01.09.2014 | Istanbul: football lessons

The last days of August in Istanbul were hot and calm. Many locals were away on their summer holidays and as I headed to a meeting in Taksim, the usually bustling metropolis felt rather subdued. Until, that is, I came across a large crowd headed in the direction of the new Vodafone Arena, which is being constructed on the site of the historic İnönü Stadium. The occasion was the funeral of Süleyman Seba, a football legend and honorary chairman of Beşiktaş football club.

In Turkey in general and in Istanbul in particular, football clubs are involved in many aspects of social life.  Istanbul’s three main clubs – Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray – are fierce rivals on the pitch but have in the past shown their ability to come together to support common causes.  Most notably, in May 2013 the fan clubs of all three Istanbul teams joined forces in support of demonstrators protesting against the demolition of Taksim’s Gezi Park. 

This show of solidarity, transcending social differences and allegiances, is particularly poignant in today’s Turkey.  In recent months the country has been a battleground for opposing political forces striving to win power and popular support. 

An uneasy alliance between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, forged during the decade-long battle to break the influence of the military over Turkish politics, began to unravel in 2013 when Erdogan announced the government’s decision to close private preparatory schools, many of which are run by the Gulen Movement.  The Gulenists, many of whom have occupied high-ranking positions in the police and the judiciary, retaliated by launching a corruption investigation and making a series of raids and arrests in December 2013. 

Having secured a victory for his AK party in the local elections in March 2014, and the presidency in August 2014, Erdoğan gained the upper hand in the strife.  To underscore this, on 1st September 2014 the government orchestrated raids and arrested over 30 police officers for allegedly being members of a “parallel state” which has been "seeking to overthrow the government". 

This clash has exposed some of the vulnerabilities of the Turkish government and raised concerns among foreign investors.  Recent developments suggest that the internal struggle is not yet over, which is worrying, because in seeking to increase its control of the state apparatus the AK party could weaken some of the institutions that have enabled Turkey to thrive in recent years.  Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Seba and the football fans, a lesson that without the ability to inspire and unify the supporters, a match is just another game.