The first week of the Spor Toto Super League’s inaugural playoffs did not pass without event, as Sunday’s Fenerbahçe-Trabzonspor match ended with allegations of racism, for which Trabzonspor has taken Fenerbahçe’s Emre Belözoğlu to court.
Trabzonspor’s Didier Zokora, an Ivory Coast midfielder, claimed that Emre directly called him racist names during a brief altercation on the pitch. Quarrels are not uncommon in football, so the incident went unnoticed until Zokora’s post-match interview.
“It is shocking that a player who shares his fate with [Moussa] Sow and [Joseph] Yobo would slur an African player like this,” he told the press. “I didn’t reply to him, if something more had happened, who knows what kind of punishment we would have gotten. The scene was caught on camera,” he said, noting that there was proof for his claims. The Ivorian further noted: “This is a very shameful statement. I certainly did not do this to tarnish Emre’s name.”
Emre initially denied the claims, suggesting that it was perhaps a misunderstanding due to the tension surrounding the teams since Trabzonspor lost the league title to Fenerbahçe last year, coupled with the fact that neither of the midfielders speaks English particularly well. The argument took place in English, the only language known to both players.
Fenerbahçe soon after arranged a press meeting featuring Emre and his teammate Yobo, a Nigeria center back appointed as Fenerbahçe’s spokesman on the matter, as he previously encountered problems with Emre as a rival player in England.
Despite the difficult position he was placed in, being asked to defend a hot-headed rival-turned-teammate against another African’s accusations of racism -- both of whom he is friends with -- Yobo gave Emre a solid vote of confidence. He explained that their previous dispute had been resolved and noted that he would have never joined Fenerbahçe had he thought its players harbored racist sentiments. He also explained that since Emre was such a competitive person, he was often misunderstood and that, in his mind, the situation had been resolved on the pitch and should have stayed there.
“The Emre that I know -- and I have been here 18 months, going on two years -- is just a very competitive person. He is a fighter,” Yobo explained. “He doesn’t care if you are black or white, he is just someone who wants to win and wants to compete,” he added, noting that Zokora did not mention anything to him when they spoke after the match.
“There may be tension during a match, but these sorts of things stay on the pitch,” Emre stated, expressing regret that the conversation turned ugly. “We did have a dialogue, but if you watch what happened, you can see that the argument ended and we hugged each other. However, right after the match the phone rang and I had to go on LigTV.” He also noted that the conversation on the pitch was not one-sided, and Zokora used obscenities against him as well.
Proof and punishment
Unfortunately for Emre, in addition to the hug, the video also reveals to lip readers what he said. According to the Turkish Football Federation’s (TFF) legal consultancy department, the midfielder indeed made a racist slur. He later apologized for what happened.
This is a serious offense governed by Article 43 on attacks on human rights, slurs and threats, which states: “Footballers who have been found to slur, curse at, threaten or in any way violate the human rights of the TFF or its members, footballers, managers and other related clubs or persons will receive a 2-5 match ban, 3-7 if directed against match officials.” Article 44 on discrimination states that “footballers who violate another’s rights through discrimination based on race, language, religion or ethnicity will receive a 4-8 match ban.”
This is what the midfielder, who was turned over to the Professional Football Disciplinary Committee (PDFK) for punishment, is looking at, never mind the wave of disdain from the football community. Fenerbahçe legend and football commentator Rıdvan Dilmen, one of Emre’s heroes, said that the midfielder “should pack his bags and leave” if he indeed made racist comments. He later apologized for such a harsh reaction and expressed his respect for Emre’s success on the pitch.
There are five games left in the Super Finals and Emre has been slapped with a two-match suspension by the PDFK. Though known for his aggressive attitude and quick temper, Emre, was once named one of the top 125 footballers in the world by Pele and is an integral part of Fenerbahçe’s squad, so the club will certainly feel his absence, especially since it is already facing an uphill battle against runaway leader Galatasaray.
This is indeed unfortunate timing, but there is not much that can be to done now. For all of his amazing skill, Emre has a temper that has gotten him in trouble before and football has a tendency to bring out the worst in competitive people like Emre, so even if he did utter those words, it does not necessarily mean that he harbors racist feelings.
However, racist acts must not go unpunished and rivalry is no excuse for discrimination. This sort of problem is painfully common in football today, so if the claims are true, he should accept the consequences gracefully and do better next time.