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Turkish football's hellish season reveals deeper societal malaise

Turkish football's hellish season reveals deeper societal malaise

 


Turkey's football season from hell was epitomized by a match this spring on the Black Sea coast, when the full-time whistle blew and chaos engulfed the pitch.

A man wearing a demonic clown mask prepared to fight with players from one of the country's leading football clubs, while on the other side of the pitch another invader brandished a corner flag like a giant spear .

The eruption of violence in Trabzon in March following Trabzonspor's defeat by Fenerbahe Istanbul came just months after the president of a major Ankara club punched a referee who was then kicked while that he was on the ground. The president later apologized, saying he only wanted to spit in the man's face.

Displays of passion that turn into violence have long been a feature of match days in soccer-obsessed Turkey, where fans often seek to intimidate the opposition in order to gain an advantage.

But allegiances have been pushed to the limit across the country, with this year's problems leading to a brief suspension of the league, revealing a deeper malaise as football joins the growing ranks of Turkish institutions in which the public has lost confidence.

Credibility and trust in Turkish football have deteriorated over the past 20 years, said Ali Ko, Fenerbahe president and controversial figure in Turkish football, scion of one of the country's richest business dynasties.

Ko said the growing distrust had manifested itself in ways that transcended even the usually intense rivalries. He sparked controversy last month when Fenerbahe withdrew from the Turkish Super Cup match against arch-rivals Galatasaray, in what he described as a rebellion against the current state of Turkish football.

When people start running onto the field trying to lynch the players, [without] being properly punished, they become heroes because of the way they are treated by their club leaders, Ko told the Financial Times in his office at Fenerbahes Stadium.

An aerial view of fans invading the pitch after the match between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahe
Supporters invade the pitch after the match between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahe Enes Sansar/Anadolu/Getty Images

Ba Erten, a veteran Turkish sports journalist, said it had been the most terrible season since 2011, referring to that year's match-fixing scandal, adding that there had been an incredible level of hatred, fueled in part by senior team officials making vitriolic speeches and accusations against their rivals.

Fans' distrust of institutions meant to ensure fairness in Turkish football, including referees, the country's football federation and club leaders, is at the heart of Turkish football's crisis, experts and analysts say. industry analysts.

Every week there is a massive discussion about calls for referees, said Zgehan Enyuva, a professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara who has studied Turkish fandom. There's always this search for something deeper, some sort of conspiracy, he added.

According to Enyuva, suspicions that dark forces are at play in the decisive matches reflect Turks' loss of confidence in politics and society in general. It comes amid growing concerns over the rule of law, judicial independence and a crackdown on civil society, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoan begins his third decade in power.

Kos' predecessor at Fenerbahe, Aziz Yldrm, was convicted in 2012 of match-fixing and sentenced to six years in prison. Yldrm was later acquitted, with the government alleging that a group it said was behind the attempted coup against Erdoan in 2016 had launched a vast plot to discredit dozens of government figures. Turkish football.

Football is just an amplifier of general societal attitudes, Enyuva said. If you don't trust the judges in the courthouses, you won't trust the referees on the field.

Difficult finances of Turkish football (2022/23 season)

Turkish football has long been dominated by the Istanbul trio of Fenerbahe, Galatasaray and Beikta. But growing financial woes in the sport have concentrated even more power between the big three clubs in recent years.

This happened in the 2023/24 season, with Fenerbahe and Galatasaray dominating the top-flight Sper Lig. On the one hand, it seems pretty good that two teams are playing each other, but what about the other teams, Erten said..

A former industry executive who remains involved in Turkish football stressed that everyone is struggling financially. Broadcast fees, a key revenue source especially for clubs outside major cities that may have smaller fans, have fallen in recent years. Qatari media group BeIN agreed in 2022 to pay $182 million per season to broadcast Sper Lig matches, up from around $500 million per year agreed in 2016.

An 80 percent fall in the Turkish lira against the euro over the past five years has also driven up costs for clubs who have to sign deals with international players who expect their salaries to be linked to hard currencies, the executive said. The cost of importing international stars has been compounded by the fact that Turkey has not done enough to encourage local talent, several industry players noted.

Major Turkish clubs recorded a pre-tax loss of 310 million for the 2022-2023 season, according to UEFA, which oversees European football. Collectively, Turkish teams recorded 1 billion in gross bank debt, with 18 clubs in a negative equity position.

The current economic model of football in Turkey is unsustainable, Ko said, adding that it leaves clubs vulnerable to external interference and influence.

Erten agrees, saying the specter of political interference in football has only worsened fans' lack of confidence.

Indeed, the disillusionment of some Turkish football fans was such that they even turned to other sports such as basketball and volleyball. Turks are obsessed with football, but there is currently a sharp decline in interest in football, he said.

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