Captain Erdogan Can’t Help the Turkish Soccer Team

With so much political, social, and financial capital invested in its national squad, why can’t Turkey qualify for a World Cup?

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays soccer during an exhibition match at the Basaksehir stadium on July 26, 2014, in Istanbul. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays soccer during an exhibition match at the Basaksehir stadium on July 26, 2014, in Istanbul. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images) (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a famous panel from a Turkish comic that lampoons the typical plight of the country’s national soccer team. “So what happened? Is it impossible for Turkey to qualify now?” one character asks. “No, if Turkey draws this game against Poland, and France beats Bosnia while Hungary loses to Holland at home, and if Tajikistan smiles at Germany while they fart … then we will be through to the next round,” replies another.

Turkey couldn’t conjure such a feat for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, its hopes of qualification extinguished in a 3-0 capitulation at home to Iceland last October. There was something poignant about one of the largest nations in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Europe’s soccer federation, being humbled by a country with a population roughly the same size as that of the Istanbul suburb of Basaksehir.

Turkey should be one of Europe’s strongest soccer nations. It has a youthful, soccer-mad population of around 80 million people. And, since it came to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has lavished Turkish soccer with unprecedented attention and money: helping to hugely inflate revenues, embarking on at least 30 new stadium construction projects across 27 cities, building a swanky training complex for the national team, and repeatedly bidding to host international tournaments. The AKP is led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself an ex-semiprofessional soccer player who uses the sport as a way to burnish his populist credentials. Under Erdogan, the game has become an ever more important nexus of political and economic power.

Yet Turkey has never qualified for a World Cup under the AKP. It last qualified in 2002, advanced to the semifinals, and finished in an impressive third place. Ever since, the Turkish national team has largely struggled. The domestic league has not fared much better, in spite of having UEFA’s seventh-largest revenues and with clubs signing major (if aging) stars. The vast majority of Turkish fans support one of the big three Istanbul-based teams: Besiktas, Fenerbahce (which can count Erdogan as a fan), or Galatasaray — all bitter rivals. Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup (now UEFA Europa League) in 2000, but since then no Turkish side has reached a major European club final. Turkey has stayed fairly stable in UEFA’s country ranking for club football over the past 15 years, usually ranked 10th or 11th.

Turkey has long been a soccer underachiever — before 2002, Turkey had only previously appeared in the World Cup in 1954 — and over time UEFA has become more competitive. But still, with Turkey’s economic growth and development under the AKP and with so much political, social, and financial capital invested in the sport, it is surprising that the national team has not been more successful. It is poor value for money.

Part of the problem is that the money is not being invested where it should be. “There is a close web of relations between politics, business, and soccer in Turkey,” said Ozgehan Senyuva, a researcher on Turkish and European soccer at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “It affects meritocracy, and this in turn leads to bad governance.”

The Turkish Football Federation’s president, Yildirim Demiroren — a businessman closely aligned with the AKP and unpopular with many fans — assumed his role with the backing of the government, despite an abysmal track record as president of Besiktas, when the club almost collapsed under its debt. Demiroren has used his platform to make political statements in support of the government, and his family’s holding company was recently given a low interest loan by a state bank to buy out one of Turkey’s major media outlets. It creates a grubby aura of politicization and favoritism.

Meanwhile, there is little in the way of long-term strategic planning or a coherent sports policy to nurture talent. (The federation did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) Beyond the armada of shiny, prestigious new soccer stadiums — whose capacities tend to vastly exceed their attendances — there is relatively little investment and planning in youth academies or the grassroots game. “Underneath the soccer populism, there is nothing,” said Mustafa Hos, a Turkish journalist.

When Turkey came up against Iceland, it was playing against a small country but one with a sophisticated player development system, a vast per capita army of coaches, and a network of pitches. In Turkey, however, you rarely see anyone even playing the sport. Green or open spaces — never mind proper soccer fields — are shockingly scarce in major cities. Turkey has one of the lowest numbers of professional and semiprofessional athletes in Europe, although the numbers are increasing.

When Turkey reached the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup, it had a strong core of Galatasaray players — including Hakan Sukur, Hasan Sas, and Bulent Korkmaz — who had won the UEFA Cup two years previously, and when the national team got to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championship, the team featured Fenerbahce players such as Semih Senturk, who had reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League that season.

Today, the big three Istanbul teams have few Turkish stars. While the Turkish Super League has become increasingly entertaining and competitive in recent years, it has on average the oldest players and — now that a quota has been lifted — likely the most foreign players out of Europe’s major leagues. Many of Turkey’s national team players come from the Turkish diaspora, born and raised in Western Europe. The vast majority of clubs are member-based associations that elect club presidents who — with regular elections on their minds — tend to focus on buying expensive aging, foreign stars, such as the Dutch legend Robin Van Persie, at the expense of longer-term youth development.

Poor governance is compounded by out-of-control spending, financial strife, and short-termism at the club level. Turkey is the only European country where club debts and liabilities are bigger than club assets; unlike private companies, presidents at member-based associations are not personally liable for the club’s debts, and they are tempted to gain short-term success and popularity by borrowing money or using boosted revenues on splashy transfers, safe in the knowledge they can saddle their successors with any debts. The government has yet to bring in a long-pledged “law of clubs” to make this structure more financially accountable and responsible.

On top of all that, Turkish soccer has often been riven with conflict between — and within — major clubs. While Carsi, the leading Besiktas fan group, became renowned for its irreverent chants, largely left-leaning politics, and its prominent role in the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013, some of its main members are bitterly divided by personal squabbles, politics, and business interests. At Fenerbahce, fan groups with differing political and social backgrounds have feuded with each other and the club’s management in recent years. As in Turkish politics, some soccer club presidents, members, and prominent fans have often seen the sport as a zero-sum game, and their behavior has been accordingly bellicose and prone to conspiracy theorizing about rivals and referees.

A history of alleged match fixing and political interference adds to a sense that soccer is fundamentally unfair and subject to vested interests and feeds into division at the national level, as controversial players, coaches, and federation officials who are associated with one particular club often generate hostility from its rivals. Fenerbahce’s goalkeeper, Volkan Demirel, refused to play for the national team after being abused by some — presumably Galatasaray — supporters before a match in 2014.

The national squad has also been marred in recent years by a series of morale-sapping off-field scandals, including a bonus dispute that erupted in the squad during Euro 2016. The provocative coach Fatih Terim perhaps epitomized Turkish soccer’s infighting by parting ways with the national team in the summer of 2017 after driving 200 miles to have a brawl with a Turkish Football Federation official at his kebab restaurant.

On the pitch, the team has often adopted an unattractive style of play that often prizes a battling, scrappy spirit over flair or technique. The national team has not played at one of the major Istanbul stadiums for a long time, perhaps because government officials fear being jeered there. (Erdogan was famously booed by fans at the opening of Galatasaray’s new stadium in 2011, and many supporters of the big three teams were subsequently involved in the Gezi protests.) Instead, it now plays both qualifying and friendly matches in provincial cities or far-flung Istanbul neighborhoods, often in conservative pro-government strongholds. Unsavory incidents during national team games, where minutes of silence commemorating the victims of terrorist attacks have been booed by the Turkish fans in attendance, have added to the toxicity surrounding the national team. In this fractious, divided atmosphere, much of soccer-mad Turkey has seemingly fallen out of love with Ay-Yildizlilar (“The Crescent-Stars”). “The national team is not as national as it used to be,” said Senyuva, the researcher.

It would be unfair to draw a direct correlation between the government and the success of its national soccer team, and the idea that soccer mirrors society is a little overblown. Yet, in a country where soccer is so bound up in politics and identity, the energies and tensions shaping Turkey are frequently manifested in the sport.

To some extent, the state of Turkish soccer reflects the turbulent state of Turkey, which in recent years has experienced a faltering economy, terrorism, the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process, a failed military coup, increasing polarization, allegations of cronyism and corruption, controversial construction projects, and growing authoritarianism. Many leading figures in Turkish soccer and politics feed on polarization and division, the conditions of their power often based on antagonism — not least the recently re-elected Erdogan.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. While the current national team coach, the Romanian Mircea Lucescu, has been criticized for some baffling selections and for overseeing the Iceland debacle, he generally has a fine record and is highly unlikely to engage in any kebab shop fisticuffs. In recent games, he has been fielding a fresh generation of talented players while ushering out some of the more controversial veterans from the national squad.

It is no coincidence that many of Turkey’s best emerging players — such as Cengiz Under, Caglar Soyuncu, and Berke Ozer — were nurtured at Altinordu, a small team in the western city of Izmir; it is one of the few Turkish clubs with a serious, long-term program to scout and develop Turkish talent. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play system may be slowly taming some of the wilder spending impulses of the bigger Turkish teams and encouraging youth development.

Recently elected presidents of the big teams also appear saner and more conciliatory than some of their predecessors. Many hope that the election of the seemingly dignified and thoughtful business tycoon Ali Koc as Fenerbahce president this month will reduce the rancor and mend some of the rifts in Turkish soccer. His predecessor, Aziz Yildirim, was a master fighter and provocateur.

Despite Turkish soccer’s problems, many aspects make it beautiful and unique: carnivalesque drama, red-raw passion, awe-inspiring spectacles, and some great players and exciting talents.

Erdogan’s nickname as a soccer player in the 1970s was Imam Beckenbauer — a reference both to his religious devotion and his skills on the field, which reminded some of the German legend Franz Beckenbauer. But Erdogan does not see politics as a team sport. When he was re-elected last weekend, he inherited a new presidential system with sweeping powers, effectively rubber-stamping and entrenching his one-man rule.

A brewing economic crisis could have a huge impact on Turkey and Turkish soccer, and Erdogan will likely continue to polarize and destabilize the country and undermine its standing in terms of human rights and the rule of law, with implications for its soccer ambitions. While Turkish fans would dearly love to see their national team qualify for the World Cup in 2022, the current trend suggests it’s much likelier that Turkey will miss out yet again on world soccer’s grandest stage.

Patrick Keddie is a journalist based in Istanbul and the author of The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey. Twitter: @PatrickKeddie

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