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Saturday, July 9, 2011
Turkey at crossroads

Andy Brassell

Sunday May 22, 2011 saw another gripping climax to the Turkish Super Lig season, with Fenerbahce winning 4-3 at Sivasspor to seal the title at the expense of Trabzonspor on the final day. For Fener, it was closure after the trauma of 12 months before, when fans celebrated the title on the Sukru Saracoglu pitch - only to find out that the tannoy announcement that rivals Bursaspor had faltered against Besiktas was wrong, and that Bursa were champions. Furious home fans began to tear out seats and start fires in the stands. If recent nail-biters have augmented the burgeoning reputation of domestic football in this most passionate of football nations, events in the last week threaten to decimate it at a stroke. A series of police raids last Sunday (July 3) saw some of the most influential clubs and figureheads of the Turkish game implicated in an investigation into match-fixing, with details emerging that authorities were looking into at least 20 matches from the 2010-11 season. Less than a week later in excess of 60 people have been arrested, but the most important detention remains that of Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim, with two of the key matches under scrutiny being Fener's games against Eskisehirspor in April, and the last day title-clincher against Sivasspor. Sivas' president Mecnun Odyakmaz, Eskisehirspor sporting director Umit Karan and Eskisehir coach Bulent Uygun are also among the arrests. Yildirim is currently on conditional release for treatment having been taken ill in custody, but public sympathy in Turkey is in short supply for a strongly divisive figure with an explosive temperament. "He always behaves very aggressively to journalists, cameramen and others," says Istanbul-based journalist Yakir Mizrahi. "He is an idol to his own flock - he invested a lot of money to renovate the stadium, and (provide) new training facilities over the last 13 years, and Fenerbahce fans love him, because of his role in making a globally-known club," says Mizrahi - but there is considerable schadenfreude for a man considered brash and unpleasant in many quarters. The immediate implications for the accused are serious. Some of the charges include "forming, directing and being a member of an armed criminal organisation," and a statement released by Istanbul police on Wednesday said that eight unlicensed firearms had been seized during the raids. Turkey's president Abdullah Gul and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (a former semi-pro player himself and a Fener supporter) have been careful to remain neutral while the investigation continues, but the feeling is that the arrests are the latest move in a long-awaited initiative to clean up the game, after laws to combat football-related violence were passed in April, which included severe penalties for match-fixing. The Turkish Football Federation's (TFF) Professional Football Discipline Board (PFDK) banned 11 former players and coaches for life at the beginning of June after concluding a probe into match-fixing and illegal betting in matches between 2008 and 2010. Indeed, 23 more were punished, including former Galatasaray and Fener defender Fatih Akyel, who was banned for three years for his role in fixing a league game in 2008. After years in which authorities were powerless to act, former sports minister Mehmet Ali Sahin told the newspaper Hurriyet this week, the law finally has the teeth to change things. The consequences of a guilty verdict would be crushing for Yildirim and Fener. The TFF would strip the club of its title - its 18th, which put it one ahead of bitter rivals Galatasaray - and relegation would almost certainly follow, in a mirror of the punishments dished out to Juventus post-Calciopoli. Fener would incur an immediate loss in excess of 30 million - 10.8 million from TV rights, 8 million in bonuses and 5.7 million in prize money - losing around 10 million more that would come with Champions League qualification. The player exodus that would follow relegation would be an administrative as well as a financial necessity; league rules limit second-tier teams to three foreign players in their squad, and Fener currently have ten. Yet even if only Fener were punished, the shockwaves would be felt all over the country. "Other Super Lig clubs would automatically be affected economically," says Mizrahi. "US$321 million is paid annually by the broadcaster to the clubs which is a record for Turkey, but a new bid can happen if Fenerbahce is relegated, so other clubs' income may decrease." He also believes Fener's exclusion from the Champions League would set back Turkey's progress in Europe. "In my opinion, (runners-up) Trabzonspor's squad is not adequate for the Champions League,'' he said. ''And points which the teams gather from the Champions League are very important for Turkish football's future." Pressure to act quickly is considerable. The Super Lig restarts on August 7, but the Super Cup showpiece between Fener and cup winners Besiktas is scheduled for July 31. Before both those dates, on July 15 (next Friday), UEFA requires confirmation from the TFF of the Turkish clubs that will be involved in the Champions League. "It might take a very long time for the (criminal) investigation to conclude. Therefore we have to act upon the evidence at hand," TFF chairman Mehmet Ali Aydinlar told NTV this week. Yet in its eagerness for justice, the TFF could be all set to repeat the horrible botch that the Portuguese authorities made of the Apito Final process. They too acted before the legal process was concluded, and Portugal's Central Administrative Court ruled in May that the six-point deduction from Porto in 2008 (which initially prompted UEFA to throw the club out of the 2008-09 Champions League in June 2008, before the decision was repealed twelve days later) was unfounded. Both Porto and neighbours Boavista (also punished in the same probe) are set to pursue the authorities for hefty damages. Turkish football's aim to bring an end to years of unfettered, opaque financial dealings is laudable, and could be the next step on its route to becoming a world-renowned championship. Whether the authorities can hold fire long enough to make sure they are thorough remains to be seen. If the TFF reacts with haste, it may well have to repent at leisure.

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