Football under siege: Amedspor vs. the Erdogan regime

Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule is a bizarre place. Whatever you do, whatever you say, you somehow get into trouble. Take Beritan Canözer and Hayri Tunç for instance, two of many Kurdish reporters who are officialy “not imprisoned for being journalists.” Or if you meddle with government’s shady weapon deals with fundamentalist death squads in Syria, like Erdem Gül and Can Dündar did, not only you end up in prison but you also face multiple life sentences. Not everybody rots in jail, of course not. If you are an academic having signed a petition hoping peace would prevail at the end, a pro-Erdogan mob leader wants to “shower in your blood”, pro-government thugs mark your office door and you lose your job. Even if you are a dull, apolitical talk-show host with no political leanings whatsoever, you are forced to appear on live TV in order to apologize from the oh-so-mighty Turkish nation as one caller wished “kids wouldn’t die,” and your show is still fined a fortune. Why? Because this is a vindictive, petty regime, showing the worst display of micromanagement in any possible occurrence.

Do you know Amedspor club and Deniz Naki? Of course not, they play in some lower division of Turkish leagues, of which even the top division is hardly appealing. This club of predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, or Amed in Kurdish, beat the odds in the nobody-cares Turkish Cup, reaching the quarter finals. For most people, the story began when their star player, former Leverkusen and St.Pauli guy Deniz Naki scored the victory goal against Bursaspor, a team with some notorious Turkish ultra-nationalistic fans. Deniz has actually never been shy about politics or his identity. Unlike many others, he did not chose to hide the fact that he’s Kurdish and Alevite, a deadly combination if you do anything slightly mainstream in Turkey. When playing in Gençlerbirliği of Ankara, he actively participated in a social media campaign against ISIS. Because of that, he had to flee the country as ISIS militants roughed him up and threatened his life. Then, he returned, to Amedspor, the Kurdish club that chose not to disguise who they are. It was a match made in heaven, even though Deniz was from the rival Kurdish town Dersim. Or in Turkish terms, a match made under siege. We will come back to Deniz…

Amedspor’s story is not that new. The club was founded as a municipality club in 1990, like most provincial clubs in Turkey. However, the giant difference was; the municipality of Diyarbakır has been a stronghold of Kurdish political movement for some years. The club was bound to be a identity club, in the likes of Barcelona, Celtic or Athletic Bilbao; just in a much smaller scale. However, it established some reputation in the city, overshadowing Diyarbakırspor, the state-approved team that had once reached the top division, but now in ruins. And in 2014, it changed its name to Amedspor, a dreaded name for Turks who were raised being fed nowhere in Turkey never ever had a name in Kurdish, in Armenian or in Greek. But Amed was Amed now, and the Turkish Football Federation had to deal with it. The name was initially rejected, but later accepted as Amed Sportif Activities (Amed SK) in exchange of changing its colours from green-red-yellow (the dreaded colours that should not be juxtaposed) to green-red and white.

Through its recent run in the Turkish Cup, Deniz Naki has been the heart and soul of Amedspor. Not only he was the star, but he was some sort of icon, who placed Amedspor on the map, while the name Amed could not be used in any other map in Turkey. Deniz and his teammates handsomely reached the knockout rounds and scored an unforgettable win against Bursaspor, the fans of which once greeted Diyarbakır fans with racist slurs. Undoubtedly, it raised some highbrows in Ankara. But everything actually started a bit before that.

Two buddy-buddies: President Erdoğan and TFF President Demirören

In the last round robin game, already-qualified Amedspor played versus Başakşehir, a pro-government club. Başakşehir’s stadium was opened by a North Korea-style ridiculous friendly game in which a number of celebrities, including Turkish Football Federation officials, assisted presidential candidate Tayyip Erdoğan to score a couple of goals to boost his morale before the elections. Amed reached the final minutes 2–1 ahead against Başakşehir, and the Istanbul team scored an equalizer in the 90+5, by former international Semih Şentürk. Semih celebrated this goal with a military salute, as a reference to Turkish troops that completely demolished a part of Diyarbakır, causing the death of dozens of civilians. During the game, traveling Amed fans chanted “we will win as we resist” and “kids should not die, they should see the matches as well.” As a result, 29 fans were taken into custody by the police, given harsh treatment, handcuffed from behind and deprived from basic needs for quite some time.

Before the game, Bursa local press and the national pro-government press already heated the city by calling Amed fans “traitors.” Bursa’s ultra-nationalistic fans, notorious for attacking some leftist and pro-LGBT rallies in the city, brought Turkish and Ottoman flags to the stadium “against the enemy.” Meanwhile, Amedspor fans were not allowed in the stadium. One Amed fan who sneaked into the stadium was taken into custody.

After Amed’s victory, Amedspor fans in Bursa were yet again taken into custody, while police in Diyarbakır attacked celebrating fans with water-cannons and teargas. Also, the club HQ was raided by police due to a tweet posted from an unofficial Twitter account.

Nevertheless, Amedspor was not broken yet. They have not regretted their daring win in Bursa. So, Turkish Football Federation, yeah the guys who played football with the president, took the stand. The TFF first announced that Amedspor’s semi-final game versus Fenerbahçe would be played behind closed doors, so that no Amed fan could witness the club’s greatest game against one of the greatest clubs in the country. But that was not enough. Deniz Naki should have been penalized too. Because not only he scored the winning goal, but he repeated later that “kids shouldn’t have died.” He received one of the heaviest suspensions in TFF history, a stunning 12-match ban. 12 games, one game more than what Engin Baytar who openly attacked a referee received; 11 more than what Emre Belözoğlu, the national team captain who threatened to slit one opposing player’s throat.

Turkey is such a place now. You cannot demand peace, you cannot wish kids would not die and why not, you cannot even win a football game that you were not supposed to win. A bizarre autocracy, recently funded by the EU, in exchange of becoming the world’s biggest prison for refugees. This is a place where even hope is not tolerated, neither for refugees’ children, nor for ours. Amedspor and Deniz Naki did the worst deed, they became hope for their people. And this regime would not let them get away with it.

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