These are difficult times for football-crazy Turkey, where a match-fixing scandal is riling fans. Some observers suggest, however, the continuing investigation could mark an important victory for civil society.
"It is more important than any political story we are talking about. It's the only subject people on the street are talking about. This country is insane about football,” said Asli Aydintasbas, political columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet.
At the center of the scandal is Istanbul’s Fenerbahce, Turkey’s oldest and richest club. Fenerbahce officials like to style the club as football royalty, counting Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan among its fans, along with an estimated 20 million supporters.
The match-fixing investigation kicked off earlier this month with a dawn raid by police on the home of Fenerbahce Chairman Aziz Yildirim. Arrested on match-fixing charges, Yildirim is now in an Istanbul jail. Dozens more people connected with the club also have been detained.
At the heart of the investigation is last season’s closely fought championship, in which Fenerbahce defeated Istanbul-based Galatasaray, another of Turkey’s top football teams that has been implicated in the investigation. Police now suspect 19 games in all, involving five of Turkey's biggest clubs, were rigged.
On July 21, FIFA, the international football governing organization, announced that it had evidence that could connect Turkey’s match-fixing investigation to that involving other countries. Details have not been released.
Fenerbahce fans have reacted to the match-fixing allegations with rage. Most notably, on July 21, they forced the cancellation of a match between the club and the Ukrainian champion Shakhtar Donestsk by storming the field during the second half of the friendly. Earlier, hundreds of Fenerbahce supporters staged a protest in central Istanbul that blocked one of the city’s major highways, causing chaos for travelers. Clashes with police ensued.
"Fenerbahce doesn't need to win matches by fixing them. This is a conspiracy against our club by the authorities and the enemies of Fenerbahce," said an angry supporter.
"It's the 9/11 of Turkish football," commented Simge Fistikoglu, sports correspondent for the Turkish news channel Haberturk. "Those clubs involved are all very important and old clubs of Turkish football. So, it's really significant, and I believe it will be a huge thing. We all assumed that there was something wrong with Turkish football. This will be a new beginning for Turkish football."
Match-fixing allegations have followed the game for years. Veteran journalist Esat Yilmaer, now head of the Turkey's Sports Writers Association, said Turkey's major clubs, owned by powerful and wealthy businessmen, used to enjoy a reputation of being untouchable. But that all changed this April, when a law was passed that made match-fixing a serious criminal offense, punishable by five to 12 years in jail. The reform opened the door to an investigation by police looking into organized crime.
"The police found a lot of things by listening to conversations between club executives and players," said Yilmaer. "People are very shocked because everybody was thinking clubs like Fenerbahce are untouchable. Now they are under investigation and it's a real turning point. Now the police have said you must behave by the rules because we have a new law, everybody must be careful with this. I think this is the message of this operation."
The criminalization of match-fixing and the resulting crackdown are part of a wider effort, said Ufuk Batum, board member of the Turkish branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
"For years in Turkey, all sorts of wrong practices were not legislated against," Batum said. "But if you look at the last few years, there has been an attempt to clean up society, in relation [to the] military and civil society and the mafia, and this is part of same process."
Videos and songs about the scandal are now circulating online. "You're going to be relegated, Fenerbahce, for your crimes," goes the chorus of one popular ditty, with an accompanying video of the players dressed in prison uniforms. That could indeed be in the cards if, as expected, jail sentences are handed down for those found guilty of match-fixing.
Despite the fan protests, the investigation seems broadly welcomed. In a popular cafe in central Istanbul, it's not football that is being watched on the huge plasma TV screens, but, rather, the latest pictures of club officials being bundled into a police car or taken off to jail.
"I want quality in football like La Liga [in Spain], like the Premiere League [in Britain], but in Turkey this is hard because there are many dark business dealings here,” said a university student. “This is the reality in Turkey.”
But there is also some optimism to be found among football fans. A businessman watching the news commented; "It will be better for everybody because we will have clean football. If they go to the end of the investigation, everything will be clear and fair."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.