Football supporters defend Turkey’s civic rights
Tolga Senel at Play the Game 2007. Photo: Niels Nyholm/Play the Game
06.06.2013By Andreas Selliaas
The rough way in which the Turkish authorities handled the demonstrations in Istanbul is something to take seriously.
What started as a protest against a shopping mall in one of the few green spaces in Central Istanbul has developed into a protest against what some see as the government’s move towards a more authoritarian and Islamic form of governing.
How serious are these demonstrations and what kinds of forces have they put into play? These are common questions these days, but they are hard to answer. A part of the protests took place close to the home ground of Beşiktaş football club and rumours say that the football supporters have been central to the demonstrations. This makes one think of the riots and demonstrations at the Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011, where football supporters played a pivotal role in the rebellion against Hosni Mubarak and his regime.
In order to know more about the football supporters’ significance in the Turkish demonstrations, I have interviewed Tolga Senel, Turkish expert on football and sports politics. He has been close to the demonstrations in Izmir and has made some interesting observations.
Different from the Arab spring
Q: Media outside Turkey sometimes compare what is happening in Istanbul in these days to the Arab spring. What do you say to such a comparison?
Tolga Senel: I cannot make a detailed analysis of the Arab spring. I can see some similarities and differences, but the differences outweigh the similarities in many ways. Some similarities are that there is a resistance against an increasingly authoritarian leader and that the movement has started, grew and spread in a park next to the most important square (Taksim) of the country.
For me the most important differences are in the politics and culture of the countries. In Turkey, the protests take place in a democracy. They began among the groups of people who had not voted for the AKP, president Erdogan’s party, who felt their demands had been completely ignored. Turkey is more democratic, civilized and the public has more dedication to freedom than any other Arab or Northern African country. The demonstrations in Turkey are about preserving and improving freedom, while the Arab Spring was about obtaining freedom. Fraternization off the football field
Q: In Egypt football supporters were a strong force in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak and his regime. The uprising in Istanbul takes place close to Beşiktaş football stadium. What role do the football supporters play in these riots?
Tolga Senel: The football supporters have been involved in the demonstrations since Saturday. Carsi (a group of Beşiktaş supporters, ed.) was the first group marching in to the Gezi park (by the Taksim Square) on Saturday morning. Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe fans came a few hours after Carsi. Other clubs' fan groups, such as Bursaspor and Trabzonspor, joined them later that day and Sunday. Karsiyaka, Goztepe and Altay fans supported demonstrations in Izmir.
The demonstrations were wide spread and the Turkish public is better organised than in Arab countries. But the most important contribution of their support was to demonstrate that these protests are not limited to a political party, extremist group or similar. These demonstrations unite people across political barriers and show that football supporters actually put a stop to violence and not the opposite – like some politicians have indicated
I have never in my entire life seen all clubs' fans coming together and protesting for the same reason! In my hometown Izmir the rivalry between Karsiyaka and Goztepe is perhaps more intense than Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray. The image of them marching together in Gundogdu Square says more than a thousand words about the independence and public support for the protests.
In Istanbul, the Carsi supporters have played an important role in preventing the demonstrations from turning into violent riots. Like in the Tahrir Square, they resisted the police and tried to chase the police’s water canon vehicles away from the crowds. But they have still tried to keep the protests civilized. They have not been vandalizing and they have subdued the provocateurs. Their slogan is "Do not throw stones! Do not swear! Do not vandalise! Only use disproportionate intelligence against disproportionate use of power! Beware of provocateurs! Do not overreact!”
Secular football supporters
Q: Do the football supporters have any political influence?
Tolga Senel: In general, fan groups are not really politicized in Turkey. Because the three big clubs of Istanbul heavily dominates Turkish football, they have fans from all regions and from all political, religious and ethnic backgrounds. It is almost impossible to classify them according to the political views of their supporters.
But it is also fair to say that the secular movement has strong influence in football clubs. That Erdogan and his supporters for example want to limit the serving of alcohol provokes the football supporters and other secular groups in Turkey. Like Especially the football clubs that were established before the 1960's have a strong secular tradition. Carsi reflects a left-wing mindset and the Izmir-groups Karşıyaka, Altay and Göztepe are also a reflection of the city culture and are strong supporters of Ataturk and secularism. These are not party politics, but about defending civic rights and the secular state.
Politicians control football
Q: How close is the relationship between football and politics in Turkey?
Tolga Senel: Very, very, very close. Actually Turkey is a perfect case showing that autonomy on the paper doesn't make you independent. Turkey has one of the strongest laws to establish autonomy of sports institutions. Even the word autonomy is too weak to explain these regulations. The supremacy of sport’s jurisdiction is secured in the Turkish Republic's Constitution. It is even forbidden to go to any sort of public court against decisions of sports jurisdiction.
The Turkish Football Law is also another story. It gives Turkish football all the power. Not only in sports related matters but also economic matters like broadcasting rights, etc. These would be dream laws that IOC, FIFA or UEFA would like to have for all of its members in all countries.
But the reality is that sport’s governing bodies are not independent at all. Most of the board members and chairmen of sports associations are mainly determined by Erdogan and the government, and the chairman of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) ia no exception. A former TFF chairman was a close family friend to Erdogan and sponsored his son's education in the USA. That’s how close it is.
Q: Turkey has been involved in a number of match-fixing scandals lately. Can these scandals be traced back to the politicians?
Tolga Senel: A court ruling found evidence of match-fixing in 7 matches and 13 people were convicted of match-fixing – cases that are now being appealed. However, according to the TFF's rulings and conclusion of the case there is no problem with match-fixing in Turkey. Since the politicians have such a strong hold in the football clubs it would be natural to assume that they also know something about match-fixing or have been involved in match-fixing. But this is very hard to prove.
Demonstrations and Istanbul’s candidature to host the Olympics
Q: Istanbul is applying for the fifth time to host the Summer Olympics and this time they seem to be the favourites. Will these demonstrations negatively influence their candidature?
Tolga Senel: After having awarded the Olympics to China, political opposition to a leader or a party shouldn't be a problem for the IOC. But I believe that we will see more opposition and demonstrations from within Turkey against hosting the Olympics. The Olympics in Istanbul is very prestigious to the political leaders in Turkey, and maybe these demonstrations will reappear as anti-Olympic demonstrations. The demonstrators have, among other things, sent a protest letter to the IOC saying that supporting an Olympics in Istanbul is like pepper spraying the Olympic ideals. It will be very interesting to see how the IOC responds to that.