Turkish football slips deeper into grip of politics, Qatar

A decision by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to hold the Super Cup final - between this season's Super League champions and the Turkish Cup winner - in Qatar in 2021 has left a large number of people in Turkey’s political and sports circles scratching their heads.

The move by the TFF is seen as further pushing Turkey into the arms of ally Gulf state Qatar.

This will the be the first time the prestigious final is held in a country outside Turkey or Germany, which is home to millions of Turks.

The TFF has cited the pandemic as the reason for the move, but critics and opposition lawmakers know that Turkish football is intertwined with politics - and politics in the country have long been entangled with the oil and gas-rich Gulf nation.

Turkey’s largest digital publication platform, Digitürk, was acquired by Qatari beIN Sports in 2015. beIN also has the broadcast rights to Super League matches.

It is believed that beIN played a role in the decision for the Super Cup final to be held in Qatar.

The Qatari network had stopped payments to the TFF and Turkey’s football clubs after the COVID-19 pandemic led a halt in the league in March. beIN had previously threatened to scrap a live broadcast agreement at a time when the Turkish lira took a downward spiral, unless the TFF and the Super League clubs worked with a fixed currency rate.

Since then, the rate has remained a mystery, with the neither the TFF nor beIN Sports disclosing the figure.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Erdoğan Toprak has been among the vocal critics of the decision to hold the Super Cup final in Qatar.

“What is this love that Turkey’s ruling power has for Qatar? Does Qatar’s beIN now run our football, too?’’ Toprak said on Twitter. “Or is this a marketing strategy to sell a Turkish club to Qataris?”

There has been ramped up discussions about corruption in Turkish soccer after Istanbul’s three great clubs - Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, and Galatasaray - put forth lacklustre performances this year.

Critics have attributed their uninspired season to referee appointments and mistakes, brought on by state-level interference.

The two teams battling it out at the top of the Super League, Istanbul Başakşehir and Trabzonspor, are receiving a helping hand from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, the Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, respectively.

The pair are unapologetic supporters of the two teams that have catapulted to the top of the Turkish league this year.

In July, Başakşehir celebrated its first-ever Turkish Super League championship after rival Trabzonspor suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of Konyaspor.

Trabzonspor defeated Alanyaspor to win the Turkish Cup in late July.

In June, a bar association in Trabzon filed a criminal complaint against Başakşehir’s president and members of the TFF for allegedly influencing referee decisions against Trabzonspor.

Başakşehir’s President Göksel Gümüşdağ happens to be related to Erdoğan’s wife, Emine, by marriage. The main sponsor of Başakşehir, which Erdoğan says he himself founded, is Medipol - a hospital chain owned by Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.

Both teams are receiving serious government backing, with government-linked contractors and public banks providing them with financial support, advertising resources and sponsorships.

The 2019-20 Super League champion Başakşehir’s championship celebrations saw the appearance of Erdoğan and his son, Bilal.

Meanwhile, a number of media outlets, such as Sabah, which is headed by Albayrak’s brother, Serhat Albayrak, A Haber, A Spor, Fanatik and ATV covered Başakşehir’s championship as being highly questionable, pointing to intentionally bad calls by referees in a number of games.

There are talks in political and government circles that the Super League champion Başakşehir will be acquired by Qatar this season.

The same claim was made last year, on the condition but forth by Qatar that the club’s market value increases and it wins the right to participate in the Champion’s League next season - two requirements that have since been met.

Meanwhile, TFF President Nihat Özdemir has defended the holding of the Super Cup final in Qatar, saying the clubs will make money through the move, while the Turkish league teams would be given a chance to showcase themselves.

The current picture in Turkish football  - played under the shadow of the country’s politics - is grim, and increasingly under the influence of one of Turkey’s only foreign allies, Qatar.