HomeNFLWhy Fenerbahce voted on whether to leave the Turkish Super Lig

Why Fenerbahce voted on whether to leave the Turkish Super Lig


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Thousands of Fenerbahce fans arrived at their Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, on the Asian side of Istanbul, on Tuesday afternoon and took their seats in the stands.

Music pumped out of the speakers. The crowd sang. Banners were displayed.

None of this is unusual, except for the fact that they weren’t there for a game. Instead, the assembled fans were in attendance for something more remarkable than a standard fixture. This was an extraordinary general assembly of the club’s members who had gathered to hold a vote, the outcome of which could have resulted in them withdrawing from the Turkish Super Lig.

Well, that’s the short version. The reality was slightly more nuanced.

The vote was not quite as simple as deciding whether Fenerbahce would quit the league. For a start, it wasn’t that direct: the vote was whether or not to give club president Ali Koc the power to take action, rather than a straight referendum on that action.

The potential action itself wasn’t confined to one thing, either. The headline claim, made by Koc a couple of weeks ago, was the threat of withdrawal — but the possible options on the table ranged from doing nothing right through to dissolving the football department (the club also boasts basketball, volleyball and athletics divisions, among others) of Fenerbahce entirely. Those are the two extremes, neither of which was ever going to happen.

But the very act of giving the members this vote represented the strength of feeling.

The crowd of members at Fenerbahce’s general assembly (Ali Atmaca/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“I can assure you the only option that will not be entertained is doing nothing against this unbearable football climate,” Koc told The Athletic before the vote.

In the end, after all the build-up, the evening ended as a bit of a damp squib — for those expecting something earth-shattering, at least. The members voted in favour of the club taking action, but the most concrete course proposed by Koc was that they would refuse to play in the Turkish Super Cup against Galatasaray, a game in theory scheduled for this Sunday after it was postponed in farcical circumstances in December. They will also consider not participating in the Turkish Cup for the next two seasons.

The question of whether Fenerbahce will withdraw from the league was deferred until the next general assembly in three months — after the end of the season — when they will also consider further protests to FIFA and UEFA.

The real question though, is how has it reached this point? Why has the club decided that such a drastic course of action is worth contemplating — never mind taking?

“Since the beginning of the century,” Koc tells The Athletic, “a string of bizarre, unjust and unacceptable events, on and off the field, have led us to rethink our position in Turkey’s football environment.”

The objections are many and varied.

The final straw was the extraordinary game against Trabzonspor a couple of weeks ago, when Fenerbahce players were attacked at the final whistle by a group of fans invading the pitch. This was after the game had been disrupted earlier by missiles being thrown from the stands: Fenerbahce’s Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was struck by a coin and punched by one of the pitch invaders at the end of the game. Thirteen people have been arrested.

Security officers attempt to prevent home supporters from reaching Fenerbahce players in Trabzon (Hakan Burak Altunoz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Koc believes it should never have reached that stage, pointing the finger at referee Halil Umut Meler (who, by coincidence, was the same official who was punched on the pitch by the president of Ankaragucu this season) for not taking action. “The referee had more than one reason to suspend the game, but did not have the courage to do so. His refereeing licence should be cancelled.”



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

He also blames those in charge of security at Papara Park, Trabzonspor’s stadium, for not preventing the fans from entering the pitch, and also the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) for essentially doing nothing in the interim beyond “a very brief statement on this grave incident. This vague statement is not satisfactory given the severity of the incidents, nor does it mention any actions to be taken”.

But Koc is at pains to clarify that this was not the only reason for calling this vote.

He also cites a game at the end of the 2005-06 season against Denizlispor when Fenerbahce could have won the league, but objects being thrown onto the pitch delayed the game which, in their view at least, led to them only drawing 1-1. Galatasaray took the title.

Then there is the Turkish match-fixing scandal of the early 2010s during which the former club president Aziz Yildirim was arrested, the club were banned from European competition by the TFF but ultimately, years later, officially exonerated.

Perhaps most seriously, the incident in 2015 when the team were travelling back from a game against Rizespor and a bullet was shot through the front windscreen of their team coach. The driver was hit, and it was only the smart actions of a security guard that stopped them from driving off a cliff. The perpetrator has never been found.

Most recently, a clip emerged of a referee admitting that he reversed a VAR decision in favour of arch-rivals Galatasaray, because of pressure from their players, during an assessment with the Scottish former referee Hugh Dallas, who slightly implausibly is the Turkish head of referee education.

To ram home the point, and sum all of this up, the club put together a video compilation of all the many ways they believe they have been wronged.

And so, to Tuesday night.

A stage worthy of a music festival was erected on one side of the stadium, with two big screens either side. The backdrop was split into three: one section was the Turkish flag, one the club crest and, between them, an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, who the club claim as a supporter and a sort of patron saint.

Underneath the stage, “fair competition” was written in big white letters.

The stage at Fenerbahce’s home ground (Ali Atmaca/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A colossal banner featuring a picture of Koc, making him look like a boss in a bad mafia movie, was unfurled across one stand emblazoned with the message: “You drew the path, we will walk together forever.” Koc’s popularity has fluctuated in the six years he has been in office (he got into a physical fight with a fan a few years ago and has partly presided over their longest title-less spell since the Super Lig was founded in 1959), but he was greeted like a hero on Tuesday.

It felt like less a meeting of a sports club’s members and more of a political rally.

Bright Osayi-Samuel, the former Queens Park Rangers winger who has been reinvented as a full-back in Turkey, and who has been elevated to hero status with some of the fans after he fought back against one of the pitch invaders in Trabzon, was at the stadium along with head coach Ismail Kartal.

On Wednesday, Osayi-Samuel discovered that even though he punched the pitch invader (in self-defence), he would not face a suspension.

Osayi-Samuel retaliates against a pitch invader (Hakan Burak Altunoz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Defender Jayden Oosterwolde, who aimed a kick at the pitch invader’s head, received a one-match suspension, as did a few others from Fenerbahce. Trabzonspor will have to play six games behind closed doors and were fined just over three million Turkish lira (£75,000; $94,000), which they… did not take well.

Their official X account posted the message ‘ADALETINIZ BATSIN! KALKIN KOLTUKLARINIZDAN, ISTIFA EDİN!’ – ‘fuck your justice – leave your positions, resign!

The assembly was supposed to start at 5pm, but so many fans were trying to get into the stadium that it did not get going until 90 minutes later. The three anchors of the club’s in-house TV station had to vamp furiously as time ticked on.

The club has 45,174 members. For a vote on something such as this to be legitimate, 50 per cent plus one of those members has to participate. They ticked over the magic number of 22,588 at about 6.30pm local time. Around 30,000 made it through the gates in the end.

From there, the evening dragged on, to say the least. Koc spoke at length, in three different spells. Various other club directors and senior figures also gave bombastic speeches, including Acun Ilicali, the owner of Hull City.

They had been going for four hours by the time everyone had had their say. Some of the crowd started to become restless. Some resented the Super Cup decision, believing they should have played and beaten Galatasaray. Those who came expecting immediate radical action were left disappointed, even if it was ultimately the most sensible conclusion.

“Discrimination (against Fenerbahce) on and off the field has been going on for way too long,” says Koc. “One way or another, this has to stop.

“We have waited years and years for the relevant authorities to address the situation. However, to our dismay, instead of solving the injustice we have been facing, authorities have blatantly turned a blind eye and things have gotten much worse.”

The frustration is understandable, but the question must be asked: is this responsible behaviour? Is it proportionate to even suggest withdrawing from the league in response to perceived wrongs? The implication is that Fenerbahce believe there is some sort of concerted, widespread effort to keep the club down, to deny them success. Is that really credible?

Aren’t there just some fairly simple explanations for all the incidents they point to? Was the Denizlispor game in 2006 not just a case of fans trying to disrupt a game? In the match-fixing scandal, the TFF may have been hasty in barring Fenerbahce from Europe, but other clubs and individuals were implicated too.

Could the situation with the team coach, while admittedly almost tragic, not just be written off as the action of a lone nut not brought to justice, as in the case of many other unsolved crimes? The Trabzonspor game fits with a general atmosphere of chaos in Turkish football this season; it felt inevitable that this sort of thing would happen at some point and, frankly, it could have been any team.

Is this really all connected? Four or five events, spread over 18 years: could they not just be individual occurrences without any great conspiracy connecting them all?

Maybe some of it is true. Maybe none of it is. But minds have been made up, and they won’t be changed easily.

Koc addresses the throng (Ali Atmaca/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Koc claims Fenerbahce speaking up serves a broader purpose.

“The action Fenerbahce is contemplating,” he says, “is not aiming for justice only for our club, but also for the rest of Turkish football. Hopefully, our actions will act as a wake-up call and become a catalyst in the retransformation of the game.”

From a neutral perspective, it’s just a relief that they haven’t done anything rash and spoiled an all-timer of a title race: with a few games to go this season, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray are 30 points clear of the pack and heading towards what could be a single game decided on the penultimate weekend of the season in May. If Fenerbahce prevail, it will be their first title since 2014.

For now, this corner of Turkish football is slightly becalmed — but, you suspect, not for long.

(Top photo: Ali Atmaca/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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