Amedspor tackling opponents on and off the soccer pitch
"I gave a military salute after my goal against Amedspor. This wasn’t done spontaneously; my former teammates and I decided before the game that we would give a nationalistic message in Diyarbakır," says Timur Kosavalı, who is a professional soccer player currently playing for Amedspor. Kosovalı was congratulated for his goal, which he scored for his team at the time, Ankaragücü, and he went about his regular life.
His military salute was a calculated move to ignite nationalistic sentiments at a time when Kurdish towns were in the crossfire in between the Kurdish insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish state forces. Civilians were losing their lives daily in the conflict zones of Kurdish majority province of Diyarbakır, the biggest city of southeastern Turkey that is of great significance to Kurds.
This was not the only military salute given in a game with Amedspor by a player from an opposing team. Across Turkey, a large number of teams have turned their match with Amedspor into a sensational and national tussle. In another game, footballer Semih Şentürk of the Başakşehir Soccer Club, struck the same pose for which his team's 20,000 supporters chanted "Martyrs don't die. The homeland cannot be divided,” in reference to Turkey.
In the same game, Amedspor carried a banner which read "Children should not die. Let them attend the games.” The team’s fans roared the same line at a time the animosity between Turkish and Kurdish society were pushing them apart. The police then reportedly attacked Amedspor fans, with some fans being taken into police custody. In fact, 36 of the team’s supporters are facing an ongoing for the message they gave. The peaceful message also cost to the club; the message was found to be ”ideological propaganda" by Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and the club was fined the amount of $1,250.
The same banner calling for children to attend the games cost Amedspor a punishment of 39 away games. For some, soccer is just a game to rally together with friends: however, for Amedspor, it’s a platform to express the deepest and most desperate cries of Kurds for freedom and justice. Having embraced the societal problems and bringing the plight of civilians from conflict zones to the soccer pitch through banners has cost Amedspor dearly ever since the peace process between the government and the PKK fell through.
The polarisation of society in Turkey during the height of the conflict was reflected in the treatment Amedspor received, particularly during their away games. "Terrorists out" is the worst of slogans captain of the team Deniz Naki endures, chanted by opposing team supporters as Amedspor players step onto the soccer pitch.
Born and raised in Germany, Naki broke a Turkish record after he was given a 12-game ban for devoting his team's success to those who lost their lives or were injured under oppression. Furthermore, the mid-fielder faces a two-year prison term if he commits a similar ‘crime’ nin the next five years while he was also forced to pay a fine of $5,000 for expressing his thoughts.
His case was later taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). "I'm not putting high hopes on to the outcome of the case," Naki says. The player who has the Kurdish word for freedom - "azadi" - tattooed on his arm, joined the team back in 2015, just before conflict reignited in southeastern Turkey. Previously having played on the German teams of St Pauli and Paderborn, Naki has always brought forward the problems facing Kurds across the Middle East. "But it was not an issue in Europe, thanks to room for freedom of expression I was given there," he stressed.
The messages and the military salutes given in Turkish football recalls the words of Simon Kuper that "Football is never only football.”
“I helped Timur Kosavalı sign his contract with Amedspor after his military salute and introduced him to Kurdish culture here. I think he has since overcome his bias towards Kurds. Football helped him learn useful lessons for the rest of his life," says local footballer Mehmet Sıddık İstemi, the více-captain of Amedspor.
Wearing number the team’s no. 21 jersey, which happens to be Diyarbakır's license plate code, Istemi says he has played in teams based in Black Sea area of Turkey and has never faced racism: "Amedspor gives political messages from time to time. This is fine in Spain and other countries, but it is a problem here. The Kurdish political leaders who were voted for by millions have been imprisoned. If a democratic space had been allotted for the Kurdish leaders, this would have affected the team positively."
The nationalist attitude against Amedspor began when the team underwent a name change. Previously called Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality Club, the team, in 2014, began to be called Amedspor by both supporters and players. The TFF accepted the team’s name change one year later. Amed Sports Activities Club, in its first season of 2015-16, gained impressive grounds in the TFF’s Second League amidst more established clubs.
"We beat big clubs like Fenerbahçe and Bursaspor which drew a great deal of attention to our club. Our success with our Kurdish name was something difficult to accept for so many people in western Turkey. More so, we represent Kurdish part of Turkey through the messages we give. Our widespread support base from the region and success in last season gave way to an increased hostility towards us," said Istemi.
However, the success of the team took a hit this season, with their standing in the league dropping considerably despite the signing on of eight professional players from bigger clubs in western Turkey. The club struggled to pay the salaries of these new footballers and the players submitted an official complaint to the TFF, demanding their salaries be paid or they be allowed to walk out.
The club historically held financial support from municipality of Diyarbakir, however, following the arrival of a new mayor in Diyarbakır last November, the funds for the team were cut. President of the club, Nurullah Edemen, said he is throwing in the towel this week because of club’s dire financial situation. "Financial support for us stopped with the arrival of the new mayor. Last year, we opened a store in Diyarbakır but it only brings in money for us when we have success as team. We created our best ever team for this season but because we were unable to pay our players for the past 17 games, they’ve left," Edemen said and added: "One of the remaining challenges for Amedspor is to attract more business support and choose its new club leader this week."
Before a new management is formed this week, the team will trainer already changed last month after the criticisms for team's low performance. Amidst a restructuring of the team, a new stadium with a 33,500 capacity is due to open in early 2018, located close to the training facilities of the club. In a great contrast with the teams' current stadium, which has a mere capacity of 2,700, the brand new arena will make soccer more significant for the city than it is now.
In a war-torn city where thousands of homes have been destroyed, the new stadium, some say, can be utilised as a "sleeping bag" by the state, a metaphor once used by fascist leader Francisco Franco Bahamonde on how stadiums can be utilised in controlling crowds.
Meanwhile members of a group who call themselves ‘’Resistance and Barricade’’ say they will continue to wear "Against Modern Football" sweatshirts to send the message that football should be free from being turned into a state tool.