The not-so beautiful game

By bne IntelliNews July 13, 2011

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -

Having endured a bitterly fought general election on June 12, Turks could be forgiven for hoping that they were in for a quiet summer. But far from it - following investigations into alleged fraud by a gang of retired footballers on the Istanbul Stock Exchange (IMKB), now Turkish football itself is being rocked by allegations of match fixing by the country's top clubs.

Operations begun by Istanbul Police on July 2 have resulted in arrests of close on 100 people, with around 26 of the game's top names including players, technical staff, owners and administrators remanded in custody pending the pressing of charges, and more arrests being announced daily

Those detained pending charges include Aziz Yildirim, chairman of last season's Turkish super league champions Fenerbahce, together with two club board members; Serdar Adali, vice president of Istanbul's Besiktas club, Besiktas club coach and former national team regular Tayfur Havutcu; as well as the club presidents of Sivasspor and Eskisehirspor, and Sivasspor goalkeeper Korcan Celikay, who conceded a controversial goal in the last match of the season, which gave Fenerbahce the title.

Indeed, central to the main investigation is the allegation that Fenerbahce and other clubs in Turkey's top league may have "fixed" the outcome of matches in their favour. Certainly, the Istanbul club enjoyed a meteoric second half to last season, winning 16 of its last 17 games, rising from a distant third to pip second place Trabzonspor on goal difference alone. Fenerbahce's website proclaims that it was a "Well deserved title."

But reports in the Turkish media - not always the most reliable of sources - have claimed that police investigations are focusing on 19 matches that they think were "fixed", of which at least five involved the champions Fenerbahce.

Past form

Certainly grounds for suspicion exist. As recently as June 9, an internal investigation by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) concluded that between 2008 and 2010 no less than 17 top flight matches were rigged, and handed down life bans to 11 people, including former national team defender Fatih Akyel.

And given the depth of those suspicions, many would like to see the investigations taken further. "This is the first police investigation into match fixing and we hear they are looking at 19 games - so why has only one player been arrested?" asks Bagis Erten, a football columnist on Turkish daily paper Radikal. "We need transparency in the game and the only way for that is through more investigation."

Even so, Erten and others believe questions also need to be asked about the timing of the announcement of the investigation. "Why now?" he asks, pointing to claims that the investigation was started over six months ago.

If true, that would raise the suspicion that the start of the arrests may have been postponed until after Turkey's general election on June 12. But while any such decision could be justified on grounds of the possible chaos it might have caused during the election, it has left the TFF with two seemingly insurmountable problems: namely, which clubs to put forward as Turkey's representatives in next season's European competitions by the European governing body Uefa's deadline of July 15, and whether to allow clubs suspected of match fixing to continue to participate in Turkey's own leagues, ahead of any judgement issued by courts investigating any charges brought.

With any club found guilty of match fixing likely to face automatic relegation and a cash fine, together with life bans for those responsible, the TFF needs to be sure of its ground before acting. "Any court case could take months to hear evidence and reach a decision," cautions Ertan, suggesting that either Uefa or the TFF or both need to decide now on a course of action or face possible chaos half way through the season.

Playing the market

With no clear indication of what will happen, chaos already reigns among Turkey's top clubs, with most calling a halt on player transfer moves pending a TFF decision.

Uncertainty has also clouded dealings in the shares of the four clubs with stock exchange listings including Fenerbahce and Besiktas, with limits imposed on trading and some reports claiming the occurrence of unusual transactions by foreign buyers immediately prior to the first arrests. "There was some dealing of Fenerbahce shares, but neither the volumes nor the timing appear unusual," says an Istanbul broker on condition of anonymity.

"Purchases from overseas brokers are more likely to be for Turkish clients wanting to keep a low profile," he says, explaining that with US group AIG still locked in legal proceedings with Galatasaray over its exclusion from the club board in 2002 despite holding 21% of club stock, overseas interest in Turkish football clubs is not high.

But amid all the swirling accusations and suspicions, and despite decades of close association between football and politics, the Turkish government of Tayyip Erdogan appears for once to be safely above the fray.

Such a position is a welcome surpise given Erdogan's most recent brush with top level football was being booed by supporters of Istanbul club Galatasaray, one of few top clubs not to have featured in the match fixing probe so far, at the inauguration of the club's new stadium earlier this year, the construction of which Erdogan's government helped fund. The more so given that Erdogan himself is a lifelong Fenerbahce supporter and kicked off his working life with a spell as a defender at Istanbul's Kasimpasaspor, who were this season relegated from Turkey's top league having won only five their 34 matches.

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