David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
Turkish football is no stranger to empty stadia, with the football authorities regularly ordering matches to be played behind closed doors as punishment for the misbehaviour of fans and players alike. But the April 20 derby match between fierce Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce and Besiktas was different.
With Fenerbahce needing only two points to clinch the Turkish super league, Istanbul's 80,000-seat Olympic stadium should have been crammed. Instead, a row over the introduction of a new compulsory e-ticketing system saw most fans boycott the game in protest, with only 8,178 shelling out for the new cards and joining 10,812 existing season ticket holders.
At issue is the newly introduced Passolig card, which as of April 14 became the sole means by which members of the public can attend football matches in Turkey's top two leagues.
Fans are obliged to pay for a pre-paid card, debit card or credit card from Turkey's Aktif Bank, onto which they can "upload" tickets. For this service the bank charges a fee. Fans can also use the card for other banking activities, as well as use it as a photo ID that's now necessary to enter any football stadium.
Critics have condemned the new system on numerous grounds. They argue that fans are being charged a fee for buying tickets through a bank whose owners have close ties to the government and to which they have to supply all their personal data.
This is a move, they argue, that has sinister overtones given the recent passing of a law criminalising the shouting of political slogans in sports stadia in the wake of ongoing anti-government protests in which football fans have been noticeably prominent.
"There is no gain for either the supporters or the clubs," argues Bagis Erten, a football columnist on Turkish daily Radikal, suggesting that criticism from the clubs – several of which are quoted on the Istanbul BIST stock exchange – has been muted because of fears of souring relations with the government.
According to Kemal Hacioglu of the Turkish Football Federation, the new card is meant simply to combat hooliganism – admittedly a perennial problem in Turkish football – and stems from a law passed in 2011 obliging the Federation to introduce an e-ticket system. "Obviously it will take time to be accepted for next season, [but] we don't expect any problems either in uptake or implementation," he says, reporting that 40,000 cards have already been sold and another 70,000 applications are being processed.
But Erten believes the uptake will be slower than predicted and that fan groups might challenge the new system in the courts. "When you see that Fenerbahce and Galatasaray average crowds of more than 30,000 a game, 70,000 applications is pathetic."
Erten also asks the very pertinent question: "How can you have a system like this operated by a single bank?"
Indeed, it is the role of Aktif bank, a small investment bank with only eight branches, that is the centre of the controversy.
As a subsidiary of Turkey's Calik Holding, whose CEO was until December the son-in-law of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Aktif gained sole rights for the new system when another Calik company won the tender held by of the Turkish Football Federation for the development of an e-ticketing system.
"Aktif is a corporate investment bank, not a retail bank, and has no experience in credit cards, so it's difficult to see how this fits with their business model," says an Istanbul banking analyst who asked not to be named.
Opposition politicians have gone further, alleging that Calik has been "gifted" a monopoly on ticket sales – a potentially useful source of revenue for a group with a large short-term debt portfolio and which failed to conclude a $300m bond offering in late 2012.
Hacioglu of the Turkish Football Federation points out that the contract was awarded following an open tender in which Calik's consortium gave the best bid. "The main banks didn't enter the tender, they told us they didn't see it as being sufficiently profitable," he says."We awarded the contract to the company offering the best sponsorship package – could we have done otherwise?"
Hacioglu points out that having already paid $50m for the card infrastructure, Aktif's outlay will total around $200m over the next decade.
Hacioglu also defends the fact that Aktif will collect comprehensive personal data on all cardholders including their ID card number, name address, phone number and photograph, pointing out that it is a normal requirement for any card issuer and also a requirement of the law to combat hooliganism.
Whether that will be sufficient to stamp out the violence that is all too often associated with Turkish football though is moot.
Sadly, the Besiktas vs Fenerbahce derby game proved to be controversial for more than one reason, with Besiktas midfielder Gokhan Tore one of five people injured after a shooting incident in an Istanbul nightclub following the game.
Proof, if any were needed, that violence and lawlessness in Turkey is far from restricted to football stadia.
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