New Heights and Old Grudges as Turkey Crowns Its Champion
Asked why her team’s next home game on Sunday is being played in Istanbul instead of in its usual setting, the official from the Turkish club Trabzonspor said the turf at the team’s Senol Günes Stadium had been damaged after — in her words — “some people got on the field in our last match.”
Her description was entirely accurate, and yet her words did not quite do justice to the significance and scale of what took place on the field, and beyond, on April 30 in Trabzon. The wait for a Turkish championship, nearly four decades in total (or far less, depending on who is doing the counting), was too much for some to contain themselves.
Hundreds of fans stormed the field even before the final whistle of Trabzonspor’s Turkish Super League game with Antalyaspor. Hundreds became thousands soon after that, when Trabzonspor officially secured the point it needed to ensure it would become Turkish champion for the first time since 1984.
Players were engulfed by the crush. Delirious fans lifted others on their shoulders or lit flares. Soon, smoke shrouded the arena, where barely a patch of turf was visible. Outside, the crowd was even bigger, the referee’s whistle seemingly the cue for pretty much all of Trabzon’s 800,000 or so residents to flood the streets of this city 600 miles north east of Istanbul to participate in a celebration — images of which were beamed around the world — late into the night.
And that outpouring came even before the official celebration and the trophy presentation. That will come on Saturday, when a delegation from the Turkish soccer federation will travel to Trabzon, an ancient city on the south coast of the Black Sea, to deliver a title that had, for so long, seemed as if it would never materialize. There were near misses, late-season implosions, and then a bitter, decade-long and still unresolved pursuit for a championship that Trabzonspor continues to claim but which remains, to this day, in the trophy cabinet of its bitter rival Fenerbahce even though the Istanbul team was found to have been at the center of a match-fixing scandal that year.
For Trabzonspor, getting its hands on the championship trophy at last will bring some sort of closure for a team that has for long cast itself as an outsider, and a victim of the power wielded by the three Istanbul clubs — Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasary — that have long dominated Turkish soccer.
“It became almost an expectation they would get close and then pretty much guarantee it would all fall to pieces,” said Emre Sarigul, a co-founder of Turkish Football, the largest English-language website solely devoted to Turkish soccer. “The fans felt they are cursed and everyone was conspiring against them.”
Sometimes the tensions have boiled over, not in wild celebration but in angst and anger. Like the time in 2015 when club officials — incensed at the award of a late penalty kick against Trabzonspor — locked a referee inside the stadium for hours and refused to release him. It required the intervention of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to free him.
Trabzon, its much loved soccer club and those who follow it have long considered themselves a community apart from the dominant teams of Istanbul, where the three giants have combined to win 57 of Turkey’s 66 national championships. That has fostered not only a type of siege mentality but also frequent bouts of bad blood.
The fiercest enmity has been reserved toward Fenerbahce, a domestic powerhouse whose influence spreads well beyond the soccer field. Games between the teams have frequently been marred by crowd disturbances — to be fair, not uncommon events at the top of Turkish soccer — but the relationship plumbed new depths in 2015 when a bus carrying the Fenerbahce team came under attack as it traversed a steep mountain road on its way to the Trabzon airport after a game nearby. Shots were fired through its windshield, wounding the driver.
He survived, and the bus did not, thankfully, plunge off a mountain — but the attackers have never been identified, and in the febrile conspiracy- world inhabited by Turkish soccer, blame for the incident continues to center on the intensity of the soccer rivalry.
Time has not softened the ill feelings. As Trabzonspor basks in continued citywide celebrations, the sense of bitterness among many of the millions of followers of Fenerbahce appears almost as strong. That much was abundantly clear in a news conference given by Fenerbahce’s president, Ali Koc, in the aftermath of Trabzonspor’s triumph. Koc railed against the new Turkish champion, saying it had benefited from curious refereeing appointments (claims that seem to be made by all Turkish teams about all of their opponents all of the time). He then claimed the team’s decision to relocate its final home game to Istanbul was an act of provocation; mocked Trabzonspor’s claim on the controversial 2011 championship; and even resurrected the bus shooting, which he argued is still commemorated by Trabzonspor fans, including on a banner at a match this season. “While the incident in 2015 is engraved in our memories,” Koc said, “we will not accept them making a mockery by reflecting it on a banner.”
Besting Fenerbache, which is second in the league table, undoubtedly has made this year’s title sweeter for Trabzonspor. The team has a significant following in Istanbul, Turkey’s economic powerhouse, which has only grown larger as Trabzon’s own population has declined. But the ardor of the support for the local team remains as strong as ever. That was clear in the celebrations, which have continued for more than a week with gatherings, concerts and rallies. And not only in Turkey: While not of the scale of the mayhem that ensued back home, impromptu celebrations also took place in cities as far away as Berlin, Munich and London.
“Pretty much everyone in the city and the Trabzon region by and large supports Trabzonspor — it has become their identity,” said Sarigul, adding that those who have left in search of opportunities remain connected to the place that will always be home. They even have a phrase for the feeling: “Everywhere is Trabzon to us.”
On Saturday, after decades of waiting, after decades of suffering, those fans — wherever they may be — will all get another chance to celebrate. Again.
The Super League Hangover
It has been just over a year since European soccer was almost torn apart by a group of top clubs and their (quickly abandoned) plans for the Super League. The group of 12 founders were branded the dirty dozen by Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, for their effort to create a closed league that would have generated huge wealth for them at the expense of the hundreds of small- and medium-sized clubs that make up the continent’s soccer pyramid. When their plot collapsed almost the moment it was exposed to the light, though, Ceferin and the other leaders of European soccer were presented with the space they needed to follow through on their strong rhetoric about resetting the balance of power in the sport.
This week we found out just what the post-Super League world will look like, and in many ways it doesn’t look much different to the status quo: The biggest clubs — and those that have caught up to them thanks to the wealth of their owners — are likely to remain just as dominant in the decade ahead.
At a meeting in sun-dappled Vienna this week, the framework for the future of the Champions League was finally approved. And after months of wrangling, the structure of what will be a redesigned 36-team competition starting in 2024 looks much the same as it did when it was first proposed in the days before the Super League teams — led by, among others, this season’s finalists Real Madrid and Liverpool — tried their failed putsch.
Under pressure from the biggest leagues, who complained of too many matches, the number of group stage games was reduced to eight from a proposed 10. And in the other notable change, two of the extra four places in the event will not now go to clubs with historically strong track records in European competition but who failed to qualify on merit.
What does it all mean? Well, since the extra places have been earmarked for the leagues with the best record in Europe the previous season, that most likely means even more Champions League spots for teams from the biggest, richest and most powerful league of them all: the Premier League. It’s also a reminder that for all their fighting and sniping and suing, UEFA and the dirty dozen need one another more than they care to admit. It is the big clubs, after all, who drive the billion-dollar television contracts, the multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals, the big ratings for all those midweek classics in UEFA’s showcase competition.
But it also suggests European soccer leaders have blown their big chance, and maybe their best chance in years, to recalibrate European soccer in ways that would give more teams more chances to stand on level ground with the biggest and richest clubs, and break up what looks like a stratifying elite.
On its face, Manchester City’s signing of Erling Haaland looked to be a bargain: The release clause City paid in Haaland’s Dortmund contract (reportedly 60 million euros, or just over $62.5 million) was probably less than half his value on a truly open market, and well within the means of what is arguably the richest team in the world.
But look a little closer at the associated costs of the deal, and things suddenly become a lot murkier, and a lot more expensive. According to multiple news reports, City also paid fees to intermediaries involved in the deal, including an eight-figure payout to Haaland’s father for acting as a middleman, and about $40 million to the player’s agent, Mino Raiola. Those totals were comparable to the fee for Haaland himself. And City still has to pay Haaland, of course. The total price tag, when all the checks clear, should be well north of $250 million.
Soccer has an agent problem. But FIFA, the world’s governing body, has been moving to resolve it. The announcement of Haaland’s move to Manchester came as FIFA appeared set to finally adopt major revisions to its regulations on agents, changes that were in many ways prompted by disclosures that Raiola, who died earlier this month as the pursuit of Haaland neared its endgame, received almost half the then world-record fee of $108 million that Manchester United paid Juventus in 2017 to acquire one of his other clients, Paul Pogba.
What impact would the FIFA regulations have had on the Haaland deal? For starters, Haaland’s father would not have been able to receive a fee (at least officially), since the new rules allow for commissions to be paid only to licensed representatives. But the rules changes go far beyond that. Currently an agent can represent all three sides in a deal — player, buying team and selling club — and collect a piece of the deal from each. Under the new rules, that would no longer be permitted. Caps on commissions are also part of the revised regulations, and would top out at closer to 10 percent than the nearly 50 percent Raiola and others have pocketed in the past.
The changes still would have allowed the agents to collect about $20 million in a deal as rich as Haaland’s — far less than the actual sums, but still a healthy return, and more than the $3 million the clubs that trained Haaland in his youth can expect. FIFA’s training compensation is capped at 5 percent.
A Question for the Ambassador
Perhaps only a sporting icon with the star power of Lionel Messi could pull off the neat trick of providing his services to not one but two Gulf states without attracting the type of criticism routinely heaped on others who do the same.
Having signed for Qatar-owned Paris St.-Germain last summer, Messi has now agreed to serve as an ambassador for Saudi Arabia. This week, he was welcomed by the kingdom’s minister of tourism, and within hours he had shared a sponsored post showing him relaxing on a boat in the Red Sea with his 326 million followers on Instagram. #VisitSaudi, read the hashtag.
In doing so, Messi became the latest sports figure to accept the huge checks being doled out by Saudi Arabia’s leaders as part of a global push to change perceptions of the country, a process many have labeled sportswashing. But it also put Messi, not known for offering his views on matters of geopolitical importance, in quite the uncomfortable spot. Another one of the soccer star’s ambassadorial posts is with UNICEF, the United Nations-backed fund that provides humanitarian aid for children, which in March reported that at least 10,000 Yemeni children have been killed or injured since the start of the war launched by a Saudi coalition in 2015.
Rory’s Back Next Week
That’s all for this week, when Rory will return from a brief vacation and wrest back control of the newsletter. Until then, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org with hints, tips, complaints or to share your favorite Turkish soccer conspiracies (5,000 words or less on those emails, please).
Have a great weekend.