Istanbul: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an avid follower of sports who massively developed football infrastructure, has in 15 years in power always come away empty-handed from bids for Turkey to hold one of the world’s great sporting events.
On Thursday, UEFA will determine if Erdogan’s dream will finally be realised when it chooses between Turkey and Germany over who will host the 2024 European Championship.
Yet again the shadow of Erdogan will loom large, with his image as a man who can deliver aiding the bid but his increasingly authoritarian reputation as a strongman presiding over an unprecedented crackdown a harmful factor.
By extraordinary coincidence, Erdogan will be embarking Thursday on a visit to Germany — which has been bitterly critical on occasion of Turkey under his rule — and the outcome will make an interesting talking point in talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The EU, which Turkey has tried unsuccessfully to join for half a century, and rights groups have decried the crackdown that followed the 2016 failed coup and saw tens of thousands arrested.
UEFA itself, in an evaluation report that noted several positive aspects of the Turkish bid, said that the “lack of an action plan in the area of human rights is a matter of concern”.
– ‘Eyes of the world’ –
And rights is far from a theoretical issue after UEFA included it in the criteria in the bidding process for the first time in Euro 2024.
“Wherever you look human rights abuses are rampant in Turkey,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International.
“UEFA needs to be clear with the Turkish government that that wouldn’t be acceptable during the Euro 2024 championship,” he told AFP, adding that protests would have to be allowed during the event.
Jean Marcou, associate researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies, said however that a squeaky clean rights record was hardly a prerequisite, citing the holding of the World Cup by Vladimir Putin’s Russia this summer.
“In no way is a country chosen to hold a major sporting event expected to be a model of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
Gardner argued that hosting the Euro could even be good for the rights situation in Turkey as it would throw a spotlight on the country.
“I think it does have an impact because just as you saw for example… in Russia, it really does put the eyes of the world and the focus on that country,” he said.
– ‘More positive image’ –
Even before Erdogan came to power, Turkey had bid unsuccessfully to hold both the Euro football and the Olympic Games.
But the seriousness and clout of the bids grew under his rule and there was bad feeling in 2010 when Turkey lost out to France for the right to host Euro 2016 by one vote, amid controversy over the role played by UEFA’s then French chief Michel Platini.
Erdogan expressed bitterness in 2013 when Istanbul’s bid lost out to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games, with its chances harmed by mass anti-government protests that swept the country that summer.
Erdogan was a semi-professional footballer in his youth and has overseen an unprecedented spree of new stadium building. But possibly on purpose, he has kept his distance from the Euro 2024 bid.
Daghan Irak, a researcher at University Aix-Marseille, said that for this bid there had been a “great lack of motivation on the part of Turkish politicians and sports figures”.
He said that with growth in the Turkish economy expected to slow markedly next year, this was probably for “financial reasons”.
Yet hosting the competition would still be a boost for Erdogan and would allow him to bask in its glory one year after celebrating in 2023 the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the modern Republic.
Marcou said hosting the Euro would make people forget the darker sides of modern Turkey “and give the country a more positive image, notably among those who don’t know it well”.