In the 1970s, long before he became Turkey’s most powerful man, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a semi-professional soccer player. He played for IETT Spor—a team linked to Istanbul’s public transport authority—and was nicknamed ‘Imam Beckenbauer’ by his teammates, a reference both to his piety and his supposed skills. Like the great German soccer titan Franz Beckenbauer, Erdogan is tall and rangy—hagiographers have insisted he was a similarly elegant and forceful player.
The Turkish president likes to claim that he could have been a star, and that his career came to an abrupt end thanks to the repressive 1980 coup: A military figure took over his club and ordered all the bearded players to shave. Erdogan says he alone refused—resigning in protest in June 1981.
Soccer has been a shortcut to people’s hearts for the populist Turkish leader, and an easily understood language in a soccer-mad country. It has also become one of the country’s most important networks of power and patronage under his rule.
On June 24, Turkey will hold snap elections, with the winner of the presidential poll assuming an executive presidency with vast powers approved in a referendum last year narrowly won by Erdogan. In the remaining month and a half, Erdogan is likely to make all possible use of his soccer soft power: drawing on sports analogies, wearing the scarves of local teams as he travels the country, and dusting off his myths and perhaps even his soccer boots. He’ll likely also trumpet Turkey’s bid, submitted late April, to host the UEFA European Championship in 2024—a giant feather in his cap if it’s successful—as well as a mind-boggling array of recently built stadiums, with many more under construction.
As Erdogan seeks to formalize and entrench one-man rule, soccer plays as much of a role now as it did in his early political rise. Yet ironically, his favorite public relations tool has also eluded his attempts at control: sports arenas can also be sites of dissent.
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