x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Match-fixing scandal involving top Turkish club Fenerbahce delays start to season

There have been bribery scandals in Turkish football before, but the current case, which became public with the arrest of the president of Fenerbahce, has shocked Turkey because of the number of suspects and the prominence of the accused.

Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim, second right, is escorted by plainclothes police officers as he leaves from a hospital in Istanbul where he was being treted for suspected heart problems. He will face prosecutors over bribery charges when he is discharged. REUTERS / Stringer
Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim, second right, is escorted by plainclothes police officers as he leaves from a hospital in Istanbul where he was being treted for suspected heart problems. He will face prosecutors over bribery charges when he is discharged. REUTERS / Stringer

ISTANBUL // Football in Turkey, a national passion in this country of more than 70 million people, has been thrown into chaos as a match-fixing scandal has forced the federation to postpone the start of the new season and new claims of irregularities involving the national team could mean widespread foul play has even gone beyond the country's borders.

In a statement released late on Monday, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) said the 2011-2012 season of the "Super Lig", the country's top division, would start on September 9 and not on August 5 as scheduled. A match between the current national champions and the cup winners planned for July 31 had already been postponed to an unspecified later date.

The statement came after TFF officials looked at files provided by prosecutors in Istanbul that have been conducting the investigation. The scandal has engulfed some of the biggest names in Turkish football and has led to the arrest of scores of club officials and players.

The man in the centre of the allegations is Aziz Yildirim, 58, a wealthy businessman who has been president of Fenerbahce Istanbul, Turkey's record champions and current title holders, since 1998. Mr Yildirim is accused of paying sums of up to several hundred of thousand dollars to members of opposing teams last season, ensuring Fenerbahce wins and, in effect, buying the title. Mr Yildirim, who has been in custody for several weeks, denies the allegations. Fenerbahce fans, enraged by the accusations against their club, attacked the press box at a recent match in Istanbul because they held the media responsible for spreading what they see as unfair allegations.

Officials and players from other clubs have also been arrested. Some are accused of accepting money from Fenerbahce, others are alleged to have paid bribes themselves in an effort to motivate Fenerbahce's opponents. The confidential investigation, started months ago and conducted mostly by court-ordered wiretapping of telephone conversations, also unearthed allegations that another Istanbul club, the former champions Besiktas, bribed the players of an opposing team before a key match.

In all, more than 20 suspects have been remanded in custody. Some of them, like Mr Yildirim, face life in prison if convicted. The Fenerbahce president has been suffering from diabetes for years and was transferred to a hospital after his arrest.

"This scandal has been absolutely necessary to make people wake up," a prominent Turkish sports writer said in a telephone interview yesterday. Requesting anonymity because he was concerned about possible harassment by officials of clubs involved in the scandal, the writer added that some of the suspects had acted "foolishly" by conducting talks about illegal payments on the telephone. "Turkish football will be cleaner after this," the writer said.

There have been bribery scandals in Turkish football before, but the current case, which became public with the arrest of Mr Yildirim earlier this month, has shocked Turkey because of the number of suspects and because of the prominence of the accused. Fenerbahce, founded in 1907, is Turkey's most prestigious club and counted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, among its many fans. As official statements about the content of the investigation have been rare, the public has largely been relying on news reports to keep track of the investigation. Some reports quoted prosecutors as telling Mehmet Ali Aydinlar, the TFF president, that investigators had gathered so many pieces of evidence for match fixing that they knew the results of the last five matches of the last season in advance. Mr Aydinlar denied the reports.

As the nation was still trying to take in the dimension of the scandal, a former club president claimed that matches of Turkey's national team had been fixed as well. "I know that money was sent to some players of opposing teams and to referees, to make sure the national team wins," Ismail Uyanik, a former president of the second division club Samsunspor, told the Radikal daily earlier this week.

Mr Yildirim, the jailed president of Fenerbahce, has reportedly complained that he and Fenerbahce are being singled out as scapegoats for a problem that is much more widespread than the public thinks. "If I talk, everybody will be burnt," Mr Yildirim told visitors in hospital, according to news reports.

That statement could be true, if Mr Uyanik, the former Samsunspor president, is to be believed. "Why did Fenerbahce choose this Machiavellian path? To become champions," he told Radikal. "Another club [in Fenerbahce's place] would have done the same. Because it's the system."

The sports writer and other observers said the scandal is a good opportunity to put the house of Turkish football in order. "The question of when the league starts is not important," Gokmen Ozdenak, a sports commentator for Kanalturk, a television channel, said about the TFF's decision to postpone the start of the new season. "The important thing is to clean up this mess."

Mr Uyanik, the former Samsunspor president, also said the investigation had long been overdue. "If you looked into the past 20 years in Turkish football, there would be nobody left not tarnished by match fixing."

tseibert@thenational.ae