It is June 8, 1969. The national teams of Honduras and El Salvador face each other in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico. The players of the El Salvador team are sleepless. The night before, Honduran fans had surrounded the hotel where the opposing team’s players were staying and made noise until dawn. This was a very effective and common practice in those years.
The result of the match: Honduras defeated a sleep-deprived El Salvador 1-0. With the final whistle, the whole country turns into a feast. They have gained a small advantage for the rematch. Now it’s time to rejoice without forgetting the match a week later.
In the same minutes, in El Salvador, eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanias, who had watched her team’s defeat on television, took her father’s pistol and put it to her heart. It is not known whether the hand that pulled the trigger hesitated, but the young girl died instantly. The next day the newspapers ran headlines like “She could not bear to see the destruction of her homeland”. The funeral ceremony is broadcast on television. At the head of the funeral procession is a company of military guards carrying flags. The Prime Minister and the Ministers walk with their heads held high, following the flag-draped coffin. There is only one thought in their minds: revenge.
A week later, the match in El Salvador is played under extraordinary circumstances. The army surrounds the stadium. There are soldiers with machine guns on the playing field. El Salvador wins the match 3-1. Perhaps for the first time in his life, the coach of the Honduran team prayed to lose a match. He didn’t even want to think about what would have happened if they had won. That day, two Honduran fans lost their lives, along with hundreds of wounded. A few hours later, the border between the two states was closed. Soon the war began, which would last five days and end only with the intervention of Latin American states. The balance sheet: 4,000 dead, more than 12,000 wounded. 50 thousand people lost their homes and land.
The extent to which a game can be substituted, and that it is not as innocent as one might think, has become evident with this incident. The relationship between football, which can mobilize national and chauvinist sentiments in a very short time, and politics is inevitable, as such mass demonstrations allow populist policies to spread to the grassroots very quickly. In addition, it can be easily said that football is a culture industry instrument that ensures reconciliation with the system and reproduces the dominant discourse.
What happened to Halil Umut Meler (Turkish football referee) is an ordinary incident in our football climate, where lynch culture has found an uncontrolled channel to flow for a long time. Without mincing words, there is nothing surprising about a football club president punching a referee who is being cursed at by the stands, targeted by the administrators in ever-increasing doses, and insulted by sports commentators. One might even say that the timing was a bit late. Because, as Mete Kalkavan, who made a press statement on behalf of the referees, said, “Unfortunately, the only institution in Turkey that is free to slander, swear at and fabricate baseless lies about is the refereeing institution.” This justified observation is not a phenomenon unique to today.
What started in the early 19th century as an ordinary pastime for the working class in England has now turned into a global phenomenon. Football, which has been industrialized in Europe, especially in England, since the early 1980s, has become a major industry in Turkey since the end of the 1990s, with the spread of mass media, increasing broadcasting revenue sources, new stadiums supported by the state, sponsorship agreements, merchandising revenues and expensive transfers. So much so that the annual budgets of super league clubs now rival those of major corporations. Therefore, this game has become the most direct medium for all kinds of political ideologies to manifest themselves. Because the structure called the tribune, even though it is composed of different social classes, paradoxically gives homogeneous reactions. Such a target market is a boon for mercantilized organizations, from the state to political parties. Of course, this structural form did not emerge on its own. There is a conscious design behind it to some extent.
For a long time, football in Turkey has been an extremely useful medium as an important tool for managing group energy and psychology in a politically harmless way. After the 80 coup d’état, while all kinds of organizations were banned in the country and even the gathering of three or five people was deemed objectionable, fan groups were exempt from this prohibition. These groups were first ignored and then indirectly supported. The state willingly allowed the organization in this field. Of course, thinking that this hollow, lumpen organization would not pose an ideological threat…
Thus, the aim was to erase politics from the memory of the society and the literature of the new youth. The slogan “Neither rightist nor leftist, we are football players, we are soccer players” became the motto of an era in Turkey. So much so that even these people cursing and swearing in the stands in an ecstatic manner was normalized as “people are discharged in the stands”. This ideological discourse was seen by the state itself as a controllable, acceptable and moreover functional channel of violence. In the meantime, however, the occasional chanting of political slogans outside the official discourse or the efforts of these groups to assert a political will were met with a very harsh response.
If we approach the case from a micro perspective, the profile of people who are ecstatic in the stands also tells us important things about our culture. Because these people in the stands are not only the unemployed and powerless crowd, but also our neighbors, friends and people who hold important positions in the social hierarchy. How is it that these people, who would not normally come together, can come together in a homogeneous spiral of anger and violence for ninety minutes? I think the discipline of ethics can tell us something about this.
We can simply codify ethics as the personal criteria one uses to distinguish between right and wrong. Ethics consists of a set of principles that a person internalizes by thinking about them and experiencing them. If a person has not internalized these principles, he or she will try to maximize his or her own personal interests in a shortcut, without regard for any rights, contrary to these principles, whenever he or she is free from social pressure.
We can give a very familiar example. It is like people who live modestly in their own environment, when they go abroad, in an environment where they are not recognized, they go out of their minds and do things they would never do in their own environment. The liberated zone called the tribune provides precisely this freedom. Whatever you do there, you are exempt from any social pressure or legal punishment. There you are offered the opportunity to forget all your defeats, deprivations and failures. Whatever you can’t say to your neighbor, your boss, the big guy in traffic or the life that keeps giving you a bad hand, you can say many times more to those running on the green field. However, this is a typical manifestation of a morality that has not been internalized. It is not surprising that the objects of violence are mostly referees, the most vulnerable actors of the game.
The discourse in the media after the attack on Halil Umut Meler, our Fifa-licensed referee, is also interesting. Again, this is a pathetic example that reveals our uninternalized or conditional understanding of morality. As soon as it is emphasized that the act is unacceptable, or even before we get into this issue, the only thing everyone says is that we feel humiliated in the eyes of the world. Now, self-proclaimed commentators are going from channel to channel, agonizing that all the world’s televisions will show this footage. If this had happened in the corridor of the stadium or in front of the referee’s dressing room, everything would have been sorted out. We are saddened that instead of questioning football in particular and the political climate in general that created this incident, we were caught by the world doing something bad!
Another discourse we hear a lot in the media is about the damage to the brand value of football. It is the damage to the brand value that is being talked about, not the damage to the game that adorns children’s dreams. Of course, in industrialized football, there are no longer games but brands. So let’s try to interpret the situation from a brand perspective. All fans, clubs, sports writers, TV commentators, even the president of the federation, who himself has never had anything to do with football before, have been uncomfortable with referees for a long time. Referees are constantly criticized on a scale ranging from their poor quality, poor form to their bias. According to the entire football community, referees are the most important actor that decreases the brand value of football. Let us then ask how other stakeholders of football contribute to the brand value.
The status of football clubs in international matches and the presence of Turkish footballers in the five major leagues are obvious. The value of football’s actors on the field in the international market is in the ground. In addition to this, let’s not even talk about the situation of sports writers in terms of contribution to international football literature. The state of our administrators is already obvious. Our technical directors cannot go beyond Edirne… Then it must be accepted that the only stakeholder that increases the brand value of Turkish football is the referees. Halil Umut Meler, who has officiated in nearly 50 matches in UEFA and FIFA organizations, and who is almost certain to blow the whistle at the 2024 European Championship, probably contributes more to the brand value of Turkish football in the international market than other actors who benefit from football and constantly attack him.
In our country, football has turned into a culture of collective lynching that is increasingly turning into pornography. This lynching takes place not only in the stadiums but also in the mainstream print and visual media, social media and websites every day.
In this circus of madness dominated by black money, illegal betting sites, rent-based interest relations, match-fixing rumors, and the motto “whatever you do, don’t lose”, unfortunately, there is no serious football left.