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Understanding Authoritarianism Through Soccer

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once an athlete. Now, he uses sport for his own purposes—even as fans use it to express dissent.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1970s, long before he became Turkey’s most powerful man, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a semi-professional soccer player. He played for IETT Spor—a team linked to Istanbul’s public transport authority—and was nicknamed ‘Imam Beckenbauer’ by his teammates, a reference both to his piety and his supposed skills. Like the great German soccer titan Franz Beckenbauer, Erdogan is tall and rangy—hagiographers have insisted he was a similarly elegant and forceful player.

The Turkish president likes to claim that he could have been a star, and that his career came to an abrupt end thanks to the repressive 1980 coup: A military figure took over his club and ordered all the bearded players to shave. Erdogan says he alone refused—resigning in protest in June 1981.

Soccer has been a shortcut to people’s hearts for the populist Turkish leader, and an easily understood language in a soccer-mad country. It has also become one of the country’s most important networks of power and patronage under his rule.

On June 24, Turkey will hold snap elections, with the winner of the presidential poll assuming an executive presidency with vast powers approved in a referendum last year narrowly won by Erdogan. In the remaining month and a half, Erdogan is likely to make all possible use of his soccer soft power: drawing on sports analogies, wearing the scarves of local teams as he travels the country, and dusting off his myths and perhaps even his soccer boots. He’ll likely also trumpet Turkey’s bid, submitted late April, to host the UEFA European Championship in 2024—a giant feather in his cap if it’s successful—as well as a mind-boggling array of recently built stadiums, with many more under construction.

As Erdogan seeks to formalize and entrench one-man rule, soccer plays as much of a role now as it did in his early political rise. Yet ironically, his favorite public relations tool has also eluded his attempts at control: sports arenas can also be sites of dissent.

Erdogan was born into a working class family in the tough Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa in 1954. Soccer-obsessed from a young age, he sneaked off to play against the wishes of his devout and authoritarian father. In 1974 Erdogan joined the semi-professional IETT Spor, and captained them to victory in the Istanbul Amateur One championship in 1976/77.

From there, the myths take over. Erdogan claims he was twice offered the chance to sign for the great, historic Turkish club Fenerbahçe, declining only because his father wanted him to focus on his studies. The beard story is similarly hard to verify. “If he was so dedicated to beards he would have had them in the 70s and 80s,” former teammate Mustafa Kemal Salepçioglu pointed out to me. Most photos from the time show Erdogan beardless. Either way, politics was the more likely reason Erdogan abandoned the sport:  “After the coup it was impossible to be involved in politics and still be at IETT, because it’s a state institution.”

After all, by 1980, Erdogan was politically active. In the mid-1970s he had joined the youth organization of the National Salvation Party led by the strident Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan. And the beard story, in a way, was perfectly timed for a man who would skillfully tap into the grievances of pious, conservative Turks, all while largely avoiding the worst of the state’s repression. Far from the main targets following the 1980s coup, Islamists, and Erdogan with them, were growing in strength in the 1980s and increasingly supported by the state, which had come to see them as a useful counterweight to the left. The rising Erdogan became the Istanbul chair of Erbakan’s Islamist Welfare Party in 1985, and mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

Meanwhile, soccer was rising, too: economic reforms gave clubs access to credit, media expansions stoked tribal obsessions, professional clubs proliferated, local politicians often took over municipality teams, and big businessmen increasingly sought to control major clubs.

Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been governing since its landslide 2002 election win, prefers to associate himself with economic growth, social conservatism, and vague rhetoric of liberal democracy rather than true Islamism these days. But “the beautiful game” remains a favored political tool.

“All political parties have used soccer,” says Ankara University political scientist Tanıl Bora. “The AKP is just doing it more energetically.”

At least 30 new stadium projects across 27 cities are being built as part of an astonishing construction boom under the AKP since they came to power – most built in the past few years. New stadiums are a way to dole out contracts to friendly firms; to build symbols of power and prestige; to gentrify city centers; and to win (so far elusive) bids to host prestigious international competitions such as the Olympics and the European Championships.

Erdogan eagerly associates himself with new stadiums—laying foundation stones, presiding over openings, even playing in exhibition matches. He scored a first-half hat trickamid some fairly lackadaisical defending—in the ceremonial match opening Istanbul Başakşehir’s new stadium in July 2014. Erdogan wore the number 12 as the match took place, just before he became Turkey’s 12th president. Başakşehir is based in an AKP stronghold on the edge of Istanbul, and its shareholders are supportive of the government, while its president is related to Erdogan by marriage. They officially retired the number 12 jersey in homage.

And he has used the sport to signal his changing political rhetoric, as his early 2000s liberalism and reform has shifted to raw nationalism. “We are going to remove the word ‘arena’ from stadiums,” he announced last year in a speech to recent graduates, three days after kicking off a language purity push. Arenas, he said, were a foreign term for places where gladiators and animals would tear each other apart. “We don’t have such a thing in our language.” Clubs removed the word from venues overnight.

Dismissing the embarrassingly narrow victory of his (questionably legitimate) vote to change the constitution following 2016’s failed coup, Erdogan also used a sports analogy: “It does not matter whether you win a match by 1–0 or 5–0; it only matters who wins the match.”

For a measure designed to give the executive sweeping, largely unchecked powers, it was an apt, ‘winner-takes-all’ analogy.

But as Erdogan’s reformist agenda has deteriorated into journalist jailings and crackdowns on dissent, soccer has also been an intriguing source of protest, eluding his domination.

In 2011, as he was becoming ever more belligerent and authoritarian, Erdogan was subjected to jeers and boos at the opening match of Galatasaray’s new venue and left in a rage before kick-off. Later that year, authorities’ dismissive handling of a match-fixing scandal triggered multiple anti-government protests in stadiums.

In 2013, when demonstrations over an urban development plan in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul turned into widespread civil unrest over Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, many rival soccer fans set aside their mutual loathing to unite on the streets at the forefront of the protests. In the aftermath, stadiums became an unprecedented site of anti-government chants such as “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”.

It triggered an inevitable backlash from the authorities. Thousands of fans were arrested under accusations of ‘terrorism’ and a group of 35—mostly Beşiktaş—supporters were charged with attempting to mount a military coup. A controversial electronic identity card system was introduced in 2014, helping to monitor a strict ban on political chanting and banners in stadiums.

While overt dissent has quieted recently, soccer retains a sense of latent rebellion. Although Erdogan is a self-declared Fenerbahçe fan, he now avoids the stadiums of the ‘big three’ Istanbul teams, perhaps fearing boo-ing by anti-government individuals in their large and diverse fan base. Instead, he has thrown his support behind the team of the explicitly conservative, pro-government Istanbul district Başakşehir. “We want Başakşehir to aim for the championship in the politics league just as in the soccer league,” he said recently, and chided Başakşehir for not attracting more fans. Weakness in the stadium means weakness in politics, too, he said.

When Galatasaray beat Başakşehir the next day 2-0, a chant of “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers,” a secularist reference to the founder and first president of the modern Turkish state, rang out among the fans. In the context of this match, the otherwise commonplace chant had visceral intensity. “Galatasaray 2 - 0 Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” tweeted secular nationalist and Erdogan rival Meral Aksener after the match. An angry AKP supporter replied that Erdogan will “score the real goal” in the upcoming elections.

Growing authoritarianism may be bolstering Erdogan’s personal power, but Turkey’s ongoing brain drain, low foreign investment, and flagging economy may be one factor behind calling snap elections 18 months ahead of schedule: he’s more likely to win before these trends play out.

The country’s political climate and instability will not help its bid against Germany to host Euro 2024. This is the first bidding process in which human rights criteria will be considered, and the bidding process may also highlight Turkey’s conflicted relationship with Europe—both admired and resented in Turkish public discourse. For thirty years, Turkey has sought to join the first European Economic Commission and then the European Union. Negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU were upended by Erdogan’s purges following the failed coup in 2016.

If Turkey wins the Euro 2024 bid, Erdogan will have prime peacocking opportunities at the championship just months before another presidential election. If Germany wins, Erdogan can simply play the victim card and claim that, as usual, Turkey is being treated unfairly by jealous and hostile European powers.

It’s not unusual for sports to take on powerful political significance under repressive regimes where there are few other outlets for tensions. But in Turkey’s simultaneously controlled and precarious climate, eleven-a-side dramas can be both tool and indicator: to take the country’s political temperature, read the mercury in its soccer.

The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey is published by I.B.Tauris.