UEFA’s Euro 2024 verdict could be big boost for Turkey’s Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's first official visit to Germany as president this week coincides with UEFA's decision on whether Turkey or Germany will host the Euro 2024 European Football Championship.

If the vote by the 17-member UEFA Board of Directors goes his way, it could provide a valuable boost to Erdoğan as he struggles with an economy in crisis, criticism of his record on human rights and democracy, and a diplomatic dispute with the United States. 

A keen amateur footballer in his youth, Erdoğan’s interest in the sport is undiminished and he frequently comments on the national game. The year his party came to power in 2002, Turkey's national team came in third in the World Cup, but has struggled since; the only major tournament it has qualified for being European championships in 2008. 

With Erdoğan at the helm, Turkey has applied to host the Olympics three times and the European Football Championship four times. 

Turkey lost its Olympic bids to Beijing and London for the 2008 and 2012 games. Competing against Tokyo and Madrid for the 2020 Olympics, Turkey promised nine times more investment than Tokyo and four times more than Madrid. But despite promised investment in facilities, transportation, and construction worth $20 billion, and despite plans for an Olympic City to host one million people, Tokyo was chosen instead. 

The International Olympic Committee, meeting in Buenos Aires in September 2013, took into consideration the violent police action and judicial crackdown that year against protesters who demonstrated against the redevelopment of an Istanbul park. The Gezi Park protests spread across the country and morphed into the biggest demonstrations yet against Erdogan’s rule.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has also applied to host the European Football Championship in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020 and lost out each time.

When Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark dropped their plans to make a joint bid to host Euro 2024, it left only Turkey and Germany competing to hold the tournament. 

UEFA has given Turkey a high score for the construction of new facilities, infrastructure, and stadiums during. The president has attended the opening ceremonies of most of the stadiums rebuilt and renamed after the demolition of older football grounds and athletic fields that were often named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of republic.

Demolishing old stadiums in city centres, where land is particularly valuable, and giving the contracts to construct new out-of-town stadiums to firms close to the government has made a significant contribution to the ruling party.  

Ali Sami Yen stadium, the home of Galatasaray football club in Istanbul's busy Şişli district, was demolished and a luxurious shopping mall and apartments were built in its place. But when Galatasaray's new stadium, the Türk Telekom Arena, was opened on the edge of the sprawling city in 2011, Erdoğan was forced to leave the ceremony in the face of thousands of fans whistling in protest. So, when Inönü stadium, named after Atatürk’s right-hand man and successor, was changed to the Vodafone Park Arena, the opening ceremony was held without spectators. 

Erdoğan Toprak, an opposition member of parliament and former sports minister, protested the Islamist government’s ditching of names from the staunchly secularist early republican era, the numerous doping scandals involving Turkish athletes and the drafting in of foreigners hastily awarded Turkish citizenship in order to boost the country’s sporting success.

"For 16 years, you have been building arenas everywhere, but there's been no athletic success, only doping success. Turkish sports are now being remembered for doping. Players for the national table tennis team include Ahmet Li, Melek Hu and Merve Wang. The track and field team consists of Kenyans, Ethiopians, Cubans and Jamaicans. You're expecting medals and success with devshirmeh athletes,” he said, referring to the Ottoman practice of press-ganging youths from non-Muslim subject peoples into the military.

“The arena was where gladiators killed each other in Rome," Toprak said.

But it was only after it was pointed out that the word arena was not a Turkish word, that Erdoğan, who had opened many of these stadiums, launched a campaign to find a Turkish equivalent. One by one, the word arena was dropped from stadiums across the country. 

The biggest handicap to Turkey holding the European Championship is UEFA’s condition that the host demonstrate a "commitment to devising an action plan on human rights." 

Germany has met this criterion. The Turkey Football Federation has only said it remained committed to political rights and human rights, but has not presented an actionable plan.

One problem is Turkey’s restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic products. For example, if a beer company signed a sponsorship deal for the UEFA tournament, then it would be against the law in Turkey. Alcohol sales are not allowed after 10 pm and are punished with hefty fines for both sellers and buyers. 

After these restrictions went into effect, Efes Pilsen, a big basketball team named after the country’s largest beer brand, had to change its name and sponsor to stay in the league. The beer brand also had to cancel sponsorships agreements worth millions of dollars with Istanbul’s three biggest football teams, Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş, and Galatasaray.   

While Germany has said it would rent UEFA the 10 stadiums needed for Euro 2024, Turkey has promised to provide all facilities and personnel free of charge. While Germany has said UEFA would not be tax exempt, Turkey has promised all kinds of tax exemptions.

A UEFA report last week raised concerns about Turkey's ability to finish all the construction projects it has promised before 2024 due to the country's economic problems, cuts in public investments and other austerity measures. But the report is not binding and the 17-member board could still back Turkey. That would be a major political victory for Erdoğan and could see him greeted with a hero’s reception when he returns home from Germany.