Ask “what in the vuvuzela” the commotion was all about, and you have to picture yourselves in the stands at last Saturday’s opening game at the Turk Telekom Arena in İstanbul. The stadium is the spanking new home of Galatasaray -- the side that beat Arsenal in 2000 to win the UEFA cup. There was music and there was dancing, fireworks and a light display. But what was meant to be a friendly match with the Dutch side Ajax took an unfriendly turn when Prime Minister Erdoğan turned up with a posse of fellow ministers and VIPs. That’s when the booing began. The premier’s partial namesake and head of TOKİ -- the public housing administration -- Erdoğan Bayraktar started to give a speech, and he couldn’t make himself heard. That’s when the prime minister and his entourage decided to walk off the proverbial pitch.
The controversy has not died down. Mr. Erdoğan has made unsportsmanlike noises himself and has reminded unruly Galatasaray supporters that it was TOKİ who financed the stadium, not their club. He also let drop, in what sounded like a threat, that the deal which would assign the field over to the İstanbul side has been neither signed, sealed nor delivered. The club’s chairman, Adnan Polat, has behaved in a suitably mortified manner. They weren’t real Galatasaray fans doing the booing he said and promised the culprits would be identified on closed-circuit television and in future banned from entering the grounds.
It’s time to take a deep breath. This column has never been ashamed to confess the obvious, that Erdoğan is clearly the most gifted politician of his generation. He has cultivated a style which is patently pugnacious. “People expect it,” he once told me. At the same time, his ability to understand the mood of his country is well evinced by opinion polls which give his party some 45 percent of the vote and put him well on course to winning his third electoral victory. However, on this occasion he has not got his finger on the pulse. After all, football crowds too are not famous for behaving like choirboys, and Galatasaray is proud of its ability to roar. British supporters still remember the banners “Welcome to Hell” which greeted Manchester United back in the day.
If you enter a crowd of 52,000 people, a good half of whom are not going to vote for you, chances are a couple thousand people are going to kick up a fuss. People come to stadiums to watch football and not listen to speeches. If the prime minister was hoping to stoke a bit of pre-election gratitude by bestowing Galatasaray with a brand new stadium, he miscalculated. And of course TOKİ is a public agency. The TL 600 million it invested was money raised on the public’s behalf. Is the prime minister really suggesting this investment was made without a guarantee that Galatasaray would pay the rent? Is it realistic to suggest it will stand idle? We already have the example of the 76,000-seat Atatürk Olympic Stadium in İkitelli which largely stands idle -- a monument to peculation and bad planning. It requires an enormous retrofit to protect it from the wind and elements that make playing football there a challenge, and there is no obvious way of getting spectators to and from its gates.
And one can only marvel at Mr. Polat, who believes he can invite people to a match and not have them take sides. The people who jeered are not hooligans. That title is reserved for people who come to matches armed with steel capped boots and flick knives, not a sense of grievance. Hooligans shout racist slogans, they don’t boo. The whole exercise of trying to assert political ownership over a football stadium was a mistake.