ANKARA : This week’s shocking attack on a referee by a club president has thrust the entire culture of Turkish football into the spotlight, with the escalating problems of political influence and disrespect for officials at the heart of the debate.
The whole sport was shocked on Monday as Faruk Koca, the president of top flight club Ankaragucu, punched the referee Halil Umut Meler at the end of the match, with other officials kicking the referee in the head while he was on the ground.
All league football in Turkey was postponed for a week and Koca was banned from football for life, while Super Lig club Ankaragucu were forced to pay a two million lira ($69,000) fine and play five home games without fans.
The assault drew swift condemnation from various places, including Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, soccer’s world governing body FIFA, the Turkish Football Federation and media.
Headlines such as “A punch of shame” and “Scandal” have made the front pages, showing the gravity of the situation amid calls for the government to ensure even tougher sanctions.
Koca, a former politician and an old friend of Erdogan’s, could face a prison term of more than 10 years. Two other officials have also been arrested for their role in the attack.
The attack came two months after Turkey was awarded joint hosting rights with Italy for the 2032 European Championship and although UEFA says it is a domestic problem for the Turkish federation to deal with, it hardly enhances their reputation.
“These kind of incidents cause irreversible and incredible harm to the value of Turkish football,” former Besiktas and Turkey midfielder Ali Gultekin said.
“The incident may be unprecedented but definitely not unexpected, given the escalating criticism and even threats against referees.”
The incident marked another low point for Turkish football, where criticism of refs and discontent with the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system have been escalating.
Dereli pointed to the deeply intertwined relationship between politics and football in Turkey, implicating the government’s overreaching influence in various parts of the sport.
“The government’s policies on football have collapsed,” he said. “The government has become too involved and has too much influence on everything from the assignment of chairmen and coaches, to the selection of players, from funding of football teams to the assignment of referees.
“Football has lost its freedom. The election of who runs the Turkish Football Federation is fully directed by politics. Without addressing Turkish political influence on football, we cannot solve the real issues.”
Gultekin and Dereli said the “toxic” culture within Turkish football had been exploited by clubs, each vying to garner support from fans and grow their following, with the targeting of referees often a convenient scapegoat for bad results.
The attack has also added to the growing concerns about the diminishing respect for referees across Europe, a trend exacerbated by the problematic adoption of VAR.
Referee relations in Turkey have been strained, with personal information of officials, including background, affiliations, and officiating records, often becoming the subject of intense scrutiny and social media posts.
Hugh Dallas, the Super Lig’s head of referee education, was in the stadium when the event happened and has called for governments to take action.
“There has to be legislation and punishments put in place for clubs, players, owners or whoever when they behave in such a manner because it definitely can’t continue,” Dallas told the BBC.
Prominent referee Ali Palabiyik, who has officiated in the Champions League and other big competitions, quit this year at 42 following public criticism of his mistakes during matches.
“The number of referees in Turkey are falling by the day due to pressure from the federation. We should learn to respect referees or it will become difficult to find referees to be assigned to matches,” Palabiyik said.
“Serious sanctions are required for those who caused this situation, those who paved the way and those who made statements contributing to it, with careful implementation of necessary measures to ensure it does not happen again.”