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Pitch invasions, attacks on officials and a Saudi farce: Welcome to Turkey’s season of chaos


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It was just after full-time in Trabzon when the man wearing a nightmarish clown mask ran onto the pitch and started squaring up to players.

Fenerbahce had just beaten Trabzonspor 3-2 in a tense game, the winner scored late on by Michy Batshuayi, whose night was very much not over. It had already been halted in the second half because of the sheer volume of missiles being thrown from the stands. Bottles, coins, cups of beer, lighters and flares, among other things, rained down on players in such volume that the pitch looked like a clip illustrating extreme weather conditions.

One of those missiles hit Fenerbahce goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic on the jaw, drawing blood. Dusan Tadic and Edin Dzeko also appeared to be struck. Fenerbahce midfielder Ismail Yuksek picked up one of the flares and looked around for somewhere to dispose of it, like a reluctant dog walker unsure of where to put a poo bag.

Fenerbahce players protect themselves as objects rain down from the stands (Hasan Tascan/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Tensions were already high and, after Bayshuayi’s late winner, it all got a bit much for some of the home fans.

That first pitch invader perhaps expected the Fenerbahce players to cower or run away. He did not appear to anticipate Bright Osayi-Samuel, the Nigeria international, raising his fists, then, after the intruder had been tackled to the ground by a security guard, starting to punch. Dutch left-back Jayden Oosterwolde got involved, aiming a kick at the invader’s head or shoulder.

The rest was chaos.

More fans broke through the seemingly flimsy line of stewards and started swarming around the players. Batshuayi aimed a roundhouse kick at one but missed. That intruder ran on and punched the luckless Livakovic in the head. Chaos reigned as the players desperately tried to reach the tunnel and escape the increasingly feral interlopers.

Eren Elmali, the beefy Trabzonspor defender, took it upon himself to act as a sort of human shield, switching between pleading with the pitch invaders to stop and ushering the Fenerbahce players to safety.

Osayi-Samuel during the ugly post-match scenes (Hakan Burak Altunoz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Ultimately, everyone got out more or less unscathed. The Fenerbahce players stayed in the stadium for a few hours before eventually leaving for their flight back to Istanbul. They were greeted at Sabiha Gokcen Airport, to the east of the city, by crowds of fans when they landed in the early hours of Monday morning. At the time of writing, 12 arrests had been made but it is currently unclear what additional action, if any, will be taken.

The story did not stop there. On Tuesday, Ali Koc, the Fenerbahce president, resigned his chairmanship of the Turkish clubs’ association and threatened to remove the club from the Super Lig in protest, not just against the weekend’s events but a variety of other perceived wrongs. A club source, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, told The Athletic this was not merely an idle threat: the motion to withdraw from the league will be put to the club’s general assembly on April 2.

This incident and its aftermath would be shocking enough, but this was just the latest scandal in what has been a wild season in Turkey. It’s a campaign that has seen:

  • The Super Cup postponed hours before it was supposed to be taking place, in Riyadh, over a row concerning T-shirts depicting Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic
  • A referee punched in the head by a rogue club president
  • A game forfeited by a team in protest over a refereeing decision

All that has provided an unsettling backdrop to one of the most extraordinary title races not just in Super Lig history, but anywhere. It’s rarely quiet in Turkish football, but this season has been ear-splitting.

That title race would normally be the story.

The identities of the top two are no surprise: Galatasaray and Fenerbahce have won 42 Super Lig titles between them since the division was established in the 1950s. But the sheer scale of their dominance is extraordinary.

With eight games remaining, each side has only lost once. Fenerbahce have drawn four and Galatasaray just three, giving Gala, the defending champions, a slim two-point lead. They are 32 and 30 points clear of third place, mathematically unassailable leads already. The figure in Fenerbahce’s goal difference column — 54 — is greater than the figure in the goals scored column for every single other club below them.

The current record points total in Super Lig history is 93. Galatasaray are on 81, Fenerbahce have 79. With eight games remaining, it’s possible for them both to achieve over 100. For a point of comparison, in 2018-19 when Manchester City and Liverpool showed similar levels of barely human consistency, after 30 games they were ‘only’ on 74 and 73 points, with third place on 61.

Galatasaray and Fenerbahce are blazing a trial at the top of the Turkish Super Lig (Ahmad Mora/Getty Images)

All of which is building to a derby for the ages: unless Fenerbahce make good on their threats to leave the league, they will face each other at Galatasaray’s Rams Park on the penultimate weekend of the season in mid-May, in what could be a title decider if they continue their current absurd pace.

It’s not a rivalry that requires extra spice, but this race has dumped a bucket load of Carolina Reaper peppers all over it.

But that won’t be the only time they face each other in the remaining weeks of the season — in theory, at least. The two were supposed to take part in the Turkish Super Cup at the end of December after the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had, without consulting anyone involved, arranged for the game to be played in Riyadh.

Ostensibly in an effort to market Turkish football internationally, they had previously approached Berlin to host the game, only for the German city understandably not to fancy the idea of thousands of fans who hate each other decamping there around New Year.

Saudi Arabia was the next choice.

The idea was particularly ill-conceived given that 2023 was the centenary of the Turkish state, something that was symbolically extremely significant — especially for Fenerbahce, who have long tied themselves to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder and first president. As such, both sides wanted to wear T-shirts commemorating Ataturk, as well as to hold a banner that reads “Peace at home, peace in the world”.

A supporter holds a Turkish flag and a portrait of Ataturk (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Yet that was deemed unacceptable by their hosts, so the teams refused to play. If nothing else, it was impressive that the TFF and the Saudi authorities had conspired to find something that both Galatasaray and Fenerbahce agreed upon.

The game was theoretically rescheduled for April 7 in the neutral (but, crucially this time) Turkish territory of Sanliurfa in the south of the country, but it is still unclear whether it will actually take place then.

Fenerbahce are still in the Europa Conference League, where they play Olympiacos in the quarter-finals, and as such have asked for the game to be moved to May. This raises the enticing possibility of the two sides playing each other twice in the space of a few days.

If that was a mess, what happened a few weeks earlier had been the nadir.

In December, at full time in his team’s 1-1 draw with Rizespor, Ankaragucu president Faruk Koca strode onto the pitch and punched referee Halil Umut Meler in the head. Meler came away with a small fracture to his eye socket and spent the night in hospital before being released the next day.

Initially, Koca was unrepentant. “This incident occurred due to the referee’s wrong decisions and provocative behaviour,” he said immediately after the game. “My intention was to verbally react to the referee and spit in his face. At that moment, I slapped the referee’s face. The slap I threw did not cause a fracture.”

Meler falls to the ground having been struck by Koca (Emin Sansar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Eventually, despite the backing of some Ankaragucu fans, Koca stepped down. He later said he regretted his actions and was banned for life by the TFF. The club was fined around two million Turkish lira (£48,000; $61,700) and made to play five games behind closed doors.

The league was technically suspended for a few days and the referees’ union insisted they would not take charge of any more games until something was done, but the next round of fixtures continued without anything seeming to have changed, at least in terms of new-found respect for referees — a point emphasised by a game that weekend when Istanbulspor players were instructed to leave the pitch by their president, Ecmel Faik Sarialioglu, in protest at the non-award of a penalty.

His own players appeared to beg Sarialioglu to change his mind, but it would not be changed. The score was 2-1 at the time and the TFF eventually not only awarded the game to Trabzonspor as a 3-0 forfeit but docked Istanbulspor three points as well. That probably isn’t going to make much difference to how their season ends: they’re rock bottom of the table on 13 points. Had they not been punished, they would be a mere 17 points from safety rather than 20.

Still, Sarialioglu showed his softer side a few weeks later. Meler’s first game back happened to be in Istanbulspor’s game against Konyaspor, before which Sarialioglu presented him with a bunch of flowers.

It’s been an eventful season for Turkish football generally, but Meler specifically: remarkably, he happened to be the referee in charge last week for the Trabzonspor vs Fenerbahce game.

Those clubs are not one of Turkish football’s traditional rivalries, but the fixture has grown in intensity over the past decade or so, stemming from the Turkish match-fixing scandal of 2011. Fenerbahce won the title that year with Trabzonspor finishing second on goal difference but, just before the start of the following season, with corruption allegations surrounding them and a few other clubs, the Istanbul giants were withdrawn from European competition by the TFF. Trabzonspor were sent in their place.

Trabzonspor’s supporters ahead of their game against Fenerbahce (Serkan Hacioglu/dia images via Getty Images)

Eventually, although several individuals were given prison sentences (the club’s former president, Aziz Yildirim, was jailed for six years but, in 2020, his conviction was quashed), all clubs were cleared of the charges and the league positions stood, but both Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor made claims and counter-claims against each other, leading to plenty of bad blood.

In the intervening years, their encounters have frequently carried a vicious air, but the most shocking incident came away from actual games.

In 2015, when the Fenerbahce team was driving to Trabzon airport after playing a game against nearby Rizespor, someone fired a bullet at their coach, almost sending it off a cliff. Miraculously, nobody was hurt. Nobody was ever convicted.

By comparison, the events of last weekend look relatively tame, but it was still a pretty frightening scene.

As just one example, there was an extraordinary moment when one of the pitch invaders chased Fenerbache players Mert Muldur and Serdar Dursun while holding a corner flag as if it was a medieval lance. Muldur’s girlfriend, Koprena Andjela, later posted on Instagram that her “heart stopped for a minute” when she saw it.

Fenerbahce players run from the pitch as home fans spill onto the playing surface (Huseyin Yavuz/dia images via Getty Images)

The incident was, as most things seem to be in Turkish football, blamed on the officials.

Trabzonspor claimed they should have been awarded a foul in the build-up to Batshuayi’s winner. It was then implied that Fenerbahce celebrated with too much enthusiasm at the final whistle. “If you celebrate at the end of the match, you will provoke people,” said Trabzonspor’s Enis Bardhi afterwards. “These problems may arise.

“There was a clear foul before our opponent’s third goal. I don’t know why the referee didn’t call it, but there is a clear foul.”

It’s all part of the same toxic narrative that led to the assault on Meler in Ankara, the postponement of the Istanbulspor game and seemingly just about every club claiming that officials are against them, for one reason or another. The game between Besiktas and Galatasaray earlier in the month saw hundreds of missiles thrown from the stands onto the pitch.

Fenerbahce themselves aren’t innocent in all of this: only a week before, their player Mert Hakan Yandas appeared to threaten the referee during their game against Pendikspor at Fenerbahce’s Sukru Saracoglu stadium, telling the official to “be careful… you can’t get out of here” shortly after the half-time whistle was blown. He denied any wrongdoing and was not charged by the TFF, prompting Pendikspor to release a statement condemning his “immoral, unethical and unsportsmanlike actions”.

Perhaps least forgivable was a post on X from the Trabzonspor official account on Monday. They posted a compilation of a few mildly contentious decisions from the game, ending with a freeze-frame zoom of Meler accompanied by the caption “DON’T THINK WE HAVE FORGOTTEN YOU!”.

At the time of writing, it is unclear what sort of action will be taken by the TFF for the latest flare-up. Trabzonspor being forced to play games behind closed doors seems inevitable but also feels too lenient a punishment from an organisation which appears to have completely lost control of the league. The TFF were contacted for comment by The Athletic but, at the time of publication, had yet to respond.

Fenerbahce themselves might be lucky to escape censure of some description.

They will, with obvious justification, argue that their players were acting in self-defence, but Osayi-Samuel punching the pitch invader, Ooesterwolde kicking him in the head while he was on the floor and Batshuayi aiming (but missing) a roundhouse kick to the face of another might be considered beyond what can be reasonably expected as self-preservation.

Security officers attempt to impose some control (Hakan Burak Altunoz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Even if they are punished, the players’ response has gone down well with some of their fans: by Wednesday, a mural appeared on a wall in Istanbul celebrating Osayi-Samuel getting stuck in. He was mobbed by waiting fans when they returned home on Monday morning.

Gianni Infantino offered the standard response condemning the incidents, but the ramifications might go much further.

Fenerbahce president Ali Koc is a combative figure at the best of times and, on Monday, he gave an extraordinary address to the club’s official TV station in which he threatened to pull them out of the Super Lig.

“The treatment Fenerbahce receives is not something we can tolerate,” he said. “We will be relegated to a lower league if necessary! Everyone should come to their senses! We will die one day rather than die every day. Enough!”

It initially appeared that Koc’s words were just an angry president expressing his frustrations. The club seem to truly believe there is a broad anti-Fenerbahce sentiment in Turkey, stretching all the way back to 2006 when they lost the league title on the final day when their game in Denizlispor was disrupted in much the same way as Sunday’s match. This, in their view, does not just stop at the TFF, but Turkish authorities generally — taking in the match-fixing scandals, the coach shooting and this latest incident.

But the threat is more real than that.

Fenerbahce’s president, Ali Koc (Arife Karakum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

They will now take the decision to their members to vote on whether to go through with it. The smart money would be on this being high-level sabre-rattling. As much as anything, the idea that they would be handing the title to their greatest rivals (Fenerbahce haven’t won the Super Lig since 2014) may well be too much for the rank and file to bear and they will complete the season, their point having been made.

But, in some ways, the withdrawal of one of the title contenders would provide the most appropriate ending possible to a Turkish season that has rarely strayed from the extraordinary.

(Top photo: Hasan Tascan/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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