Soccer, Memory and Politics: How Galatasaray Omits Former Star in UEFA Trophy Celebrations
When Joseph Stalin declared his arch-nemesis Leon Trotsky as the public enemy of the Soviet people, he did not only launch an insane purge against the perceived sympathizers of Trotsky. But Stalin, in thrall to the grip of the paranoia in an unimaginable level, even moved to expunge Trotsky’s pictures from photographs and books in a sustained effort to eradicate the living memory of the revolutionary who was among the top leading names of the Bolshevik Revolution along with Lenin and Stalin. Any hint of association with the regime’s enemy simply meant death for many people during the sham Moscow trials (1936–38).
Stalin’s shrewd reorganizing of the public memory provided a useful source of inspiration for George Orwell who, in his 1984 novel, sought to portray a totalitarian regime’s endless machinations to control people’s minds, their access to the archive and historical record by installing an all-encompassing control over all layers of public knowledge. Orwell left an indelible phrase for later generations to describe the nature of that colossal control mechanism: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past…”
The practice was certainly not confined to the historical context of Soviet experience but reproduced and perfected by like-minded regimes ever since. China’s expertise in rewriting history is no less cunning or dexterous than the Soviet one. The Chinese regime, according to Economist and the Atlantic, contrived the installation of a monumental techno-surveillance apparatus, introducing the term of techno-totalitarianism into our life amid the undeniable decay of truth in the political landscapes across the world. Its famous trolls of “50 Cent Army,” its mind-numbing speed to remove any “malign” (critical) content from the internet immediately, its digital police state to check every move of its citizens and its perennial war on truth have raised eyebrows and elicited frequent criticism in the Western world. In this age of post-truth politics, truth — the most fundamental tenet of communicative conduct — has alarmingly become slippery.
In following China’s footsteps, a similar pattern dangerously but ominously takes hold in Turkey. If China has pulled off a remarkable accomplishment in excessive regulation of cyberspace for its citizens, Turkey has done it less so. For all its setbacks in terms of free speech and media freedom, there is still a vibrant (if not entirely free) civil society. The expression of dissent by tech-savvy Turks on social media is still possible to some extent. But it comes with the ever-present prospect of prosecution which hovers as the sword of Damocles above the society.
What brings Turkey’s current government closer to the Stalinist era is the imitation of the totalitarian playbook to re-design collective memory at least on digital space, if not in the actual social domain. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fallout with his former ally Gulen Movement and the sweeping purge against any perceived sympathizer of the U.S.-based scholar is unmistakably reminiscent of Stalin’s obsession with Trotsky and his faithful followers within the Communist Party and the Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin’s lifelong pursuit of Trotsky culminated in the political assassination of the latter in Mexico in 1940. Erdogan’s attempts, however, have so far yielded no result on that front.
To irrevocably eradicate any trace of his past association with Gulen and his followers, Erdogan went to extreme lengths, even to the point of absurd denialism of some chapters of recent history. The story of Hakan Sukur, the all-time top scorer of the Turkish football league and the national team, offers a textbook case to illustrate the regime’s mind-blowing efforts to ban any mention of the legendary player’s name on television and elsewhere.
What landed Hakan Sukur in the enemy list was his break with the president after a brief political career in Erdogan’s party and the outbreak of a corruption scandal that implicated Erdogan’s ministers and his inner circle. Sukur’s well-known ties to Gulen has sealed the Turkish strongman’s never-ending animus ever since. The former soccer star, who played for Istanbul giant Galatasaray and won innumerable trophies in Turkey and abroad, has been forced to live in exile in the U.S. while his entire properties have been confiscated by the authorities.
The government’s censorship extended to the archive footage of the key soccer games involving Sukur. Whenever Turkey’s remarkable success in the 2002 World Cup was replayed on TV, Sukur, who played in all matches and who scored the fastest goal in the world cup history, has been absent from the footage. The situation becomes absurd all the more so when someone sees the reverence for and appreciation of Sukur’s contribution to soccer at the international level. Last year, FIFA even released a birthday message for him.
Galatasaray’s Blind Moment: No Sukur in UEFA Celebrations
The state of affairs, however, is not only limited to the political authorities in Turkey. Some self-proclaimed companies or even soccer clubs, under the obvious pressure of the current regime, follow the suit in terms of prohibitive mindset. In a betrayal of its two-decade history with its former captain, Galatasaray omitted Sukur’s name, image and presence when it on Sunday celebrated the 20th anniversary of the club’s only victory in Europe: winning the UEFA title.
Amid the usual celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of that historic moment, an oddity blunted the occasion when a video was released: there was no Sukur who indeed lifted the cup along with the team’s co-captain, Bulent Korkmaz. In doing so, the club’s spin doctors took extreme pains to give the cup-lifting moment in a set of chosen photos that blurred Sukur and striker Arif Erdem — another unwanted figure for the Erdogan administration — in unnoticeable frames.
This glaring omission was not lost on the former legend.
“One day will come, I’ll certainly tell the true account of how we proudly won this cup and in what conditions it was achieved. Let this be the response to the cowards who are unable to mention and display the photograph of the top-scorer in that long road to the trophy.
History was made once, and we made it. #17Mayis,” he wrote in an expression of deep resentment. But he was not alone. Many people from different social persuasion and political background rushed to his defense, praising his unforgettable contribution that played a pivotal role in landing the cup.
The club-level omission represents a point of departure for Galatasaray’s impartial stance five years ago when the club’s board had no scruples to embrace its legendary star with little regard for political backlash. In the 15th anniversary of the UEFA triumph, Sukur’s goals in the prelude to the final were duly displayed and his contribution was appreciated with gratitude. Though it was a documentary prepared by journalist Mehmet Ali Birand much earlier, there was a wide circulation to mark the occasion five years ago. But that was then.
In similar to Trotsky’s removal from photographs that mark the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, Galatasaray (and Turkey’s media) ignore the contribution and role of the former national captain in one of the revolutionary moments of the Turkish soccer history. But this selective omission only reflects their warped version of history. Anyone with access to Youtube can personally witness the undistorted and uncut videos featuring the greatest moments of the “Bull of the Bosporus,” including the moment 20 years ago: his lifting of the only European cup by a Turkish club ever. (No Turkish team ever did it again).
Some videos on TV could be edited for the domestic audience in Turkey, but the history (made by Turkey’s all-time top scorer and his lieutenants) cannot be changed after all.