Soccer mirrors politics in polarized Turkey

For much of the 15-plus years that he has run the country, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has largely had his way as he tightened his grip on power. So when a newish soccer team that he is overtly promoting lost 2-0 to Galatasaray — one of the country’s big three teams — in a Turkish Super League match on Sunday, his opponents reacted with glee.

Meral Aksener, a female right-wing nationalist contender for the presidency, gloated: “Galatasaray 2-0 Recep Tayyip Erdogan” in a tweet that had drawn 8,000 comments, 42,000 retweets and 117,000 likes at last count. Cemal, a prominent opposition columnist and die-hard Galatasaray fan, tweeted: “This victory is in a different league.” An angry Erdogan supporter riposted, “Recep Tayyip Erdogan will score the real goal in the 2019 [presidential] election.”

The lineup on both sides broadly mirrored the deepening polarization in Turkey, with the conservative Islamic values Basaksehir on one side, and Galatasaray — a team favored by the pro-secular, urban elite and middle classes — on the opposite. Galatasaray is also supported by millions of Kurds because the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is a big fan. This is because — so the rumor goes — the juxtaposition of the team’s yellow and red colors with the green of a soccer pitch evokes the PKK flag. At the end of the fixture, thousands of Galatasaray fans began chanting, “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers,” referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

If the same constellation of opposition groups (the pro-secular opposition and the Kurds) could join forces against Erdogan in the presidential polls, they could defeat him in the first round of polling. But for now, that’s a long shot.

The match was soaked in politics from the minute Erdogan pulled up at his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Basaksehir branch a day before…

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