Decision to resume Turkish football triggers concern

The Turkish Football Federation’s decision to resume the country’s professional football leagues in June has provoked debate and concern among some clubs, officials, and leading figures in the sport.

Nihat Özdemir, president of the TFF, said on Wednesday that Turkey’s Super League - Turkish football’s top flight - as well as its second, third, fourth, and regional amateur tiers will resume play on June 12 in empty stadiums and will aim to complete their seasons by the end of July. 

Turkish football had been suspended on March 19 due to safety concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

Özdemir said the decision to resume the sport was taken after consultations with Turkey’s Health Ministry and the government’s advisory coronavirus Science Committee. 

But Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca appeared to distance himself from the decision, telling reporter’s last week that: "The federation took the decision at its own initiative, therefore, the responsibility falls on the federation."

The TFF has published a detailed advisory protocol on safety and hygiene measures around staging matches, but some have questioned whether they can or will be observed. 

"How are you going to prevent 22 players from jumping on each other on the pitch? Football is after all a contact sport that requires players to break social distancing rules," the football writer Arda Alan Işık told Xinhua news agency.

"It's a major risk to take for the players, for their families and all the people working in different clubs," he said. 

Işık said that the authorities are eager to resume play due to financial concerns. 

"The main reason for the resumption decision is financial. Clubs were already very vulnerable before the coronavirus, now it could become a matter of life and death. The economic loss that the club are witnessing is irreversible," he told Xinhua.

The Turkish Super League has accumulated the third highest debt in European football through years of overspending on transfers and wages under limited regulation, and is the only European league in which club debts and liabilities are bigger than club assets. 

The devaluation of the lira in recent years has compounded the problem, as much of the debt is in foreign currencies.

The football economist Tuğrul Akşar, writing on news site T24 in March, said that coronavirus has struck Turkish football after its immune system had been compromised by longstanding financial and administrative problems. "Our football caught the coronavirus while it was sick,” he wrote.

Akşar estimates that losses in match day and commercial revenues during the coronavirus outbreak could be between 25 and 30 percent of the Super League’s total income.

A report in late April by Aktif Bank, which runs the Passolig electronic ticketing card, said that Turkish football clubs could lose up to 1 billion Turkish liras ($143.2 million) in revenues if the remaining matches in the Super League this season are not completed. 

There are 72 remaining games across eight weeks that still have to be played in the Super League. If this season cannot be completed due to the coronavirus outbreak, Super League clubs stand to lose broadcasting revenues worth 172.8 million liras ($24.75 million), the report said.

Meanwhile, the dangers of playing behind closed doors or even training have been highlighted by the players and coaches already infected by the virus, such as Galatasaray’s coach Fatih Terim – who recovered after being hospitalised with COVID-19 in March. 

On Saturday, the Istanbul football club Beşiktaş announced on Twitter that a player and a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.

On Thursday, Istanbul club Fenerbahçe cancelled training after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Super League club Ankaragücü announced on Monday that one of its players had tested positive for the coronavirus and had been hospitalised for treatment.

Some clubs have expressed concern over the health and safety of their players, despite the protective measures outlined by the TFF. Super League club Konyaspor argued that the regulations prepared by the TFF could not be applied, while some second and third tier clubs were contemplating refusing to play, Xinhua said. 

The well-known Turkish football television presenter Ercan Taner said that Turkey's plan to resume football was a mistake and that he will not be going back to work. “This is called a force majeure in law. What will happen if players catch this disease?” he wrote for the newspaper Sözcü on Friday.

Taner said the decision to reopen leagues was too risky and that it had been based on economics rather than health. 

However, other figures and clubs in Turkish football have shown a greater appetite to resume playing matches. 

"We will obey whatever the decision the state takes," said Ahmet Ağaoğlu, president of the Black Sea club Trabzonspor - which currently sits top of the league. 

"We could have asked the league to be registered based on the current standings. But Trabzonspor has never meddled and will not meddle in state business," he said.

Şansal Büyüka, a veteran commentator, said that football could resume if matches were played in a different manner and if confined to a single city. 

"No one should expect aggressive games like before where players jump on each other, but matches can eventually resume in a single city where teams could be confined separately in hotels," Xinhua quoted Büyüka as saying.

It is not clear what will happen if clubs or players refuse to play.

The vast majority of football leagues around Europe had already been suspended by early March due to the coronavirus pandemic but Turkish football had played on for a round of matches behind closed doors before finally suspending the leagues on March 19. 

The former Chelsea midfielder Jon Obi Mikel told the Guardian in March how players were scared by the Turkish Super League’s decision to keep playing football matches at that time and how taking a stand caused him to part ways with his club Trabzonspor. 

Mikel told the Guardian that the atmosphere in a game behind closed doors was strange and tense. 

“It was still a risk in terms of passing the virus on, with a lot of accredited people there,” Mikel said. “There was no motivation, the players were all scared. There was no handshaking. It didn’t feel right. I just thought: ‘I don’t want to be part of this.’”

http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/09/c_139043921.htm
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