Can Europe Make It?

Where Turkish politics meets football: AKP's offside goal against 'Çarşı'

ÇARŞI are being painted as the culprits of the pitch invasion and violence of the Sunday game. However, the 'losing side' of the incident is also ÇARŞI and the wider Beşiktaş fan base, a clear contradiction in terms.

Derya Lawrence
28 September 2013

The derby match between Besiktas and Galatasaray that was played in Istanbul was abandoned at the 90+2nd minute after an eruption of violence resulted in a pitch invasion. Foreign papers and local news reports alike have concentrated their coverage on the presence of violence without really probing the consequences or the underlying reasons why this event took place in the first place. Conveniently, we have also stopped questioning issues surrounding the AKP's recent conduct or the 'democracy package' that the AKP have been promising to announce for the past 3 weeks.

Right after the game, the social media - including comments from AKP deputies and associates -was riddled with attacks against 'ÇARŞI', the fan group of the Beşiktaş football club. Thus, it is evident that ÇARŞI are being painted as the culprits of the pitch invasion and violence of the Sunday game. However, since Beşiktaş will now be banned from having supporters present at its games, the 'losing side' of the incident is also ÇARŞI and the wider Beşiktaş fan base, a clear contradiction in terms.

To highlight the inadequacies in this account of events, that a bunch of Beşiktaş supporters got frustrated by a player being booked and raided the pitch, you have to appreciate something of the climate in which the football season has kicked off, and in particular, ÇARŞI's centrality in the protest movement against the AKP throughout the summer months in Turkey. 

The recent politicisation of sports in Turkey

In the post-Gezi Park occupation climate, Turkey has truly become a police state. Independent of any argument for or against the need for a police presence and their conduct, their sheer presence and encroachment on daily life in urban Istanbul is a simple fact of life. There are tens of police vans and thousands of riot police stationed 24/7 in central locations around Istanbul. Moreover, they conduct bag searches at will and end up tear gassing up and down residential neighborhoods more often than not.

PM Erdoğan had announced that a series of measures would be taken to prevent stadiums and university campuses from becoming major protest venues as the football season and the academic year was about to begin. In relation to politics and sport, a series of statements were made that announced measures such as; the outlawing of political chants at stadiums; the replacement of private security officers with policemen; breathalyser testing; profiling etc..

Following the crackdown on Gezi Park and the dispersal of demonstrators, as a public space where citizens congregate, football stadiums have indeed become spaces where citizens voiced their support for the Gezi demonstrations and their protest against the AKP regime. The chant "Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance" was echoed in all first week Turkish league fixtures in late August. To a lesser degree, these chants are still ongoing.

I say to a lesser degree because prior to the start of the season, the Interior Minister warned that politically motivated chants were illegal at football games, giving an indication as to what those bold enough to raise their voices in opposition to the AKP publicly could expect. At another point, in the context of politically motivated chants at stadiums, the Minister of Sports stated that Turkey had been combating terrorism for 30 odd years and that they would not shy away now. These examples go to show the government's preference for using the stick and treating its own frustrated citizens as terrorists. Very fitting when considering all along the issue has been a lack of democratic governance.

The conservative clampdown of the AKP with regards to alcohol restrictions were also initiated in September, including breathalyser tests at football stadiums that result in the barring of supporters who are 'found guilty' of being over the alcohol limit. A new electronic ticketing system has also been introduced at stadiums which involves the monitoring and profiling of football fans. In sum, football has been a pain to watch (live and on screen) with the ridiculous number of police present at all matches since the beginning of the 2013-2014 league and all the invasive measures taken to 'depoliticise' football.

Most games have created some sort of newsworthy headline one way or another. Either through LigTV's - the TV provider of the Turkish League - complicit support of the AKP government by muting the voice of fans at the stadium chanting against the government, or through reports that highlight the tension amongst supporters that were in support/opposition of the AKP.

All in all, the AKP are indeed to blame for bringing politics into football through measures that they  have taken to profile supporters, crack down on the opposition and marginalise opposition groups. This latest incident at the derby game and the scapegoating of ÇARŞI is precisely an attempt at punishing a body that has been vocal against the AKP. 

ÇARŞI and the derby game 

The Beşiktaş's supporter group 'ÇARŞI' was one of the most vocal bodies to have stood up in support of the Gezi protests and the whole movement against the AKP from the beginning. Needless to say, the authorities have been eager to contain ÇARŞI. This was already highlighted through the arrest of numerous ÇARŞI members in the very first waves when the 'mastermind' culprits behind the Gezi movement were being 'unearthed' in the witch-hunt that started in June. 

I wasn't at the football game on Sunday. I wasn't even in Istanbul. However, testimonies from people who were at the stadium and reports from the media highlight very clearly the unique conditions at the game on Sunday. Although security at stadiums have been upped due to a general increase in police presence at public places, only 500 policemen and 1500 private security guards were commissioned for the derby game. In the run up to the game, newspapers reported on a national record high attendance for the game where over 77,000 tickets were sold.

In comparison, at another derby on August 18 between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe (played in Kayseri), 2000 policemen and 1000 security officers were commissioned. I'm not trying to defend high levels of police at stadiums as the way to tackle any problem, but I do find it puzzling that the authorities would commission less police for a vastly larger crowd which has been known to be the most vocal critic of the government.

Moreover, whereas the police had taken over the responsibility for physical searches and screenings for football fans entering the stadium in the afore-mentioned derby game in mid-August, searches for the derby on Sunday were lax to say the least. Many first hand accounts mention the surprising lack of any real body searches that have accompanied other league games this season.

Then there was the recent creation of an alternative Beşiktaş supporter group called '1453' (the year Istanbul was conquered - very neo-Ottoman). Mehmet Baransu from Taraf Newspaper elaborates on traces on the internet that highlight links between AKP's youth organisations and this new 1453 Beşiktaş group. Moreover, on his Facebook page, one of the AKP's youth leaders is careless enough to boast how he got free tickets for the game and was personally one of the first to invade the pitch.

So what does this all mean? 

On the one hand, a police force that has been extensively used at sports events were withdrawn or 'under-represented' for the most packed game in Turkish football history. On the other, free tickets were given to members of an alternative Beşiktaş supporter group that was formed in opposition specifically in relation to ÇARŞI's Anti-AKP stance. This group was seated right in front of the pitch and were one of the first groups onto the pitch.

What is most important is the apparent link between the AKP and '1453', which suggests that the AKP had a hand in attempts at placing a wedge amongst Beşiktaş supporters. Regardless of '1453', ÇARŞI or any organised group, a football game where over 80,000 people were present was cancelled because there was an invasion of the pitch by men hurling plastic seats and wielding lethal weapons. (Add to the mix the fact that local elections are coming up and that the campaign is well under way with transportation promotion adverts on every billboard) 

Beşiktaş will now be banned from playing in front of its supporters, meaning no more anti-AKP chants. As far as the AKP are concerned, this is a positive outcome. There is an upcoming fixture where Beşiktaş play Rize Spor in Erdoğan's hometown. Then there is of course the Istanbul games in Kasımpaşa. Whichever way you look at it , this looks like bending the rules of the game to say the least, and it may still have to be counted as an ‘offside goal’.


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