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Euro 2020: A lifeline for Turkey's government?

Cengiz Ozbek
June 15, 2021

A botched pandemic response, economic crisis and shock claims from a mafia boss: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under fire. Despite losing the first two games, could a final 'home' game in Baku be a lifeline?

A photo of Turkey's national team
Turkey will face off against Wales and Switzerland later this weekImage: Andrew Medichini/Getty Images/AFP

The timing of Euro 2020 could scarcely be better for the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A new focal point is desperately needed in order to distract attention from serious economic and political problems at home. The delayed football tournament, which began with Turkey's 0-3 defeat to Italy in Rome on June 11, could be just the thing, despite a second loss to Wales on Wednesday night.

Of late, the Erdogan government has been badly hit by the sensational allegations of a fugitive mafia boss. Sedat Peker's weekly tell-all monologues, a viral series of YouTube videos seen more than 100 million times since the beginning of May, have rocked Erdogan's regime and brought Turkey's infamous "deep state" back in the spotlight.

Accusations of corruption, drug smuggling and murder

Peker, who once openly supported Erdogan's ruling party and fled Turkey in 2019 allegedly to avoid prosecution, has said he is now in Dubai. His accusations against current and former government officials range from corruption, covert arms deliveries and drug smuggling to rape and unsolved murders.

Sedat Peker's YouTube series has caused waves in Turkey
Sedat Peker's YouTube series has caused waves in TurkeyImage: REİS SEDAT PEKER/Youtube

Erdogan and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, the main target of Peker's monologues, have rejected the accusations. Erdogan has accused his opposition of relying on "slanders" by crime groups. Soylu, whose resignation has been demanded by the opposition, has said the accusations are a plot against Turkey.

As Peker's claims have put officials on the defensive, anticipation surrounding a hyped Turkish team preparing for Euro 2020 came to the government's rescue by putting the Turkish public under their spell, to a large extent.

However, according to opponents of the government in the football-crazy country, the effect of sport as "the opium of the people" will not last long this time.

Opposition lawmaker Erdogan Toprak
Opposition lawmaker Erdogan Toprak said football will not compensate for Turkey's issuesImage: DHA

Distraction is not big enough, says opposition

Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the chief adviser of the party leader, told DW that Turkey's Euro 2020 games can only really occupy the agenda in the country for a few days. "Turkey has problems so big that they can not be covered by a football match," he said.

"This bandage will not cover the wound," the former deputy head of the CHP added, referring to the high unemployment rate, high cost of living, tourism revenue loss caused by government pandemic mismanagement and the alleged cooperation between mafia boss Peker and Erdogan's party.

'Nobody can hide behind Turkish national team'

Arif Kizilyalin, a sports columnist for the Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, agrees with Toprak. "The problems in Turkey have blown past the point where football can make people forget them. Once in Latin America and Spain, there was a saying that 'football is the opium of the people.' But there is no painkiller or drug that can deaden the problems like the ones in Turkey," Kizilyalin told DW.

Turkish journalist Arif Kizilyalin
Turkish journalist Arif Kizilyalin said the Erdogan regime can't hide behind the national teamImage: privat

"I hope that Turkey will get enthusiastic and unite behind the national team, but, on the other hand, economic downturn with the Turkish lira at all-time low and Sedat Peker's claims will not be forgotten either. Nobody can hide behind the Turkish national team and try to make people forget those things this time," he said.

Turkish football has long been intertwined with politics. In 2020, upstarts Istanbul Basaksehir won the top-flight Super Lig with the help of substantial support and patronage from Erdogan and his allies. Nihat Ozdemir, the head of the Turkish Football Federation, is among a handful of contractors allegedly favored by the government and has very close ties to Erdogan.

Erdogan seeking an oasis

Toprak and Kizilyalin both suggest that the Turkish government will seek to exploit any possible success story by the national team at Euro 2020. Two losses make qualification a long shot, but a win against Switzerland on Sunday could still see them qualify. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Faced with a host of problems, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping for a boost from the EurosImage: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO via REUTERS

"I want the Turkish national team to be successful with all my heart. We are always proud of such a success. But they will definitely propagandize it," said Toprak. "Because there is no positive development in the country they govern. They want to benefit from the value created by someone else. But such a success would not be theirs. It would belong to the footballers on the pitch."

Kizilyalin also believes the government is doomed to fail to paint any positive outcome as its own success, even though it has control over more than 90% of Turkey's conventional media. "The Turkish national team is not President Erdogan's team," he said. "Success by the national team ... would purely belong to the coach Senol Gunes and his team." 

Another bad start

Günes is looking to repeat the success of his 2002 World Cup campaign, in which he led Turkey to third. Turkey will also take inspiration from their third-place finish at Euro 2008, in which the team was labeled the "Comeback Kings."

Turkey fell to a heavy defeat in their opener against Italy
Turkey fell to a heavy defeat in their opener against Italy on FridayImage: Mike Hewitt/REUTERS

And they'll have to live up to that reputation this year as well after continuing their record of losing all of their opening games at major tournaments with that deserved defeat against Italy.

Fortunately, Turkey's fixture with Switzerland, like the match in Wales, takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan, and has been dubbed a "home game" due to the close links between the two nations.

Baku factor

Over 20,000 Turkish fans are expected to travel to the Azeri capital, and the team will also be able to count on support from locals, with whom they share close ethnic Turkic ties.

Indeed, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and football federation boss Ozdemir both underlined the neighboring countries' "two states, one nation" motto following last month's friendly game between Turkey and Azerbaijan in the southern Turkish province of Antalya.

Cavusoglu praised the Turkish fans, who also chanted for Azerbaijan during the game and showed everybody "to whom Karabakh belongs." Turkey had provided military support to Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh late last year.

Speaking to reporters along with the Turkish officials, Rovnag Abdullayev, the head of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan, said that he hoped the Turkish national team would win its games in Baku with the help of the Azeri fans in the stands.

But whether it will be enough to see Turkey progress from Group A and distract from dissatisfaction with Erdogan at home remains to be seen.

When can Turkey become a football powerhouse?

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