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Can Turkey kick football racism out of the stadiums?

Wednesday 11 March 2009, by Cetin Cem Yilmaz

ISTANBUL - While European football is trying to prevent racism, Turkey mostly tends to wash its hands of it and see the glass as half full. It may be true that there is little racism about skin color, but with recent abusive remarks toward Israeli player Pini Balili and former referee Oğuz Sarvan, Turkish football hardly has the cleanest record.

With football’s top countries under scrutiny for racism, the question arises in Turkey as well, whether the country is immune or simply deaf, dumb and blind to the problem.

If you ask that question to fans, footballers or administrators of the game, you will probably hear that there is no danger of racism in Turkish football, but is there really?

In 2006, Turkish sports journalists were trying to hype up stories of Fenerbahçe signing world-class footballer Samuel Eto’o. Maybe there was no official offer from Fener to the striker’s club Barcelona, but who cares? Turkish journalists, who can match their Western tabloid counterparts in fake news and being paid for their imagination, were fast to create the link and made an open call to Eto’o.

“He is believed to be warming to the idea of coming to Turkey, as there is no racism to bother him here,” the papers wrote without citing any resources.

Eto’o famously walked off the pitch after Real Zaragoza fans shouted constant racist slogans at him during a La Liga game on Feb. 25, 2006. Yes, he was fed up with racism, but was it really true that Turkey was clean in that regard? This is only an illusion, says sports writer İbrahim Altınsay.

“There are some clichés in Turkey,” said Altınsay at a panel titled “Racism in Sports” organized by the Stop Racism platform. “The sentence, ’There is no racism in Turkey,’ is one of those,” he said. A columnist at daily Radikal, Altınsay believes the cliché is a result of the word “racism” being misleading in Turkish.

“When people hear the word ’racism,’ they only think about ethnicity,” he said. “A more comprehensive word should be used, such as discrimination. There is discrimination toward women, homosexuals, Armenians, Kurds, Alevis and others. It’s the ’us and them’ type of discrimination.”

’We are all black’

If we are limiting the subject to discrimination by skin color, it may be true that there are no racist tendencies in Turkey. Ask any football fan and they will remember how Beşiktaş fans stood up for their Pascal Nouma. One week after referee Ali Aydın referred to the French striker as “the black player,” the İnönü Stadium was filled with banners that read, “Hepimiz zenciyiz,” which means, “We are all black.”

The slogan quickly became a catchphrase in social life and was used to support anyone suffering from discrimination, most famously in protests of the assassination of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. Banners reading, “We are all Armenians” in Turkish and Armenian were raised in the air during the rallies.

But it may be deceptive as well, as racism is more than just skin deep.

For example, a debate sparked when Gençlerbirliği coach Samet Aybaba made a notorious comment about his player, Abdel Zaher El Saka, “This country prefers an Arab over me.” Most recently, Sivasspor’s Israeli striker Pini Balili has been the subject of racially abusive remarks.

During the gameagainst Sivas, Galatasaray fans yelled “damn Israel” in their chants before cursing at Balili.

Another columnist at Radikal, Bağış Erten, believes football’s dynamics differ from the rest of society.

“When Israeli Haim Revivo played for Fenerbahçe there were such protests,” said Erten. “After his move to Galatasaray, there were similar slogans, only coming from the other side.”

“If Balili was playing for Galatasaray, then the fans and team would try to protect him and the other teams would start to shout racist slogans,” Erten said.

Football and genocide

On a heavier note, following claims of injustice toward their team, Trabzonspor supporters threatened the Central Refereeing Committee, or MHK, Chairman Oğuz Sarvan with the slogan, “Armenian Oğuz, genocide for you!”

“Whatever is in the society is reproduced in stadiums and sometimes in a more violent way,” said Altınsay. “And some things said remain in use long after the game.”

Erten was shocked to see there were no legal investigations for that remark, let alone charging those who were responsible.

Turkish Football Federation regulations are broad enough to kick racism out of the game but despite Chairman Mahmut Özgener’s warning to avoid racist remarks in protests, no official investigations were made.

“It is in the books. There are enough rules to penalize a team for racist abuse, but nothing has happened yet,” said Erten.

Racist remarks are often made just to annoy the other team, but it is still dangerous. Sivas coach Bülent Uygun tried to protect Balili by trying to show that he is “one of us.” But Altınsay said the move was “even worse,” as if a foreign player can only continue his life by proving he is like a Turk. “The fact is discrimination has become an inseparable part of sports,” said Altınsay.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Erten, due to the “immunity” of football.

“Tax fraud is immoral, but when clubs do it, fans accept it,” he said. “Or you get beaten by police if you want a workers’ union, but everybody admires if you stand up to say there should be a union for footballers.”

And that can be the starting point. Just like Turkish people started to discuss the notion of nationality after Marco Aurelio of Brazilian descent was granted Turkish citizenship and became eligible to play for the national team.

And football can be a strange metaphor for life, when 11 people get to play for the same target, no matter how different they are.

“Just like society, football is a ground where differences live among each other,” said Altınsay. “Maybe there should be a team with a homosexual goalkeeper, Armenian right back, Kurdish and Alevi center backs, etc. The problem could be solved.”

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Source : HDN, 12.02.09

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