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July 03, 2012, Tuesday

Now, a bigger mess

This was the verdict everybody lent an ear to. For exactly a year, Turkey has watched, with bewilderment and high emotion, to see how the 16th İstanbul High Criminal Court would rule on the huge match rigging and organized crime case which has shattered the nation’s football world.

Surprisingly, the verdict was harsher than many had hoped for. Key suspects such as Aziz Yıldırım, chairman of Fenerbahçe (FB) and a very “influential” social figure, were delivered heavy prison sentences, not only for organized crime, but also for fixing four matches.

That all four convicts were subsequently released from prison, taken together with the verdicts, may also sound surprising. The court did the right thing, at least in Yıldırım’s case; he had been in prison long enough. But if the appeals court ratifies the sentence (six and a half years) he will have to go back to prison for another three years. (Let us hope that this practice is applied to all the other cases where suspects have been in prison for far too long.)

Despite the gravity of the sentences in the case as a whole, the Turkish press, to a very large extent, displayed timidity in underlining the importance of the matter and blew up the “release from prison” and “freedom” aspect instead. This shows how polluted the sports media is, and how feared some figures in the case are.

What happened after the trial was also a farcical scene. What were the celebrations of FB fans for? For their hero, Yıldırım, or to praise their club for being branded a match-fixer? Many FB supporters, including myself, could not help but feel shame for this mass hypocrisy and mental corruption.

For some others, “release from prison” was initially perceived as acquittal all along, and as a first reaction FB stocks went up, only to take a dive again.

Was the ruling fair? It is worth noting that both the judge, Mehmet Ekinci, and Mehmet Berk, the public prosecutor who prepared the indictment (but was later replaced), are members of FB’s congress.

This shows all of us that they sought to act fairly in the extreme, defied all external pressure, acted ethically and did what they could. In such cases, it is very easy to fall into bias.

Also, the speed of the trial (4.5 months) is to be commended.

But overall, it was a “fair, but not comprehensive enough” type of proceeding. It is an open secret that Turkish football is deeply corrupt, and surrounded by mafia and black market formations, but the reach of the arm has remained too short, as this trial showed. Thus, the demands from large swathes of society for “clean football” also remains an issue to be addressed, defined with boldness as “zero tolerance.” Turkey is far too distant from that.

What now, then? It is obvious the judicial ruling will have consequences on several levels. It now demands an even more swift appeals process -- much shorter than in the first trial.

At home, it also brings to the fore whether or not the match rigging part of the ruling will lead to rapid measures. That part not only concerns FB, but also the teams of İBB, Beşiktaş, Ankaragücü, Sivas, Bursa and Trabzon. This contradicts fully what Turkish Football Federation (TFF) Chairman Yıldırım Demirören had said: that there was no “match rigging in the premier league.” The TFF will be under a great deal of pressure now to deal with the relegation of some of these clubs, or face resignation.

What about the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)? In Turkey, massive misinformation has been circulating for months, and now intensifies. Some claim (and lobby) that UEFA will do nothing further. Others say that it now has the ruling it has been waiting for, and will be acting, possibly even before the appeals process is completed.  Common sense and the past record point to the latter. First of all, it is about the credibility of UEFA and its “zero tolerance” principles. The ruling is far too strong to turn a blind eye to.

Furthermore, to argue for the latter, many refer to the Greek case of Volos and Kavala and the big corruption probe around them last year, involving more than 90 players, club owners, businessmen and mafia figures. As a consequence of the probe those two teams were relegated to the fourth league, and were later dissolved by the court, with some people receiving jail sentences.

The UEFA took a lead role all along, in which a key moment was when UEFA chairman Michel Platini met the then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. It would be a surprise if a similar pattern was not followed here. Nevertheless, a bigger mess lies ahead.

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