By James M. Dorsey
Turkey, eager to polish its image tarnished by a politicized match-fixing scandal, a massive corruption scandal, hard-handed police tactics against anti-government demonstrators and a bruising domestic power struggle, has emerged as a favourite to host the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final.
"We think we will be awarded the two semi-finals and finals and we deserve it after bidding for the last three tournaments. It's high time we were successful and UEFA president Michel Platini has given that hint to us," Turkish Football Federation (TFF) vice-president Servet Yardimci told Inside World Football.
Brutal police tactics last June against anti-government demonstrators on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square protesting against plans to replace the square’s historic Gezi Park with a shopping mall cost Turkey the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games that were awarded to Tokyo instead. Militant soccer fans played a key role in the protests, the largest in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s more than a decade in power.
Turkey’s soccer image had already been tarnished by the time the protests erupted by a massive match-fixing scandal that escalated into a struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled 73-year old imam, for the favour of fans in a soccer-crazy country and control of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce SK, the crown jewel in Turkish soccer with the country’s largest fan base.
Turkey’s image was further sullied by a massive corruption scandal in December to which Mr. Erdogan responded by moving thousands of suspected followers of Mr. Gulen in the police and the judiciary to other jobs in a bid to control the graft enquiry. Mr. Erdogan’s further moves to control the Internet where leaks of potentially damaging evidence of corruption appeared regularly and make the judiciary subservient to the government have partially been reversed by the courts.
To top it all off, an article by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books earlier this month asserted that last August’s chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that brought the United States within inches of military intervention in Syria was the work of Syrian rebels aided by Turkey in a bid to force the US to take military action.
Long a proponent of US military action, Turkey had hoped that US intervention would salvage its failed Syria policy that together with the toppling of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has cost it loss of influence and prestige across the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Hersh argued that Turkish–US relations have been strained as a result of the last minute US doubts about Syrian government responsibility, reinforced by Syria’s agreement to surrender its chemical weapons.
Winning the hosting of the EURO 2020 semi-finals and finals would project Turkey in a very different light and distract from the widely criticised authoritarian turn Mr. Erdogan has taken in recent years. It would also reinforce a resounding victory for Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in last month’s municipal elections that has left his opponents licking their wounds.
The hosting would further boost Turkey in its unspoken rivalry with Qatar for regional influence. Both nations employ sports alongside a global airline and the arts as tools of their projection in a friendly competition in which Turkey unlike Qatar brings to bear a sizeable country with one of the world’s 20 largest economies, a history of empire and historic ties to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia.
While the electoral victory likely strengthens Turkey’s hand against its competitors for the EURO 2020, soccer fans who regularly stage protests in stadia and denounce Mr. Erdogan as a thief because of his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal could cast a shadow over the Turkish bid. So could the fact that last year’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup attracted disappointing spectator numbers.
Similarly, Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation against legendary former soccer player Hakan Sukur, a supporter of Mr. Gulen, is unlikely to help the Turkish bid. Municipal officials this month removed Mr. Sukur’s nameplate from Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium and the prime minister demanded that he resign his seat as a member of parliament.
Mr. Sukur was recruited by Mr. Erdogan and elected on the AKP ticket in 2011 but resigned in December from the party in protest against the prime minister’s efforts to close down prep schools operated by Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, remains an independent member of parliament.
Similarly, alleged political interference in soccer could damage the Turkish bid. Critics of Mr. Erdogan charge that the AKP last September engineered the storming of the pitch by rival fans during a derby between Istanbul rivals Besiktas and Galatasary in an effort to further curtail Carsi, the militant and widely popular Besiktas support group that played a key role in last year’s anti-government protests. They point to the fact security was lax at the match and that a youth leader of the AKP boasted on Facebook how he had obtained a free ticket to the derby and was one of the first to invade the pitch.
Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu moreover documented links between the AKP and 1453 Kartallari (1453 Eagles), a rival conservative Besiktas support group named in commemoration of the year that Ottoman Sultan Fatih the Conqueror drove the Byzantines out of Constantinople,. 1453 members reportedly shouted ‘God is Great’ and attacked Carsi supporters during the pitch invasion.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.