increasing presence of women in Turkey's stadiums. Over the past decade, a TSL match has become an appealing choice for dates and weekend entertainment for families. This has taken football from being a primarily male pastime into a spectator sport both genders can enjoy.

The extent of these changes became clear in 2011, when the Turkish Football Association (TFF) introduced "women and children only" matches to penalise clubs whose fans repeatedly violated the fair play code. In several Fenerbahce games, nearly 50,000 female spectators packed the stadium. More recently, Galatasaray chairman Unal Aysal included two prominent women in his re-election ticket, and one of them – popular soloist, song-writer, and educator Candan Ercetin – went on to become the club's deputy chair. Given the social stature of football, the improved presence of Turkish women in the stadiums serves the larger goal of improving women's public presence as equals.

The incorporation methods of Turkish football clubs also matters. In Turkey, football clubs are not as heavily commercialized as in Europe's other strong football economies. They have a legal status similar to other non-profit organisations, and are mostly responsible to their members who pay yearly dues rather than own shares. Some big clubs such as Galatasaray and Fenerbahce do have a partial presence in the stock market, but even these clubs cannot resist the financial incentives attached to remaining as non-commercial organisations.

The clubs' legal status and organisational structure pave the way for two kinds of influence. First, they open up a space for social experimentation. The clubs engage with other parts of civil society – they run social, educational programs, and become places of social learning in the Tocquevillian sense.

Moreover, when organised as non-commercial entities, football clubs are more susceptible to being influenced by supporter groups. Despite the fact that the latter are sometimes internally hierarchical, they can act in ways that puncture hierarchies in relation to the boards of directors and wider social and political structures. For instance, it is common for organised fans to force powerful business tycoons and political families out of club directorship. Also, two years ago Galatasaray drew the ire of the governing AKP after Prime Minister Erdogan was booed in the opening ceremony of the club's new stadium. More remarkably, over the past month, we have seen the fan groups from the Istanbul three play an important role in the organisation of the 'Gezi Park' protests.

To be sure, football in Turkey is not bereft of reactionary views such as sexism and homophobia. But the important point to note is that football is not the primary locus of these regressive movements as in many other European countries. Unfortunately, in Turkey reactionary conservatism has other more political channels through which it can be expressed.

Football and the State

The flip side of the coin depicts a nasty entanglement of football and politics. The Turkish political elites' penchant for football peaked following the 1980 coup d'état. One of the first and most eccentric moves of the junta leader turned head of state Kenan Evren was to promote Angaragucu FC to the TSL on the grounds that the capital city "deserved" to have a club in the top tier. Over the next decade, politicians of all stripes were discovering the electoral potential of football – particularly of being photographed sitting next to the chairmen of the Istanbul three – and strived to maintain a strong presence in the stadiums.

Although the government formally gave up its role in running the TFF in 1992 in order to avoid being banned from international competitions by the FIFA and UEFA, politics and football continue to interact, often illicitly. For instance, it is commonly assumed that to become the TFF chairperson good relations with the political leadership is a must.

Football and politics continue to intersect in more subtle, yet unethical ways, frequently breeding clientelism and corruption.  Businessmen look to the post of club directorship as a way of gaining political clout and social prestige. Being in charge of a football club is akin to owning a media group; if manipulated in "the right way", it can turn into a noteworthy amount of political capital. Also, chairmen and directors can use their status as a shield against prosecution for financial and other kinds of wrong-doing, and continue to engage in illicit economic activity with a sense of impunity.

A new round of allegations concerning the government's intervention in football picked up steam in July 2011, when the Turkish police arrested a group of influential football directors, head coaches, active footballers, and other interested parties in what turned out to be the country's biggest sports-related scandal. Those detained faced accusations of running a criminal network to fix the results of hundreds of football matches.

The Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim – a controversial figure who has made a fortune in the arms trade, and has long been accused by his rivals of partaking in extra-legal activities – has been the man at the centre of the match-fixing scandal. In the course of the trial, Mr Yildirim and his defence team argued that Fenerbahce was being singled out by the Erdogan government for being one of the last bastions of Kemalism. The Prime Minister – himself an ardent Fenerbahce fan and a former semi-professional footballer – has laughed off the allegations. Yildirim's rivals have not questioned the political overtones of the process, but have claimed that the Prime Minister has intervened in favour of Fenerbahce by installing one of his allies as the TFF chairman to protect the club from relegation.

Whether Prime Minister Erdogan has anything to do with the prosecution of Mr Yildirim and his associates, or not, the scandal brings the political undertones of Turkish football to the fore. There seems to be a kernel of historical truth in the alleged connection between the Kemalist camp and Fenerbahce. While their arch-rival Galatasaray has been associated with its Westward looking Lyceum (one of the oldest educational institutions in the country), Fenerbahce has for decades proudly showcased its good ties with the military establishment. One of the first decisions of Mr Yildirim at the helm of the club was to name the Fenerbahce Stadium after the World War II era Prime Minister Sukru Saracoglu – a popular figure among the pro-establishment forces, also known for his Nazi sympathies and for authoring a wealth tax that disproportionately targeted the non-Muslim minorities.

The coming months will test the relationship of football and politics in a more conspicuous way. Now that the UEFA has concluded its own investigation, and has expelled Fenerbahce from the next three seasons of European competitions and Besiktas from the 2013/14 Europa Cup campaign, the TFF will have a lot of explaining to do. For instance, it is strange that despite being subject to one of the harshest penalties in UEFA's history (the three year expulsion announced on June 25 plus the one year ban served in 2011), Fenerbahce has not faced any disciplinary action in the domestic league. Equally bizarre is the fact that Yildirim Demiroren, the chairman of Besiktas when the club committed the match-fixing offences, was abruptly picked for the TFF chairmanship;  a move that, some observers thought, was made possible by Demiroren's amicable ties to the Prime Minister.

In Turkey football continues to be a social force with a mixed record. It can be a site of ethno-religious bigotry, homophobia, but also it can be a progressive social force with a potential to advance multiculturalism, internationalism and gender equality. It has been witnessed to have a positive influence on political processes and also has become entangled in the more ugly aspects of politics. As a mitigating factor, one should also note that the fierceness of the competition between the Istanbul three and the regional representativeness of most Turkish governments have minimized the impact of the state-football interaction on any one club.

To sum up, football deserves some distance and independence from political engineering. The above suggests that many of the progressive effects of football are products of its more spontaneous aspects. Football seems to have some considerable potential as a space of freedom and experimentation. An overzealous football association (which is susceptible to being influenced by the political leaderships) that tries to control every aspect of football, including its unintended consequences, not only risks strengthening the wrong kinds of social impact but also can disrupt the spontaneous good that arises from the game. 

About the author

Aslan Amani holds a PhD and MSc in Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA in Political Science from the University of Toronto. He has taught political theory and political science in England and Canada, and is currently working on a book manuscript on democratic theory.


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