There were two main reasons for the AK Party government to want to play the Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. One was to bypass the 100th year celebrations, for which Riyadh would be a suitable venue. The second reason was to sweeten the Saudis through the match to secure financial support.
The decision to play the match in Riyadh was much debated when it first came up. Sensible people warned that this was not the right choice. It was reminded that the restrictions brought by the Saudis would put both teams and Turkey in difficulty. However, the government, which does whatever it sets its mind to, did not back down from this decision.
On Friday, December 29, 2023, everything seemed fine at first, but as time progressed, complications began to arise. While Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe were warming up before the match, information spread that the cup bearing symbols related to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, was being obstructed.
While there was debate over whether what was circulating on social media was true, the TRT Sports announcer reported that Saudi police were guarding the doors of the Turkish teams’ locker rooms for control. The police were to check the jerseys that Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray would wear as they entered the field, and whether they were carrying anything.
This development meant that the concerns shared on social media were confirmed.
Upon this development, the presidents of both teams, Dursun Özbek and Ali Koç, announced they would not participate in a match where commemorating Atatürk was not accepted. Solutions were sought. Osman Aşkın Bak, the Minister of Youth and Sports, TFF President Mehmet Büyükekşi, Galatasaray President Dursun Özbek, and Fenerbahçe President Ali Koç held long meetings.
Al-Riyadh News reported, “Ali Koç came to the meeting upon requests and said angrily, ‘What do you mean no Atatürk? If there is no Atatürk, there is no Turkey, we are not there, and neither is the match,’ and left the room.”
This also meant that the ties had been severed. Those who tried to diminish the 100th Year Cup by taking it out of Turkey thus caused an international crisis. After the meeting, President Ali Koç, who said only, “We are returning,” was noticeably red-faced.
Turkey had declared a national day of mourning on January 24 and lowered flags to half-mast following the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2015. Saudi officials, saying, “Atatürk is a political figure. We will not allow the politicization of sports encounters,” refused to allow jerseys bearing the photo of the country’s founding leader into the stadium.
THE SAUDIS WHO BENT THE RULES FOR RONALDO’S GIRLFRIEND
When legendary Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr football team was discussed last year, the status of his girlfriend, Georgina Rodriguez, whom he has been with since 2016 without marriage, immediately came to mind.
Journalists spent days looking for an answer to the question of whether Ronaldo could bring his partner, given the Sharia law against extramarital relationships. Saudi authorities assured Ronaldo privately and informed him that there would be no problem in bringing his girlfriend.
While Saudi officials turned a blind eye to Sharia law for Ronaldo, they could not tolerate Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray wanting to enter the field with a message commemorating Atatürk on the occasion of the 100th Year, reminding them of the rules to be followed.
It may be understandable that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants the rules of his own country to be followed. However, he seemed to see taking advantage of Turkey’s economic crisis as a matter of pride.
Prince Salman, who closed the criminal file related to the murder and acid dissolution of Saudi regime critic journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in the heart of Istanbul, at the consulate building, for a few billion dollars, made his visit to Turkey last year seem more like a colonial visit.
It is an international protocol rule; a visiting head of state salutes the ceremonial troops in the language of the host country. Prince Salman, during his visit to Ankara on June 22, 2022, greeted with “Selamün aleyküm” instead of “Merhaba asker.” Those who shared this image for protest purposes found consolation in the fact that the soldier did not respond with “Thank you.”
BÜYÜKEKŞİ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE, BUT THE VICTIM OF THE SITUATION
Mehmet Büyükekşi, the head of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF), should not be forgotten as a victim, not the responsible party in this situation. Those who ignore that this project is stamped from beginning to end by the Beştepe Palace are deflecting the target. Büyükekşi is not the president, but acts as the palace secretary appointed to head the TFF.
Those who are opposed to the government and even those who support it but do not abandon the Atatürkist approach often make Büyükekşi the scapegoat, directing all accusations at him, as they cannot speak against the one sitting in Beştepe Palace. Büyükekşi’s term was effectively over with the incident where Faruk Koca, the president of the home club of the Ankaragücü-Çaykur Rizespor match, punched the referee. After the Super Cup incident, it seems to be officially over. Thus, Beştepe Palace will have taken a bit of pressure off by throwing Büyükekşi in front of those demanding a sacrifice.
THIS COUNTRY’S FOUNDATION IS STILL BASED ON ATATÜRKISM
The developments triggered by what happened in Riyadh show that the AK Party, which has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, is still far from the point it wants to reach in the country. In fact, the Super Cup incident showed that the Islamist atmosphere that seems to dominate Turkey has not yet entered an irreversible path.
Over the years of AK Party rule, secularism was effectively destroyed in the country, the constitution was suspended, and millions chose to cower in fear of Beştepe. Even those claiming to be Atatürkists did not go beyond giving tepid responses to all that happened.
The opposition, especially the Atatürkists, found an opportunity to raise their voices over what happened in Saudi Arabia. That’s one side of it. In my opinion, the most important aspect of what happened that day was that it revealed that all of them, despite being pumped up by the state with political Islam and opening the way for sects and communities, were just paper tigers.
Football again showed that it is more than just a sport. The political authority has been trying to manage football in a way that does not leave it to sports for a long time. What happened in Riyadh will undoubtedly reflect in the stadiums. In the coming period, we will likely hear the Tenth Year March and the chants of “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” from the stands.
Indeed, after Ali Koç’s statement, “If there is no Atatürk, there is no Turkey, we are not there, and neither is the match,” Beşiktaş first shared the message “We follow Ata” from its official account. Beşiktaş was followed by Trabzonspor, Göztepe, Karşıyaka, Gençlerbirliği, Ankaragücü, Adanademirspor, and others.
Efforts will be made to prevent this voice from reaching Beştepe. Following the proposal of Meral Akşener, the leader of the İYİ Party, they may declare both teams as “owners of the Super Cup” without playing the match and try to break the undercurrent by “honoring.”
The presidents of the Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray teams, before the Super Cup match, may even come together to have mixed seating for fans. This could be presented as a reaction against Saudi Arabia. If this happens, someone’s fears will have been greatly stirred.
The situation seems to have caused a February 28 syndrome for some. While supporters of the government chose not to be seen, among those whose voices were heard, journalist Haşmet Babaoğlu likened the situation to 25 years ago.
Turkey continues to swing back and forth between extremes instead of stability.