The special police unit "Organized Crime" swooped at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning two weeks ago. Around 40 players, managers and officials from nine Turkish football clubs as well as three Turkish FA leaders were arrested in connection with an eight-month-long investigation into organized match-fixing. Among them was Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim, one of the most powerful and richest men in Turkey. In a second wave of arrests, another 20 men were apprehended. The police allege match rigging on an industrial scale; politicians, media and the supporters are shocked. "If only five percent of the allegations are true, it would be terrible for sport in Turkey," said Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of the ruling AKP party.
There have long been suspicions about the integrity of the game in Turkey. German manager Christoph Daum, who used to coach Besiktas and Fenerbahce, this week said that he had sometimes had "a feeling that there was manipulation." But even the 57-year-old Daum has a hard time believing the extent of a scandal that threatens to impact on the whole of European soccer. Next week, runner-up Trabzonspor, another one of the clubs implicated by the case, is supposed to play Benfica in a Champions League qualification match. UEFA is concerned that its competitions could be thrown into chaos if participating Turkish clubs are found to have engaged in illegal practices and subsequently withdraw from Europe -- after the competitions have started.
Last Friday, the Turkish FA confirmed to UEFA that 2010/11 results would stand and that all its clubs would seek to compete in Europe. But that's unlikely to be the end of it. Besiktas, Europa League qualifiers by virtue of winning the Turkish cup, has had its manager Tayfur Havuctu and board member Serdal Ali arrested in suspicion of fixing the cup final win against Istanbul Büyüksehir Belediye Spor. Besiktas president Yildirim Demirören told reporters that he believed in the innocence of his men, but in an unprecedented move, he returned the cup to the Turkish FA (TFF). The Super Cup meeting between Besiktas and Fener, scheduled for July 31, was hastily called off this Tuesday.
Fener, who won the championship with an unbeaten run in the second half of the season seems to be at the heart of the scandal. It needed a last match 4-3 win away to Sivasspor to pip Trabzonspor to the title. Turkish prosecutors allege that the decisive win was one of 19 rigged league matches. The Sivasspor president and two players have been arrested, with local media reporting about a plethora of evidence that includes tapped mobile phone conversations, intercepted text messages and photos of cash envelopes. "The Süperlig becomes a Super Lie," wrote Berliner Zeitung, based in the German capital that's home to approximately 200, 000 Turks or Germans of Turkish descent.
German journalist Tobias Schächter, author of Süperlig. The Untold Story of Turkish Football, thinks the scandal has its roots in the 2009/10 season, when provincial club Bursaspor surprisingly broke the Istanbul-based sides' 26 dominance to win the championship. "This was seen as some sort of insult by the powerful men [in charge of Istanbul teams]," Schächter told SI.com. "Not winning the championship is akin to losing face for these oligarchs. This self-perception and the rampant commercialization of recent years have led to unhealthy relationships between the football establishment, the justice system and the mafia."
Schächter also hinted at political complexities. He noted that Zekeriya Öz, the public prosecutor investigating of the case, was also in charge of quelling the alleged coup against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan by a ultranationalist army of generals, politicians and journalists. "Turkey is gripped by a power struggle between the Islamic AKP and the ultranationalists" in military, politics and, he said, adding that the Yildirim family was "closely connected to the military." No wonder that some Fenerbahce fans are decrying a conspiracy against their team. Saturday saw a few supporters blocking traffic on a Bosporus bridge to protest against what they perceive as trumped-up charges. The police had to move in with water cannons.
There are also those, however, who believe that Fenerbahce is still being protected by the Turkish footballing authorities. The TFF's decision to await court proceedings before judging the matter at hand has been criticized by Galatasary president Ünal Aysal. "You can't extinguish this fire by blowing a little bit", he said, "you can't delay dealing with it. Every day of waiting by the TFF damages the Turkish sport." The Gala boss is an interested party in the matter, obviously, but even neutrals have started to question the determination of TFF president Mehmet Ali Aydinlar to get to the bottom of things.
Aydinlar, who only took the job four weeks ago, used to work as Fenerbahce official before. He's in a difficult spot: if Fenerbahce is found to have been involved in illegal activities, it would lose its title and probably have to be relegated. A Süperlig without the powerhouse would, however, be considerably less attractive for TV rights holders and thus damage the whole league financially. UEFA and FIFA, on the other hand, would not tolerate too much lenience and might move to ban the whole federation in the process. Further down the hacking order, there could me more trouble, too. Relegated clubs Konvaspor and Bucaspor have already threatened law suits in case Sivasspor and Eskisehirspor, two teams implicated in the scandal, are found guilty in the wake of what Schächter calls "the biggest earthquake in Turkish football."
On Wednesday, prosecutors handed over 26 dossiers of evidence to the TFF. Aydinlar almost immediately stated that the start of the season, scheduled for Aug. 5, might have to be postponed. "We will investigate the matter and make announcements, if needed," he said, adding that the hot weather might make a later start advantageous in any case. Besiktas', Fenerbahce's and Trabzonspor's withdrawal from UEFA competitions looks increasingly unavoidable as well, even if it would come at great financial cost. In the meantime, 31 people are still in jail, awaiting trial.