Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey eats dirt

Café Babel, "the first multilingual European current affairs magazine", has just published a translation by Culturissima's David Winter (written by Tania Gisselbrecht) that draws worldwide attention to the rigging of football matches in Turkey.

What on earth has stung Turkey into action? For more than a month now a new broom has been sweeping clean not just the streets of Istanbul but also the country's football and armed forces. But who’s wielding the broom? And what "rubbish" are they trying to get rid of? Worthwhile questions to ask because it’s clear the idea did not come from "Mr Clean".

On July 3 the Turkish judicial authorities disclosed that they are investigating a series of rigged matches involving Turkey's most prestigious football clubs. Official phone tapping has led to search warrants being issued and a succession of highly publicised arrests, police interrogations and detentions. The tally to date, based on 19 matches that have allegedly been rigged, stands at almost 80 arrests with 31 people held in custody. 

With football being a veritable religion for Turks, it is not hard to imagine the shock waves that the announcement has set off. There are even rumours that the government stalled before deciding to reveal the details of a scandal that could have had an influence on June's general election. Although the league winners Fenerbahçe - whose chairman, Aziz Yıldırım, was arrested on the very day that the investigation officially opened - seem to be at the heart of the storm, the zealous authorities have not spared other big clubs, including Beşiktaş, fifth in the league and winners of the national cup competition, and Trabzonspor. 

Fenerbahçe have not been slow in seeing the hand of the "police state" behind the highly unusual investigations – an overtly political accusation levelled by the club's chairman that has generated contradictory and often far-fetched rumours amongst supporters: it is a campaign to replace the chairman with an ally of the government or the real target of the affair is prime minister Erdoğan, a well-known supporter of the Canaries and a member of the club's governing body. It is worth remarking, though, that Erdoğan has welcomed the current "purification process". 

So, is it political manoeuvring or a genuine attempt to clean up a sport that only last year was shaken by a murky illegal betting affair? The baffling wait-and-see approach adopted by the Turkish Football Association does not bode well. Apart from deciding to postpone the start of the league season by a month, the association has not taken any action against any of the individuals who have been charged or any of the clubs cited in the dossier. Indeed, several websites specialising in sports news are suggesting that, if it ends up being proven that the association has deliberately dragged its feet, the national team could be excluded from Euro 2012.

In a communiqué released on July 12, UEFA did not rule out the possibility of excluding Turkish clubs from European competition if the Turkish authorities end up by confirming the facts. There was a new twist on August 24 when, to everyone's surprise, the Turkish Football Association announced that it was excluding Fenerbahçe from the Champions League. This decision, which amounted to a tacit acknowledgement of the club's guilt, left many observers feeling sceptical: how could the association, which up till then had used the alleged lack of evidence as an excuse to justify their inaction, suddenly take such a radical measure? 

Everything points to the hand of UEFA. After the chief legal counsel for integrity and regulatory affairs made a surprise visit to Istanbul, UEFA laid down a clear ultimatum: if Fenerbahçe did not withdraw from the European competition or if the Turkish Football Association failed to exclude them, then UEFA would mount a disciplinary investigation and sanction the association. 

The question to be asked now is: will the other clubs that have been tainted by the scandal also pay the price for UEFA's zero tolerance policy regarding match rigging? Given the scale of the investigations, which are based on a recent law that targets organised crime, supporters are in no doubt that convictions will follow. It remains to be seen whether legal sanctions will only be taken against the individuals charged or whether they will include the clubs as well. If it is only the former, as many football lovers fear, then the show of force will miss its stated object: to wipe out the corruption that is endemic in Turkish football. There again, sweeping things under the carpet always has been an art.

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