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March 22, 2012, Thursday

Football chaos at the doorstep

Since July last year, we have witnessed the approach of an accident, long foreseen. It now looks more apparent and inevitable than ever: With a deadline set around mid-April, the Turkish Soccer Federation (TFF) is destined for a huge clash with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

Turkish football has been dragged into a profound crisis, with the revelations of mafia-club links, with grave claims of match-fixing that involves more than seven super league clubs, including Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş and Trabzonspor and with accusations based on findings concerning 13 games. The trial, subject of enormous national attention, is expected to be a long one. Severe penalties are demanded of 93 people, including the chairman of Fenerbahçe and 14 players.

The indictment, which according to a number of reliable experts contains “very serious evidence” against the defendants, helps boost the long-established suspicions that the system of Turkish football is rotten to the core, as well as posing sharp questions about its future. No matter the outcome, the consequences of the trial will be powerful.

But, ever since July last year, the country’s football elite, arrogant and insensitive to the nature of the developments, has remained in denial, defiance and polarity. It was immediately pushed into infighting, and in the huge vortex that the legal inquiry -- and the arrests -- created, the TFF has displayed one erratic behavior after another. It decided to withdraw Fenerbahçe from the European League, but fell short of any decision on its national championship. As the TFF delayed and played for time, chaos emerged. Fenerbahçe, in its fury, issued threats and filed a lawsuit in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against the UEFA, which it claimed was the reason for its exclusion. Trabzon’s anger grew because it now expected to be declared as the champion, and Galatasaray, enraged by the TFF’s delaying tactics, shaped a decisive front to force it to make radical decisions.

The TFF’s former chairman, Mehmet Ali Aydınlar, who left in disappointment, was replaced by Yıldırım Demirören, former head of Beşiktaş Club, despite the fact that his name figures in the very indictment. And there is nothing new in the new TFF leadership, about how to manage the crisis.

It is crisis with big letters, much more serious and troublesome than it looks. It not only involves almost the half of the super league teams, but also concerns the Digiturk platform -- which broadcasts the matches -- and Turkish teams’ future in European leagues for some years. Turkey’s sport media, an oversized ostrich, whose “closeness” to the rotten system is undeniable, sees its role in the diminishing importance of the national league and reacts with lies and denial or downright distortions of the facts.

Meanwhile, there is increasing domestic pressure for a “new page” in Turkish football. Obviously weary of the bias in the media, the “Turkish Fair-Play Platform” yesterday chose to publish a paid advert in many newspapers, addressing Michel Platini and UEFA officials, which goes like this: “Turkish Football is corrupted. The UEFA banned the clubs involved in match-fixing from the Champions League. However, for the last eight months, the TFF has blocked the applications of disciplinary actions. The lack of ethics destroyed football and its stakeholders. We are witnessing the creation of an environment where match-fixing is fully tolerated. Remember UEFA ethics. Intervene and apply disciplinary actions immediately! Save Turkish football! Please!”

What will happen now? In a nutshell, the following: The TFF, under the leadership of Demirören, seems determined not to take down clubs implicated in the trial to lower leagues. Neither is the TFF interested in a softer measure, namely to decrease their points, while keeping them in the league. Instead, it gave new instructions to its ethical committee to “restart” its inquiry on all the files.

The TFF is using the argument that match-fixing should lead to individual penalties and not the clubs. This is an argument backed by PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The TFF also clings to the demand that the trial takes its time and course before the UEFA can decide.

Did the UEFA, holding its annual congress in İstanbul, blink, or not? Platini may have hinted strongly enough to Erdoğan of the imminent clash when the two met two days ago in Ankara. Gianni Infantino, secretary-general of the UEFA, made it much clearer on Wednesday, when he underlined that a) the evidence seemed concrete and strong enough for the rigging case, b) the UEFA shows zero tolerance for match-fixing.

The TFF is now given the deadline by mid April. Do what you must, so we do what we can. Or, we do what we must, the UEFA says. Turkey’s arrogant, inward-turned football moguls seem not to have gotten the message. Accident is imminent indeed: Both the government and TFF seem set for a confrontation with UEFA, having prepared themselves for a shutdown from international football for three to five years. But, it will only add to chaos and have such a political impact that it can even shatter the choices in the domestic scene.

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