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The club that transcends football

STEVE SWEENEY writes about the political repression of the Kurdish football club Amedspor

AMEDSPOR football club was little known outside of Turkey and the Kurdish diaspora until its captain and star player Deniz Naki was shot at on a German autobahn in January 2018.

The German-born Kurdish footballer suspects the involvement of Turkish security services or right-wing nationalists, targeting him for his outspoken views on the so-called Kurdish question.

Naki had every right to be worried. In December, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) MP Garo Paylan revealed that he had been leaked details of death squads being sent across Europe, with a hit list of prominent critics of the Turkish state.

However, instead of offering assurances and protection, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) sensationally issued Naki with a life ban from playing in the country after a video was posted online with the footballer calling for people to attend a Cologne march in solidarity with Kurds in Afrin.

He clearly had a sense of what was coming. The day before the ban was imposed he announced that he would not be returning to Turkey as his safety could not be guaranteed and that he would be terminating his contract with Amedspor.

The ban was roundly condemned as an attack on freedom of thought and freedom of expression. HDP spokesman Ahmet Yildirim said it was the “most severe punishment in the history of Turkish football,” with Naki also fined a record 273,000 Turkish Lira (£45,000).

It was the latest in a string of attacks on Amedspor and Naki. In April 2017 he received an 18-month suspended jail sentence for supposedly “spreading terrorist propaganda” for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after he dedicated a crucial Amedspor victory to those who had been killed in the Turkish assault on Kurdish towns and cities following the breakdown of the peace process in 2015. If he returns to Turkey, Naki could be jailed.

The latest action against Naki and the club can be seen as an extension of Turkey’s war on Kurds. Supporters were banned from Amedspor’s match away to Sivas for supposed “security reasons.”

It was the first away game since Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, its deadly assault on Afrin in Rojava, northern Syria, which has left nearly 100 dead and many more maimed and injured.

Amedpsor refused to take to the field in protest at the ban and were docked three points. 

Club president Nurullah Edemen said Amedspor supporters had been banned from 41 of the last 61 matches over the last two-and-a-half years.

The timescale is significant. Over this period there has been an authoritarian clampdown across Turkish society. Hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers have been sacked, thousands of academics purged from their posts, and more journalists jailed than anywhere else in the world.

Democratically elected opposition politicians, including former HDP co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, remain in prison, with others receiving lengthy jail terms on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

The period has been marked by an escalation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s war on Kurds both in Turkey and across the border in Syria as he arbitrarily abandoned the peace process to pursue military action against Kurds.

Amedspor is targeted as it is seen as a symbol of Kurdish resistance. It has become the unofficial national team for Kurdish people across the world and, in many ways, it is a club that transcends football.

Its chairman Ihsan Avci describes the club as not “Diyarbakir’s team but Kurdistan’s team.”

Amedspor was born through struggle. Founded as Melikahmetspor, it became Diyarbakir’s team when it became a metropolitan city in the 1990s, playing in Turkey’s lower leagues.

The club started calling itself Amedspor from October 2014 and playing in green, yellow and red, leading to a 10,000-lira fine from the TFF for using an “unapproved name.”

Amed is the ancient name for Diyarbakir and is seen as the social, cultural and political capital of Turkey’s Kurdish community. 

The club’s story is intertwined with the oppression of the Kurds. Under the Turkification programme, the country sought to impose a forced cultural shift to create a unified nation-state.

The Kurdish language was banned and Kurdish schools closed down. Kurds were unable to practice their culture and traditions. The word Kurd was forbidden, even in private, with them referred to as “Mountain Turks.”

Geographical names that were deemed to be “foreign” and a threat to Turkish unity were banned or renamed.

In this context, the use of the name Amed was seen as a bold political move. Club officials agreed to apply to Turkish football authorities to make the name change official.

Edemen said the decision was intended to bring the club closer to the people, to be more inclusive. However, it proved too controversial for the TFF, which used bureaucratic manoeuvring to block the name change.

However as the political climate shifted with an ongoing peace process and negotiations taking place between the government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, it became more acceptable to use the name Amedspor and, in 2015, the TFF finally agreed to the change.

As the club voted on the change, another important vote was taking place which would change the political landscape in the country once again. 

The Turkish elections of June 2015 saw a breakthrough for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who broke through the arbitrary 10 per cent threshold and entered parliament.

It saw 80 pro-Kurdish HDP MPs elected but, more importantly, it ended the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) long-held majority.

Edemen said that it was at this point that the hostility and sanctions against Amedspor increased.

The club began the 2015-16 season for the first time officially known as Amedspor. The name change coincided with success on the pitch as the second-tier club achieved incredible results against bigger sides to advance to the quarter-finals of the Turkish Cup.

However, while Amedspor were enjoying sporting success, the fragile ceasefire ended and attacks on both the club and Turkey’s Kurdish population escalated.

Amedspor director of football Servet Evrol explained how, as the peace process broke down, the war on Kurds reached new levels.

“As the politicians’ discourse hardened, step by step people’s point of view changed on a larger scale. Racist and separatist discourse was everywhere and everyone began to see Amedspor as an illegal organisation,” he said.

The Turkish government suddenly and arbitrarily declared that the peace process was over.

Then prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu publicly blamed the PKK in order to justify a military response, saying the government had been “forced” to launch Operation Peace and Democracy in July 2015.

Tanks rolled into Kurdish towns and cities, with many reduced to rubble as Turkish armed forces moved in to crush the armed resistance. PKK fighters bedded in behind barricades and trenches for weeks as south-east Turkey once again became a war zone.

As war raged, Amedspor matches took on a new dimension. Evrol said: “Games became like a war mission. Turkish flags were everywhere.” He explained how the previous season the club had been seen as one of the fairest teams, but were now being fined for everything.

The atmosphere inside the stadiums became febrile. Amedspor and their supporters were subjected to racist abuse and branded “terrorists” by opposition fans.

While the matches were being played, the Kurdish city of Cizre was placed under military curfew. Turkish security forces were pummeling residential areas and residents sought refuge in basements across the city to escape the intense gunfire.

Kurdish citizens waving white flags were gunned down in the street, with the government claiming they had killed “PKK militants.” 

Naki met with the families of those killed and explained that they wanted peace and an end to the war.

After a match against Bursaspor, he tweeted: “Amedspor did not and will not bow down. We dedicate this victory to all who lost their lives or were left wounded in the atrocities going on for more than 50 days in our lands.”

It was a tweet that would land him with an unprecedented 12-match ban. And it would see him miss the crunch match against Turkish footballing giants Fenerbahce. Naki was branded a PKK terrorist and a traitor by opposing fans and the Turkish media.

While Naki was banned for the Fenerbahce match, the Amedspor team walked onto the pitch and refused to play for the opening few minutes, leaving the Fenerbahce players to kick the ball around among themselves.

Outside, Amedspor supporters were attacked with tear gas and smoke bombs.

The match finished in a 3-3 draw, a spectacular result against the millionaires of Fenerbache. Amedspor were beaten in Istanbul and the cup run was over, however they had given supporters and Kurds around the world something to be proud of in what are very dark times.

Now, with Turkey’s military assault on Afrin, the focus is once more on Amedspor as a centre of Kurdish resistance.

It has once again come under attack, with attempts to shut down its Facebook page and its supporters banned from away matches.

Erdogan is desperate to shore up support for Operation Olive Branch in the face of global condemnation. Those who speak out against his war face arrest and persecution.

And the TFF is not a neutral body, willingly joining Erdogan’s war on Kurds and operating not as an independent football authority but as another arm of the state.

Erdogan recognises the unifying power of football. He once said: “I believe politics and football share many common aspects at the core. Just like sports, the essence of politics is competition, race … Just like football, politics cannot be done without passion, love and dedication. You have to dedicate yourself.”

And with the TFF’s help, Erdogan has tried to secure political control of the game and break the resistance of fans across Turkey.

The hypocrisy of the TFF is staggering. While it is forcing football clubs to show support Turkey’s war on Kurds, Amedspor have been punished for carrying a banner and chanting the slogan: “Children shouldn’t die. Let them come to the match.”

Former Fifa president Sepp Blatter has said that football is a tool “in our quest for development and peace.” Yet for the TFF it seems slogans of peace are to be punished while slogans of war are to be promoted.

While world powers close their eyes to the war in Afrin, resistance is everywhere. No matter what happens, the Kurds will continue to fight for a democratic and inclusive society and the revolution in Rojava will prevail.

The future doesn’t belong to the Erdogans of the world but to those who are building peace. It is the cause of humanity.

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