Fans turn their backs on Turkish football

Turkish football has a turbulent history but no-one could anticipate the crisis unravelling this season, writes David Shonfield

Fans turn their backs on Turkish football

Crowds have deserted stadiums; the national team has plunged to new depths; 35 fans have been in court on charges of trying to overthrow the state; and last week, the country’s main football sponsor announced it was ending its financial support for the game.

Yildiz Holding is hardly a household name, even in Turkey, but its products are in virtually every home in the country and under the name of its best-known brand, the chocolate company Ulker, it has pumped more than €185 million into football over the past five years.

Ulker has sponsored the national team, youth sides and also Turkey’s three biggest clubs: Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas. Now its chairman Murat Ulker, grandson of the founder, has written formally to the Turkish Football Federation to announce the company’s disengagement.

He didn’t mince his words, writing: “Violence, fighting and tension have become associated with the game. The brand value of football has dramatically decreased and matches have lost their attractiveness, with stadiums being empty and the overall atmosphere not matching with the concept of fair play.

“It has become pointless to support clubs and matches in the face of diminishing attention.

“I feel sorry for my country. In Europe, even for the games of teams that are in trouble, thousands of people go. I recently went to a game in England. It was mind-blowing; I truly enjoyed it. We cannot see this in Turkey.”

Some of Ulker’s discontent reflects widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the game itself, including rule changes that mean clubs no longer have to field Turkish players.

“Teams with only 14 Turks on a 28-strong staff is wrong. Teams can now play with 11 footballers all being foreigners. This is irrational. Then what will the Turkish boys do?”

Veteran Fatih Terim, who has taken over the national team after the axing of Cesare Prandelli, agrees. “In this country, football is unfortunately not moving in the right direction. There are teams put on their kits at coffee houses and shower at public baths because they don’t have facilities.”

For the fans, however, above all the fans of the Istanbul clubs, the major issue is the new rule requiring them to carry a personal identity card, called the Passolig, or league pass. The ID cards were introduced for the first time this season under security laws passed in 2011, targeting violence in football grounds and making individuals rather than clubs responsible.

Boycotted by the various ultra groups, the Passolig has also caused resentment from other fans. The system requires people to sign up and provide personal data before they can purchase match tickets, amid doubts about how this information might be used.

In addition, the contract to run the system was awarded to the Aktif Bank owned by Calik Holding, a commercial bank run until recently by the son-in-law of Turkish president Recep Erdogan, the target of the Taksim Square protests in 2013, in which football fans played a leading role.

Marat Ulker has a reputation for conservatism but he too blames the Passolig for damaging football.

“We shouldn’t curtail the joy of football enthusiasts,” he said. “The Passolig system could be more flexible. Nobody wants their personal information to be tracked, even by the state; it is disturbing.”

The government argues the system is a way of preventing the sort of violence seen at the Besiktas-Galatasaray game, a month after the Taksim Square movement, when a section of the home support invaded the pitch and pelted the police with chairs, forcing the match to be suspended.

When the two sides met again two weeks ago, there was no trouble but the crowd was just 28,000 compared to the record 76,000 that packed the Ataturk Stadium in September 2013.

Fans are voting with their feet.

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