BOSPORUS BLOG: Games and crime in Turkey

By bne IntelliNews March 23, 2012

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 22 said Turkey is aiming to host the European football championships for the first time in 2020, even though it's already bidding for the Olympics that summer and grappling with a nasty match-fixing scandal that shook the very top of the government.

Addressing the annual meeting of Europe's football governing body Uefa, held this year in Istanbul, Erdogan told the assembled representatives from Europe's 53 footballing nations: "I would like to repeat the request to host the European Championship in Istanbul in 2020."

The bid was immediately questioned. Istanbul is also a candidate for the 2020 Olympics. It seems impossible that the city could host both events in the same year, not to mention the same month. "I heard what the prime minister said and we will see what countries present bids. Turkey had a strong bid in 2016 and I think they will be even stronger in 2020," said Uefa President Michel Platini, according to Reuters. "Now, the only small issue I have in respect to this is that in 2020 Istanbul is also a candidate for the Olympics, so if they have the Olympics and the Euros, it's maybe a bit of a handful."

Platini said that if Turkey did not win the bid to host the Olympics, the possibility of hosting the European Championship would be strengthened. The official bidding process for the tournament begins at the end of March.

That Istanbul reckons it's capable of hosting two of the world's biggest sporting events so close to each other is an example of the city's grandiose ambitions getting ahead of itself again. Of course, himself a former footballer, Erdogan's enthusiasm can be understood. However, the prime minister has more pressing sporting matters than just the games.


In July 2011, Aziz Yildirim, chairman of popular Istanbul-based football team Fenerbahce, was arrested along with 92 other officials, coaches and players on suspicion of match fixing. Following the arrests, Fenerbahce was banned from competing this season in the European cup competition, the Champions League. With scandals hitting a number of clubs in Europe last year, football officials have called on governments to crack down on match fixing and other illicit activities.

The message was to clean house. However, in December, members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) disagreed over the length of prison sentences for those found guilty of match fixing. Erdogan and his close supporters favoured amending legislation to shorten the length of prison sentences. Turkish President Abdullah Gul broke ranks to veto the legislation with the support of his constituents within the party. Erdogan was recovering from surgery at the time, but roused himself to push the legislation through parliament and admonish the party he has dominated for the past decade.

At the Uefa meeting, Erdogan justified his actions, saying that individuals as supposed to entire clubs should be punished, a reference to Fenerbahce being banned from the Champions League match due to the match fixing. The "crimes are personal," he argues.

Critics, however, say the government and Turkish football have not done enough to punish those involved in match fixing and that connections to organised crime have not been adequately investigated. Fenerbahce fans believe the case is motivated by political and business interests, and is aimed at dethroning Yildirim, the head of one of Turkey's most profitable football clubs. Some take the allegation further, arguing that businessmen close to Gul and his confidants are lobbying for a harsher punishment for Yildirim and his club so they can advance their interests within the sports entertainment industry.

Yildirim appeared in court in mid-February, claiming that the case was not really about match fixing. "I am not charged with match fixing, I am charged with getting economic income in an unfair way," he told reporters. "This case is not about match fixing. If it was, they would investigate other people, too."

Turkey needs soon to decide whether individuals or entire clubs will be sanctioned, Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino told reporters at the meeting on March 22. "The faster a decision is taken, the better - not only for Uefa but for Turkey," he said.

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