The Turkish match fixing scandal reaches a further critical stage this week as the football federation and the government wait on events in court as they hope to find a way out of a morass largely of their own creation.
In July last year – and only after local elections had been safely undertaken – police raided homes and football club premises. They made 61 arrests in connection with 19 matches in the top two divisions.
The 61 included officials from champions Fenerbahçe and Istanbul rivals Besiktas. Most of the suspects were later released. Those held in custody from that day to this include Fenerbahce’s 59-year-old president Aziz Yildirim.
The following month the TFF shut out Fenerbahce from the Champions League and entered their on and off-field rivals Trabzonspor instead after UEFA demanded urgent clarification just ahead of the competition draw in Monte Carlo.
Since then a constantly-evolving sequence of events has added to the complexity of a farrago which has become almost unintelligible to outsiders
Fenerbahce, having had a protest rejected by UEFA, appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and demanded €45million compensation for lack of revenues. Subsequently Fenerbahce rejected what amounted to a ‘plea-bargain’ parliamentary directive that match fixing should be punished ‘only’ by a points deduction and not by relegation.
In March UEFA came to Istanbul for its annual congress. Michel Platini, the European federation’s president, took the opportunity for a private meeting with Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Intriguingly, Erdogan hosted the meeting not in his governmental offices but at his AK political party headquarters.
During the meeting Platini was reported to have suggested to Erdogan that the Turkish domestic stand-off was an embarrassment for European football and did the image of the Turkish game no favours at an increasingly delicate time, politically.
Last week, suddenly, Fenerbahce withdrew its CAS appeal amid reports that the TFF would cough up most of the €45million. Simultaneously the TFF also took delivery of an internal report into the Fenerbahce case which effectively cleared the club of wrongdoing.
How this will play vis-à-vis the ongoing court case against Aziz Yildirim, a millionaire NATO defence contractor who has been Fenerbahce’s president since 1998, is open to question.
At least today/Monday, and on Thursday and Friday, public hearings in the court process will lay bare the strength or weakness of a prosecution case based heavily on the often contradictory evidence garnered from thousands of pages of transcripts of wire taps.
Supporters of Fenerbahce, a record 18-times champions and self-proclaimed ‘only independent sports club in the country’ claim the case was manipulated by political and commercial rivals of both Yildirim and the club itself.
Prosecutors insist that the Fenerbahce case arose as a consequence of investigations prompted by the Bochum football corruption trial in Germany which revealed the extent of a network of corruption on behalf of eastern European and south-east Asian gambling syndicates.
However the Fenerbahce and allied cases are all about match fixing in pursuit of competitive results, not betting coups.
The court action focuses on some 26 cases the top two Turkish divisions (as well as others in basketball). Fenerbahce links are alleged in 15 of the 19 top division cases of which five concern the grey area issue of so-called ‘third party bonuses.’
It might be considered unfortunate timing for Turkish sports officials and politicians that all these events have erupted just as Olympic president Jacques Rogge and – belatedly – football leaders such as FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA’s Platini have emerged suddenly as volubly active converts to the need to combat sports corruption worldwide.
Hence the manner in which the Turks deal with the Fenerbahce case will be viewed far beyond the country which bridges Europe and Asia through a prism of international sport self-righteousness.
A failure to take drastic punitive action, whether justified by the evidence or not, would risk portraying Turkey simplistically as seriously off-message . . . but tough action would inevitably prompt court and diciplinary appeals dragging on for many, many months. That could be equally self-defeating.
International credibility is at stake.
On one hand Turkey is the only credible candidate bidding to host football’s 2020 European Championship; on the other hand, Istanbul – with enthusiastic government support – is a serious contender to land the 2020 Olympic Games.
Both bids risk being damaged by the fall-out, either way, from the case against Fenerbahce (which has been, coincidentally, the largest provider of Olympic talent for Turkey at the Games down the years). At least this week’s court hearings should contribute a significant further piece of the jigsaw.
Truth to tell, far more is at stake here than ‘mere’ sport.
As for the increasing internal tension between the bids, that is a tale for another day . . .