Crime and Punishment?
The political ramifications of the Fenerbahçe match-fixing case
In the autumnal pallor, neurosis, grim resignation and anxiety pervaded Istanbul. It was the eve of a general election that everyone – to the displeasure of many of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan population – knew the country’s president Recep Erdoğan was going to win. Three weeks earlier, Isis had bombed a peace rally in the country’s capital, Ankara, killing 102 people and injuring 400. Across the country’s southern border with Syria, news of unspeakable horror passed in every news bulletin. Down back alleys, in parks or begging at traffic lights, refugees from the war served as further reminders of the horrors in the south. Everyone I spoke to had concerns: about their safety, their future, Turkey’s lurch towards authoritarianism.
But through the darkness appeared a flicker of light. Football, as it so often does, provided a moment of escape.
In the gloom of a near empty first-floor bar a few hundred metres away from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a middle aged Fenerbahçe fan came alive as he remembered his team’s miraculous 2011 Süper Lig title.
“It was more than a great sporting achievement,” Okan Altıparmak told me, his eyes dancing as he recalled a run of 16 wins and a single draw in the second half of the season – a record-breaking performance since the Turkish league was formed in 1959.
Midway through the season, Fenerbahçe had found themselves second, but nine points off the leaders Trabzonspor. “We had a problem that year. The new coach’s [Aykut Kocaman] system did not fit the players that we had. He switched from a 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-1-1. Alex de Souza at the time was the star of our club and the only system he could play – because he does not defend – was as that single midfielder behind the forward. Only then the team played well defensively.
“Prior to that we were struggling because it did not fit. We could not find a rhythm… During the break we had Turkish Cup games against a couple of weak teams and we lost both of them. I remember telling a fan, who did not like the new coach, that he was right.”
But then something remarkable happened, said Altiparmak and a smile spreads across his lips. Altıparmak is a filmmaker and US-Turkish relations consultant. He knows Fenerbahçe like he does his family; it is in his bloodline and history. His father, Ogün, was a striker for the club, winning four league titles over two spells in the 1960s, also appearing 32 times for the Turkish national team. In 1969 he scored the goal that knocked Joe Mercer’s Manchester City out of the European Cup.
“After the second loss in the Turkish Cup and right before the start of the second half of the season the coach was expecting to be booed and meet protests [at the training ground],” Altıparmak said. “Instead they were met with fans with flowers. They won that game 1-0 and afterwards the fans visited the training ground, supporting the team and chanting. ‘We believe in you, you believe in yourselves too.’”
Winning became habitual. Alex, revived in the new system, started scoring again and would finish the season’s top league scorer with 28 goals. Trabzonspor, who otherwise hardly faltered, were beaten 2-0 at the end of January, “reducing the deficit to a manageable level.” said Altiparmak. Every week the fans would return to the training ground to voice their encouragement to Kocaman. “The more the fans did it the more the players’ confidence level went up,” he added. “We kept on winning. But none of the games were easy.”
In the end it came down to the last round of games of the season. Trabzonspor and Fenerbahçe were level on 79 points, but because Fenerbahçe had the superior head-to-head record they simply needed to equal Trabzonspor’s result to lift their first Süper Lig in four years. In their way was an away fixture at Sivasspor. “We went up 3-1, 4-2 and then 4-3,” recalled Altıparmak. Erman Kılıç had pulled a late goal back in the closing stages. “Five more minutes we would have lost that game. Sivas is at high altitude. We would have run out of oxygen. We barely won the championship.”
Victory brought parts of Istanbul to a standstill as the club’s championship was celebrated by flag-waving fans. Fenerbahçe had returned to what its followers considered its rightful place.
“If you recall how we arrived at this point, then you will know how important this championship is,” said Kocaman said after the match. “We were all over the place in the season’s first half and you know we were also eliminated from the Turkish Cup. But we were able to turn the tide in our favour in the league.”
Fenerbahçe had made history, the following day’s newspapers proclaimed; Kocaman had helped perform a miracle.
Except there was no miracle. There never is in Turkish football. Fenerbahçe had stolen the league title.
Six weeks after the end of the 2010-11 season, Fenerbahçe’s unlikely victory was turned on its head. A series of dawn police raids brought 61 arrests, including players, referees and officials. Among those taken into police custody was the Fenerbahçe president Aziz Yıldırım. An enormous police operation involving wiretaps, undercover surveillance and stings revealed a massive nexus of match-fixing corruption that tore to the heart of the Turkish game. At its centre was Fenerbahçe.
The scandal brought Turkish football to a standstill. The 2011-12 season was postponed by a month and Fenerbahçe were withdrawn from the Champions League. “The situation is very serious, there is strong evidence [of malpractice],” said Mehmet Ali Aydınlar, the chairman of Turkish Football Federation. In total 12 of the matches from Fenerbahçe’s run in were implicated in the scandal.
The following July, the judge announced his verdict on match-fixing and found several people from different clubs guilty. Fenerbahçe’s chairman Aziz Yıldırım was sentenced to six years and three months in jail together with other officials including Şekip Mosturoğlu, the vice-president of Fenerbahçe, İlhan Ekşioğlu, a senior Fenerbahçe official, and the former Giresunspor president Olgun Peker.
The brazenness of officials, fixers and the players was staggering. The exchanges between Fenerbahçe and its intermediaries with players from rival teams were astonishing. Known match-fixers were interacting with both rival players and the hierarchy at Fenerbahçe. On one occasion, Fenerbahçe paid a foreign currency loan to a rival goalkeeper to “sustain [him] during these rough times” and allegedly offered him a transfer at the end of the season.
“I met my agent at a restaurant called Big Chefs three days before the game at his request,” said İbrahim Akın, a Turkish international forward with İstanbul Başakşehir F.K., in one deposition. “He told me that Fenerbahçe offered me US$100,000 for not scoring a goal against them. I wasn’t warm to the idea at first… Following [another] request I sent a text message to [my agent] and asked for €100,000 instead of US$100,000.”
A series of recorded calls between a match-fixer and the Sivasspor goalkeeper the week before the season’s final match with Fenerbahçe highlighted the extent of the corruption. In the taped conversations sums of money and “receiving” a “present on Sunday afternoon” were referenced.
When the goalkeeper was left out of the starting line up a panicked call between fixers was recorded on the eve of the match. “They made the line-up public now…[They chose] the wrong goalkeeper,” said one fixer. “Huh?” exclaims the co-conspirator. “But he is using two attackers,” laughs his colleague, who then names three defenders who had apparently been bribed along with a fourth player, and suggests “others” are on the payroll.
“I’m very relaxed,” he adds. “I don’t know why but I’m really relaxed, I’m thinking about whether I should buy [a] Mini Cooper or Peugeot 508.”
On the day of the match one of these fixers phoned the Fenerbahçe president’s brother and said, “I don’t want to disturb the game plan, but shoot as often as possible.”
Fenerbahçe won, of course, and were crowned champions.
“Why should I score? I didn’t go there to score. I went there just to move around,” a Sivasspor player admitted to an anonymous person the evening of the match. “What can I do? We made Fenerbahçe champion. I’m going.”
“Everyone,” said the benched Sivasspor goalkeeper after that match, “gave away goals like that since the beginning of the league. As if every goal scored is a normal goal.”
“People only tell lies,” writes Turkey’s Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk in his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, “when there is something they are terribly frightened of losing.”
Fear, lies and denialism run to the very heart of the Turkish state. A perpetual neurosis pervades that the country is being simultaneously overwhelmed by Kurdish, European, Islamist, Russian, Communist or godless influences; the Great Other in other words. Fear of this “other” breeds a kind of illiberalism justified because it is “protecting” the idea of a nation that remains only in its adolescence (even if the notion of the Turks as a people pre-dates Turkey, founded 1923, by several centuries). “Insulting Turkishness” in a public forum is illegal and as a result Turkey has the highest number of journalists in the world imprisoned.
Given such a backdrop it is unsurprising that lies are ingrained on the national consciousness. For example, it remains prohibited to speak of the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians a century ago (before the establishment of Turkey as a state) as genocide. Pamuk, who did so a decade ago, faced two years of self-imposed exile in New York before returning, but has since faced death threats and was, in 2008, targeted in a thwarted plot allegedly intended to foment insurrection and a military coup.
Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister (2003-14) and president (since 2014), Turkey has lurched alarmingly towards authoritarianism. A western-orientated Islamist, Erdoğan has simultaneously attacked Turkey’s traditional enemies within – opposition politicians, journalists, newspaper editors, owners of television networks, NGOs and academics – and repressed the country’s free media and democratic institutions. Even social media has suffered periodic shutdowns.
This oppression has come on the back of an economic boom that has made Erdoğan Turkey’s longest-serving leader in decades. Like Vladimir Putin, whose similar blend of autocracy, nationalist rhetoric and free market consumerism has seen his rule endure in Russia, Erdoğan postures as the strongman – strong leader, strong army, strong currency, strong country – while retaining a populist nose.
Part of this has come from recognising the symbolism and value of sport for the benefit of his political career. Like photographs of Putin in his judo garb, much is made of the fact that Erdoğan played football semi-professionally. Indeed a mythology has grown up around his putative career – that Fenerbahçe had wanted to sign him but his father stopped him so he could complete his education – that he has never discouraged. A book about his sporting exploits has even been published. On a bigger scale, just as Putin’s Russia contested and won Olympic and World Cup bids, for a period in 2012 it looked as if Erdoğan may also have pulled off a similar trick, with his country on the cusp of winning bids for the 2020 Olympics and European Championship, an unparalleled double header. Istanbul, so the Olympic bidders told us, “shines bright like a diamond in the sky.”
And then, in Gezi Park, everything changed.
It started with a peaceful protest in a park in central Istanbul in May 2013 over plans to build a shopping centre. After police intervention, in which protestors claim excessive force was used, protests got bigger and thousands of people clashed with the police. Spurred on by social media, what started as a local environmental protest encompassed an array of other popular concerns, including declining civil liberties, curbs on alcohol and the conflict in Syria. Up to 3.5 million people took part in 5000 separate demonstrations across the country. The Turkish Spring made global headline news.
“Erdoğan sees any form of dissent as treason,” one protester told the Guardian and true to form the protests were ruthlessly suppressed. More than 3000 were arrested and 11 people died in the clampdown. Turkey’s international standing was damaged. The Euros had already been lost to Uefa president Michel Platini’s idea of a pan-European tournament. By September 2013 the Olympics had gone to Tokyo; Istanbul, for so long the favourite, coming a distant second.
Turkey’s football fans found themselves in the crossfire of the clampdown. 35 members of Çarşı – the huge leftist Besiktas ultras group that had played a significant role in the Gezi protests – were arrested on charges of belonging to an illegal organization and seeking to topple the government. More significantly, an e-ticketing system, requiring supporters to submit personal data in return for a bank card that is then used to buy tickets, was introduced in an attempt to address Turkey’s longstanding hooliganism problem. Invariably it was met with outrage and was seen as an assault on civil liberties. When the scheme was introduced for the 2014-15 season, the Süper Lig average attendance collapsed by more than 40% to just 8,211.
As harsh as Erdoğan’s hand has sometimes been with football, so it has been munificent when dealing with individual clubs. Turkish football exists on a debt mountain that, for the bigger clubs, is alternately written off or deferred indefinitely by wily politicians who know the value of these fan bases at local and national level. Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Trabzonspor among others have all benefited from state-sponsored stadium projects, while Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium has been completely rebuilt since the start of the century. In a nation of a million conspiracy theories it pays for politicians to deal such hands as evenly as they can.
But some clubs are more equal than others and at the apex of the Turkish football establishment is Fenerbahçe, the country’s most popular and influential sporting institution. When it came to the match-fixing crisis they were beyond reproach.
“Fenerbahçe is on the fault-line of sport and politics in Turkey,” James M Dorsey, the veteran war reporter turned Middle East sport and politics chronicler told me. “It is probably, from a politician’s point of view, the crown jewel of Turkish football. That is to say, it has a huge following, a huge fan base, and whoever controls Fenerbahçe has access to that fan base. And certainly now in a polarised society it’s ever more important.”
Dorsey argues that the whole issue over penalising match-fixing was “a political battle in a football-crazy country”. Elements within the police and the judiciary united with extraordinary efficiency to unmask Fenerbahçe as cheats. And with equal efficacy, Erdoğan recognized that the club, with its reputed 25million fans, was too important to cut loose. And so, with resourcefulness and proficiency, Turkey’s rulers connived to dismantle Fenerbahçe’s punishments.
On 24 November 2011, as the match-fixing scandal continued to unfold across the Turkish media, Turkey’s parliament gathered to amend one of the country’s sports laws. Law No. 6222 had only been in effect since March 31 – or around the time that the 2010-11 season was being fixed in Fenerbahçe’s favour – giving Turkey’s courts significant new powers to counteract match-fixing, including custodial sentences of between five and twelve years. Seven months later members of Erdoğan’s ruling AKP Party and two other opposition parties decided that the law was “too harsh” and worked through the night to amend it to reduce its penalties.
Next, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF), under huge political duress amended its disciplinary code in April 2012. The code previously said that clubs found guilty of match-fixing should be relegated. It was changed so that clubs may be relegated if found guilty, giving lawyers invaluable wriggle space. This decision defied Uefa’s guidance and came despite previous efforts of Turkish league clubs to resist the amendment.
When I met with Yusuf Reha Alp, a cerebral lawyer who sat on the TFF disciplinary committee at the time of the scandal, he told me that the media, the Turkish political establishment and also some clubs, perhaps fearful of the financial impact of Fenerbahçe’s relegation, created an ‘atmosphere’ in which it was impossible to mete out proper punishments.
“All the remedies were exhausted and I could have no role in changing this decision,” he said. “Instead of being an ineffective person I chose to give a reaction.” And so he resigned.
But the battle to keep Fenerbahçe from relegation went much further than the TFF.
When the Turkish Federation showed itself incapable of applying the correct punishments – according to its own disciplinary procedures and those of Uefa and Fifa – to clubs complicit in match-fixing – namely relegation – Uefa should have stepped in. The first step should have been to order Fenerbahçe’s relegation. If the TFF refused to comply it had a duty to ban all Turkish clubs and the national team from competing in international competition. This did not happen.
Instead, Uefa dithered. Not until May 2013 did its own disciplinary inspector, the Spanish lawyer Miguel Liétard Fernández-Palacios, review the case. In documents seen by The Blizzard he recommended Uefa’s Control and Disciplinary Body should find Fenerbahçe guilty of match-fixing and be banned from European competition for two years; also that five officials – including the club president, a vice-president and a director – be banned for life for their part in the scandal. The following month the two-year ban from European competition was implemented and upheld following the inevitable CAS appeal. But no Fenerbahçe officials have ever faced sanctions from Uefa. Moreover, Fenerbahçe remained 2011 champions. They were not relegated either.
Explanations for this inaction are many and some are so deeply into the realms of conspiracy as to be beyond publication. What is indisputable is Turkish football’s economic reliance on Fenerbahçe. Claiming 25 million fans and with half of Süper Lig TV subscribers professing to follow the club, relegation from the Süper Lig would have had deep implications for the whole of Turkish football. At the same time the country was a bidder for the 2020 European Championship along with a half-hearted Celtic pitch and an unlikely Azerbaijan-Georgia bid. Were Uefa dissuaded from acting too harshly at a time when they so desperately needed a host? Or was it Erdoğan’s influence?
As Turkish football still teetered in the aftermath of these revelations, Uefa held their annual congress in Istanbul in March 2012. Addressing the congress, Erdoğan pointedly told delegates that individuals should be punished for match-fixing and not “entire clubs or communities”. Afterwards he lobbied the Uefa president Michel Platini on the issue. “I said Uefa should correct this,” Erdoğan said. Platini, he claimed, “told me I was right but could not agree with me as they had rules on this.”
The account of this alleged meeting came nearly two years later after a series of leaked wiretaps purporting to be between Erdoğan and his son Bilal was posted anonymously on the internet. In them, Erdoğan gives his account of the congress and also reveals that “I told Şenes Erzik to work on this too.” Erzik is a longstanding Fifa Executive Committee member and Uefa vice-president. Two years on Erdoğan could claim a victory of sorts. “You see where this case is at the moment,” he purportedly told Bilal. “Fenerbahçe was banned [from European competition] for two years, but neither the Turkish Football Federation nor Uefa had Fenerbahçe relegated.”
In the end Uefa didn’t get their host and Turkey never got its finals. Turkish football, however, had been saved from the economic collapse that Fenerbahçe’s relegation threatened, while Erdoğan had seemingly kept the country’s largest constituency of supporters on side.
When we meet over cups of muddy Turkish coffee in a patisserie in Istanbul’s Şişli district, Erdem Egemen, the determined lawyer who has taken Trabzonspor’s case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is straight to the point. Trabzonspor are seeking appropriate punishments for their rivals, having been failed by the TFF and Uefa. “The way Turkey deals with match-fixing cases is exactly like David Copperfield,” he told me. “You have the file, you have hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence and pictures and money transfers and bank details and everything, but then everything disappears. And the Turkish Football Federation and also Uefa try to close their eyes to ignore the facts and all the evidence.”
It has been an open secret for almost as long as football has been played in Turkey that it is riven by match-fixing, corruption and external interference. The problem transcends football. On the eve of my trip I had talked about it with Declan Hill, the Canadian academic and investigative journalist, who has devoted his career to uncovering match-fixing. “Match-fixing in Turkey has a long history,” he said with a showman’s flourish, before expanding on 1500 years of corruption. “In fact the most dangerous threat to early Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, was in the early 500s, when half the city of Constantinople – which is now Istanbul – was burnt because of a fight over match-fixing and chariot racing.”
But the shocking part of the Fenerbahçe case was that when these elements exploded into the public consciousness – with publicised evidence and a seemingly watertight case against the match-fixers – Uefa showed itself to be lacking in its response. “Uefa pretends that it has this zero-tolerance policy against match-fixing, but in practice it has full tolerance for match-fixing,” said Egemen. “Uefa says that it has no authority to intervene in Turkish football; it has no authority to decide on a team on a national league basis, to decide who is going to be the champion. But we know that the Turkish Football Federation is a member of Uefa and in order to be a member of Uefa, any association, any football federation, has to comply with Uefa and CAS decisions. But the Turkish Football Federation totally refuses.”
Egemen listed other clubs engulfed in match-fixing scandals which were relegated: Juventus, Catania, Olympiakos. He talked about the former Macedonian champions, FK Pobeda, who in 2009 were banned for eight years for fixing a single Champions League match and also had their president and captain banned for life. In Fenerbahçe’s case 12 matches were found to have been fixed by the Turkish courts1. “First of all there’s no proportionality, secondly the timing is always delayed, thirdly the individuals who have been involved in match-fixing activities are not properly dealt with, despite the decision, the report of the Uefa disciplinary inspector,” he said.
Suddenly a note of incomprehension impeded his stream of lawyerly logic. “Uefa knows that there are match-fixers in football, managing Turkish football and causing lots of trouble in sport, and to ethics rules and to Turkish football and to European football. It means nothing to Uefa. I can’t understand that.”
I asked him what would resolve this situation, but so lawless and haphazard is the governance of Turkish football that a solution seems impossible. The suggestion of a normalisation committee – a sort of period of administration imposed by Fifa to clear up federations – drew no enthusiasm. “For a normalisation period you have to apply the rules,” he said. “The rules are there to say that any team who wants to hold the title at the end of the season should deserve that on a sporting merit. But in Turkey now you can fix as many matches as you want, then you reach the title and you have no sanction for that. So reaching the championship title through match-fixing is perfectly legal in Turkish football. That’s the case for now. And it’s not normal. In order to establish a normal order in Turkish football you have to apply the rules.”
But still there are those that don’t give in, who never will.
In the heart of the bustling Beşiktaş district late on a Thursday evening, I met Gökhan Koç and Burçin Aydoǧdu, Trabzonspor supporters who, with a dozen or so of their fellow fans, have made it their mission to reform Turkish football. Trabzonspor’s fans are the forgotten victims of this saga. Denied their first Süper Lig title in 27 years, they have seen a mixture of obfuscation, obduracy and institutional disregard in the five years since. Meanwhile, the team is now toiling in mid-table.
Their aim, they say, is not the reinstatement of the league title stolen from their club – although one presumes this is something that they would dearly love to see – but the salvation of Turkish football and adherence to the rule of law in Turkish society. Manipulation of football is merely a symptom of a society in crisis. “It is beyond football,” explained Aydoǧdu, a softly-spoken law lecturer, over beer and fried anchovies. “In Turkey football is not football, it is always politics and corruption, and our struggle is for fixing something beyond football.”
Koç says that the battleground reflects deeper flaws in Turkish society. On the one hand the vast body of football fans are at best apathetic or, more often, in denial about the challenges facing the game. The same, he says, is true of many of his compatriots’ ambivalent attitude to Turkey’s political problems. On the other hand, those who speak out have justice denied them or are manipulated and face dead ends with such regularity that they are forced to the extremes. “I can see how people turn to terrorism,” he said. “Not in football, but Kurds, Alawites, even Greeks.”
Part grassroots protest, part guerrilla campaign, the Trabzonspor fans’ effort has combined large-scale street protests with the targeting of officials, politicians and journalists. They set up a website explaining their case and as a showcase for documentation. Uefa disciplinary committee members were phoned on private numbers. Cash was mailed to Michel Platini accompanied by sarcastic letters – “I have been watching your zero tolerance comedy series for years, but I’ve never paid for it. Please take this money, you deserve it for your performance”. At a Uefa Congress security was circumvented and protest leaflets were pushed under the bedroom doors of every delegate. One morning in 2013 I, like many football writers, woke to find more than 130 emails from Trabzonspor fans pleading for justice. If my mood at the time was one of irritation, two years later, having travelled to Turkey to learn more, it was irrefutable that they had made an impression. Overall they claim to have sent more than 25 million emails and 100,000 faxes.
Koç claims that without this campaign Uefa would have entirely ignored Turkish football’s disgrace. Uefa, he said, was shamed into acting. But the domestic football establishment turned on them. A leading broadcaster described their website as “very wrong, against the national interest”. A former head of the TFF denounced them on TV. The president of Turkish Society of Sportwriters appeared on TV and accused them of being traitors and bringing shame on the country.
How did this make you feel, I asked Koç. “We are proud of being traitors to this country,” he shrugged.
I asked them if they ever feel intimidated in their fight. A few days later, a Fenerbahçe fan spat out Koç’s name in passing to me as if speaking of the devil himself. One wonders how some of the club’s more extreme fans take to him. “I’m afraid for my wife’s safety,” he said. “I don’t think they will physically harm me. I think they will find legal ways to do so.” Like what? “They’ll put me in jail. But that’s okay. I can read books.”
“My family think I’m crazy. They believe it has no end,” added Aydoǧdu. And does it? “No,” he said mournfully. “I don’t think so.”
Trabzonspor were not the only ones battling to overturn the injustices of 2011.
For many of those who follow and are associated with Fenerbahçe the case against them was a conspiracy, a slur on their name, an injustice. They may have held on to their discredited title and avoided relegation, but missing out on the Champions League cost them tens of millions of euros. Worse still, the proud name of Turkey’s most popular club was now synonymous with cheating.
“With that day’s raids on the soccer clubs and the detainment of over 40 executives and soccer players, Turkey was entering an area never explored before and which the Turkish people, regardless of their club affiliation, perceived as their personal sphere where their emotional pursuit of happiness took place,” Okan Altiparmak told me. “It constituted the opening of the Pandora’s box out of which no one could tell what would emerge.” He remained convinced that the case was bogus, that evidence was cherry-picked and manipulated as part of a plot to destabilise his club and unseat its president.
But the motivation behind the investigation – what it uncovered has been denied or dismissed despite there being substantial evidence –provoked just as much anger.
“The court case regarding match-fixing in Turkey is a political case and the ruling of this case has also been made politically,” the Fenerbahçe chairman Aziz Yıldırım said after his jail sentence in January 2014. “I do not respect or recognise this ruling.”
Erdoğan also criticised the court’s ruling, claiming it was connected with a corruption scandal used to smear his government by a “parallel state” within the judiciary. Yıldırım, he said, was the victim of a similar plot. “The parallel state took a very finely calculated step here as well,” Erdoğan said.
This was a reference to the followers of US-based cleric and billionaire Fethullah Gülen, whose Cemaat or Hizmet (‘Service’) network is influential within the media, police and judiciary. Hizmet promotes a tolerant form of Islam and is active in education with private schools and universities and has substantial investments in media, finance, and health.
Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1997, was formerly an ally of Erdoğan and the president previously benefited from his wealth and influence. That alliance descended into what one pundit described as an “ugly divorce” earlier this decade, with an increasingly paranoid Erdoğan claiming a “Gülen-Israel axis” was bent on unseating him. This vast and slightly fantastical so-called plot to unsettle his government allegedly utilised its network in the Turkish establishment to uncover corruption with the express intention of destabilising Erdoğan’s government. The case against Fenerbahçe was one of the first shots in this war.
Erdoğan spoke of a “parallel state”, a new variation on the longstanding notion of Turkey’s derin devlet or “deep state”. This is a presumed clandestine alliance of military officers and their civilian allies who, for decades, have suppressed and sometimes murdered dissidents. Their enemies are Kurds, Communists, Islamists, members of minority groups, journalists, liberals, intellectuals — anyone thought to pose a threat to Turkey’s secular order. The deep state functions as a kind of parallel government, whipping up public fear or destabilising civilian governments not to its liking. On four occasions since 1960 the Turkish military has intervened to bring down elected governments, most recently in 1997 when Necmettin Erbakan’s coalition government was forced out in what became known as the “post-modern coup”. Gülen’s alleged backing of a parallel state to bring down the government does have some historical precedent.
“The whole issue over penalising match-fixing was the beginning of a political battle between two Islamist factions, if you wish,” explained James M Dorsey. “Where that scandal led was, three years later, to a massive corruption scandal in which Erdoğan and his family were implicated and which led to the crackdown on a lot of dissent in Turkey.”
“[Erdoğan] mentions a parallel state. It’s that state, the Cemaat, that is behind the operation against us,” Yıldırım said in 2014.
The police case against Fenerbahçe was brought under the aegis of Turkey’s Special Authority Courts, which, in essence, authorised the police to act like prosecutors. That court system was dismantled in early 2014 amid claims that it had been infiltrated by Gülenists and Turkey’s judiciary began overturning cases that it had previously ruled on.
It didn’t seem to matter that these inquiries uncovered massive corruption in almost every area of Turkish society, including football. Erdoğan’s government described the investigations as essentially a coup attempt, accusing Gülen of influencing the security forces and judiciary.
The disbanding of the Special Authority Courts paved the way for a retrial for Yıldırım. In October 2015, after serving a year of his sentence, Yıldırım and 35 other defendants were acquitted for their role in fixing the 2011 title.
Outside the court hundreds of Fenerbahçe fans celebrated the decision. For them, it wasn’t redemption, but exoneration. It was as if the mountains of evidence disproving their 2011 title win had never existed.
It was the day of the election. Istanbul’s streets, usually a 24-hour cacophony of traffic jams and beeping horns, fell silent. The outcome was never in doubt – the only question was by how much Erdoğan would win. If he pushed the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP party to less than 10% of the vote, it would give him a so-called ‘supermajority’ that would enable him to call a referendum on changes to the country’s constitution. This would allow him to expand his powers into what he considered a US-style executive presidency. His critics said that it would tighten his already firm grip on power, pushing the country closer towards dictatorship.
The football programme had been cancelled and the bars were under a day-long prohibition. Even the doors of the Grand Bazaar were bolted shut. In a silent side street nearby, the proprietor of a tea shop beckoned me in. Offering me a glass of apple tea, he told me his name was Yasin and that he was Kurdish. Had he voted? “Yes, for Erdoğan.” When I professed surprise – he was the first person I’d met willing to admit to voting for the president – he volunteered the platitude about a “strong leader making a strong country.”
We talked about the election, the violence inflicted upon Turkey’s Kurdish population and then, invariably, football. His club was Bursaspor, but he had long lost interest in the game. “What you see in Turkey is not sport,” he declared. “It is not theatre or farce or drama. It is something else.” He momentarily lost himself in his own thoughts as he searched for the word. “It is an expression,” he finally said. “An expression of the deep political conflicts in this country. Not the ones that you see today at the polling stations and on the streets. The ones that exist far away from the view of most ordinary people.”
As dusk fell I walked back towards the Bosphorus, my phone buzzing with updates from the election. The polls closed at 5pm and soon after Erdoğan’s victory was declared. He had increased his vote by 3 million on the previous election, but still lacked his supermajority. The slide away from democracy had been halted. Or had it? Within 48 hours a series of police raids brought dozens of arrests, including of critical magazine editors, charged with “attempting to overthrow the government by force”. By the end of the year Erdoğan was talking in public once more about strengthening the presidential powers, citing a conspicuous example of an effective presidential system – Germany under Adolf Hitler. 2016 began with the opening of Fethullah Gülen’s trial in absentia for plotting to overthrow the government.
Football was only a small part of this game of manipulation and intimidation, but it was clear that the soul of the game was being sapped by political machinations. “Turkish football has no international credibility,” Yusuf Reha Alp had told me. He believed that covering up the match-fixing scandal was an attempt to distance the Turkish game from corruption and make the Turkish football brand more valuable. But the plan had backfired. “The effect was the opposite,” he said. “The whole world looks at Turkey as a place where any corruption can be done and the culprits remain unpunished. The brand value of Turkish football is the lowest it can be.”
And fans of rival clubs, so bitterly divided over details of their histories, seemed to have far more in common than they had separating them: a universal disillusionment with what their game had become. “We haven’t been able to enjoy football since 2011. It’s like having to live together with your thief in the same house,” said Burcin Aydoǧdu, the Trabzonspor-supporting law teacher.
“I don’t take any pleasure from football nowadays,” Okan Altıparmak admitted. “I don’t think any other team’s fans can either. Politics has invaded football in Turkey. It is drowning it. Drowning it.”