Crisis at the Taksim Square

From the Gezi Park protests near famous Taksim Square in 2013 to the ongoing activities of the ISIS and Kurdish militants, Turkey has been majorly involved in various conflicts in the recent past. Football too hasn’t been spared and got severely impacted in the process. Indranath Mukherjee explores the disquieting sides of Turkish football as Arda Turan and his men are traveling to France to play their first major international tournament in eight years.

After a lazy brunch at Bebek and a blissful afternoon nap in the hotel room, I decided to go to Taksim to spend the Saturday evening. My first impression of Taksim square on that cold December evening was simply overwhelming. That was 2011 and my first trip to Istanbul. In the next twelve months, work took me to Istanbul couple of more times and I made sure that I went to Taksim square as often as I could. Istanbul is a spectacular city, the crossroads of civilizations where East meets West. While the rich historical Sultanahmet area takes one to a different time and space, the sheer vibrancy of Taksim square fascinated me. Gezi Park next to Taksim square was a lovely little green space which provided solace from the urban modernization of the Beyoglu district.

When I heard the news of the police breakdown at Gezi Park on 28th May, 2013, it was a personal shock. The then Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government decided to destruct the park as part of their redevelopment plan. The plan included building a replica of 19th century Ottoman barracks with a shopping mall and a mosque with added sidewalks to make the square more pedestrian-friendly. There was a protest demonstration at the park that attracted a few hundred environmentalists who braved police attacks that included tear gas and water cannons. For the larger section of the society, the fury was caused not just by the decision to destroy the park but largely because of the impervious way the redevelopment decision was taken by the government. Hence the abusive response of the authorities touched a nerve and more people started joining the protest and within days the hashtags #DirenGeziParki (Resist Gezi Park) and the account for Ayaga  Kalk Taksim (Stand Up Taksim) started trending all over social media. Turkish actor Mehmet Ali Alabora tweeted (in Turkish), “It’s not just about Gezi Park friend, haven’t you understood? Come over,” and it got thousands of retweets.

The situation in Turkey became one of a war zone. There were diverse gathering across all the 81 provinces in Turkey and the government acted as if it’s waging an invisible war against its dissidents. Apart from anti-government media organizations, large number of people from civil society groups, members of football fan clubs, arts community and various marginal groups joined the protest. Prime Minister Erdogan managed to bring Turkey among the three countries in the world, alongside Iran and China, to have most journalists behind bars. There had been charges against Mr. Erdogan that he tried to play the financially stressed football clubs against their fans who played prominent role in the “Gezi Park Protest”.

In particular, 35 football fans had been prosecuted based on the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government during the mass protests. All the fans were associated with the ‘Carsi’ group, the well-known supporter group of Besiktas Gymnastics Club which notably includes the Besiktas Football Club. Carsi is tad different from typical fan groups and they manifest their difference during football matches through their chants, as well as through the placards they carry to the stadium. People from different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds came together to form the group and they stand against racism, fascism, sexism. Their pro-environment stance made them participate in the Gezi Park Protest spontaneously and with strong intent. However, prosecuting them for attempting a coup was completely baseless. Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Human Rights researcher in Turkey, said, “Charging these Besiktas football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty.”

A Carsi tattoo (Source: Flickr semra AYDOĞDU )
A Carsi tattoo (Source: Flickr semra AYDOĞDU
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The court accepted the lawsuit on 11th September, 2014. According to the summons, the Carsi members were accused of attempting to capture the Prime Minister’s offices in Ankara and Istanbul and overthrow the government. In reality, the accused Carsi  members were actively participating in the mass protest at Gezi Park and on the night of 2nd June, 2013 they hotwired a bulldozer from the construction site outside Besiktas’ Inonu Stadium and used it to push the police’s water cannon trucks away from their home turf. The evidence submitted against the fans consisted of intercepted phone calls and text messages, possession of gas masks and goggles. The defendants’ intercepted calls and messages did not establish any proof of criminal activity but just their opinion about the government, emotional sentiments of support for the demonstrations and a few abstract claims. Cem Yakiskan, one of Carsi’s leaders jokingly said, “If we had the power to carry out a coup, we would make Besiktas the champion.” For the record, Besiktas last won the league in 2008-09.

On the first day of the trial, some of the defendants and lawyers wore black-and-white Besiktas jerseys. Fans marched to the Istanbul court carrying banners with the Carsi logo—with its characteristic anarchy-style A, shouting slogans. There was unprecedented support from large section of people including fans of city rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce who otherwise are known as sworn enemies.

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For a lot of people, the sight of people wearing surgical masks and safety helmets, chasing the police and waving Turkish flags from the top of a bulldozer was one of the most enduring images from civil unrest.

I remember what one of my colleagues Guner, who was a Besiktas supporter, told me in one of our post lunch customary Turkish coffee drinking sessions. He said that Besiktas may not have as much money as Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, but they have got heart. After talking to number of people in Turkey, after having read as much as possible about the situation in the country, I realized that not only do they have heart but they are also well equipped to combat police attacks. They have been subject to the Turkish police throwing tear gas cans towards them before football matches. “Pepper spray is a Besiktas fan’s perfume” was a joke cracked by one of the Carsi members.

The snatching of the bulldozer was to show that they were against the demolition of their beloved stadium too, but the act was not particularly out of character for the Besiktas fans. They have been playful with their banners and often made political statements through the banners. Once, before a game between Besiktas and Fenerbahce, they had made a banner of Argentina’s Ariel Ortega – Fenerbahce’s star player at the time – with the caption “Cobarde Gallina Ortega,” meaning, “Coward Chicken Ortega.” This was in criticism of Ortega’s admission that he would fly back to his home in Argentina if a war erupted in Turkey’s neighbouring countries – a fear he voiced in February 2003, just before the allied troops invaded Iraq.

Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”

Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”

It’s true that among all the football fans, the Carsı group were on the frontlines in the “Gezi Park Protest”. Despite police brutality, they maintained their humour all along through their tweets and graffiti. A tweet asked everyone to call 155 (police hotline) to say that it is already noon and the police are late.

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A graffiti (seen in the above picture) said: “You messed with a generation who grew up beating up cops in GTA”. GTA referred to the famous video game series Grand Theft Auto. They at times were direct yet subtle in their message. The “Please don’t come back!” graffiti was clearly addressed to Mr. Erdogan who went to a trip to North Africa amidst all the disturbance.  What an irony it was to see a graffiti which read “Enough! I will call the cops.” Another one mocked the tear gas throwing police: “With this much gas, the government can shit (shit is often used as “to fuck up” in Turkish) at any moment.”

A New Yorker article in 2011 cited a headline that sarcastically called the Besiktas stands, “the only place where the Armenian problem has been solved”. It’s well known that the history between Armenia and Turkey is not very pleasant and hence there is a stereotype that Armenians in Turkey support Besiktsas. Carsi has a strong pluralist image. One of their most prominent members, Alen Markaryan, is of Armenian descent. They say: “We are the people’s team; our leftists are populists, our nationalists are populists, our Islamists are populists – you can’t find extremists in Carsi . Our members support and protect the people and Carsi  is an umbrella under which everyone is included.” I remember Guner saying: “We have heart.”

If we go back in time, Besiktas was established during the late Ottoman period in 1903. Fuat Balkan who had represented Turkey in the 1924 Paris Olympic in Fencing was the president of Besiktas in the early years. He was a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revolutionary army officer who founded the Republic of Turkey. Quite naturally, Atatürk’s sympathy and support gave Besiktas a philosophical foundation of secularist principles and an adherence to hard left-wing politics.

Although Mr. Erdogan is adamant in his stand that “Gezi was a coup attempt, they didn’t succeed,” the Besiktas fans’ trial isn’t the first time he had sought to clear-out dissent from the football pitch. In August 2013, he made Besiktas football club ask its fans to sign a pledge when buying season tickets that they would not raise any political chants during matches that could “trigger mass, political or ideological events.” The fans of course rejected the club’s attempt to make them sign the pledge.

The reason why Mr. Erdogan had been able to whip clubs into line and use them against their own fans was the “uncertainty over the sustainability” of the finances of the clubs. As per Bloomberg, the shareholders’ equity for three of the four Istanbul clubs, Galatasary SC, Besiktas JK and Black Sea club Trabzonspor FC, are negative. Galatasary has accumulated a lot of debts in the recent past to acquire big names like Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder and manager Roberto Mancini and their debt-to-cash ratio is 13:1. The other two cases are even worse, the ratio for Besiktas is 24:1 and Trabzonspor is 40:1.

What is most ironic about targeting football fans by Mr. Erdogan is that he himself was a semi-professional footballer and played for Kasimpasa between 1969 and 1982 before being elected as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

Turkey football dissent
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has scored three goals in an exhibition match to open a new stadium in Istanbul

Money laundering, match fixing and bribery have historically been the scourge of the Turkish football economy. The battle over freedom of expression on the pitch was being waged as Mr Erdogan unveiled what he termed a historic democracy package that granted greater liberties but fell short of the expectations of everyone – liberals, Kurds and Orthodox Christians. The greatest concern about the state of football has been rightly expressed by the football economist and journalist Tugrul Aksar: “If Turkish football isn’t reformed, institutionalized and if all goes as it has so far, Turkish football is doomed to hit a wall.”

As per the statement made by Turkey’s Sport Tourism Union (STB) President Ferit Turgut in December 2015, the country has suffered a loss of 52 million Euros in revenues from visits to football training camps in tourism hot-spot Antalya. Close to 900 pre-planned training camps were cancelled, with the clubs citing security reasons and the Russian jet crisis as the reason for the cancellations.

Hakan Sukur, Turkey’s all-time top scorer chose politics as a career post his retirement from football and joined the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but resigned in December 2013 when a corruption probe targeted Erdogan and the ruling elite. In early 2016, he faced a sedition charge that could send him to jail for up to four years as one of his tweets apparently insulted Erdogan and his son.

On 22nd February, Trabzonspor and Galatasaray were having a feisty encounter. The score was 1-1 and Tranzonspor were already down to nine men when referee Bitnel red-carded Luis Cavanda for a foul and awarded Galatasaray a penalty. The Trabzonspor players started complaining and in the confusion the referee dropped the red card on the ground. At that point, Trabzonspor defender Salih Dursun picked it up and waved it at the referee, who in return held it up to the player as he sent him off as well. Gala won the match 2-1. Dursun received support for his act from both his club and the fans. Trabzonspor chairman Muharrem Usta said: “Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.”

“Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.“

The head of Turkey’s central referees’ commission, Kuddusi Muftuoglu, acknowledged: “We share the disappointment of Trabzonspor.”

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Trabzonspor's Salih Dursun (R) shows a red card to referee. Source: REUTERS

This year the (in) famous Kıtalar Arası Derbi between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce was to be played on Sunday, 20th March, but the Turkish authorities called off the match just about a couple of hours before kick-off. A brief statement from the Istanbul governor’s office said that the match was postponed following “the assessment of serious intelligence”. No other details were provided. The fans of both the clubs were found arguing with security officials outside Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena Stadium. The unofficial claim is there was a serious bomb threat in the stadium and hence the authorities were forced to cancel the high voltage game. The decision came a day after an Islamic State group linked suicide bomber blew himself up killing four tourists and injuring 36 others on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street of Taksim Square located at the heart of the city. Alarmingly this was the sixth attack since July 2015 and all of them are mostly linked to either ISIS or Kurdish militants.

Away fans are barred from attending the derby games between the Istanbul big-three, Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce. This ban was applied several times in the last decade to avoid violence and has become a norm since 2011. The ban has been extended to men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball games as well. There have been number of protests against this ban but the authority is firm that the ban on the away fans is here to stay.

The Turkish authority has introduced “PASSOLIG” card in conjunction with Turkish law no. 6222 on prevention of violence and disorder in sports. The card is also an attempt to put an end to the era of printed tickets. It’s a multipurpose card which acts as ATM, credit and store discount card and in contracted cities, it also works as transportation card. On the flip side, people need to enter their personal data to register for the card and personal details include their favourite club as well. Fans see this as a way to uphold the ban of the visiting fans in Istanbul which caused serious downfall in attendance in Turkish super league games. This is a serious issue of breaching privacy and most of the common Turkish people see this as an attempt by the government to control football fans.

The Fenerbahce team bus was shot at by a gunman en route to the airport after their 5-1 win over the Black Sea side Caykur Rizespor in their Turkish Super League game on 4th April, 2015. None of the players were injured but the bus driver was wounded and had to be taken to the hospital. The league was suspended for a week after this incident.

Few months later, on 11th August, 2015, Fenerbahce’s 29-year-old Turkish midfielder Mehmet Topal’s car was fired at by a gunman. Topal was returning home along with his team mate Uygar Mert Zeybek after a training session when the car was attacked. Fortunately, Topal’s car was bulletproof and the gunmen could only damage the passenger side of the widescreen without piercing the glass. The club was shocked by this “armed terrorist act” and called the series of events as “peak point of hostility” towards them.

The game between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahce on 24th April, 2016 was abandoned after a Trabzonspor fan assaulted the assistant referee Volkan Bayarslan. The home side were down 4-0 when a Trabzonspor fan jumped onto the field of play and pushed the assistant referee to the ground and punched him. The home fans were already throwing projectiles onto the field from the beginning, after the incident the game was immediately called off.

On 14th May, 2016, Eskisehirspor was playing at home against Istanbul Basaksehir for a win to avoid relegation. Stefano Napoleoni scored for the visiting side early in the second half but Tornike Okriashvili equalised for the host in the 66th minute. However, three minutes into stoppage time Sokol Cikalleshi scored for the away side to finish the match 1-2 which ensured relegation for Eskisehirspor. The fans went crazy and vandalised their ground and some people got seriously injured in the process. Even the stands at Eskisehir Atatürk Stadium were set on fire by some disappointed fans.

The golden time for Turkish national football was between 2002 and 2004. In the 2002 FIFA World Cup, they finished 3rd and repeated the same feat in the 2003 Confederations Cup. They reached their highest FIFA ranking, 5th, in 2004. In the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship, Turkey lost in the semi-final to the eventual runner-up Germany by a 90th minute goal by Philipp Lahm. Since then Turkish football has been going through a crisis. They missed qualifying for the 2012 Euro but made it to Euro 2016 as the best third-placed team after beating the already qualified Iceland 1–0 , in the process ousting another favourite The Netherlands. The tournament will be the first major tournament in eight years for the Turkish national team and it will be interesting to see how they perform in France at a time when their domestic football is in deep crisis. A good show by Arda Turan and his men may pump in some money and bring some long due regulatory measures in Turkish football.

Welcomed at the Gates of Hell

Football derbies are often more important than winning the championship, they often ruin friendship and even blood relationships, but they are always intensely exciting. Indranath Mukherjee provides an account of one of the most (in)famous of football derbies

“How can you do this to us, Indra!” was how Didem had reacted on seeing me browsing through the official website of Fenerbahçe. She, like most of the other project team members, was a diehard Galatasaray fan. During my 20 days stint in the fascinating city, I was planning to visit the Fenerbahçe Stadium as I had read that it is the best stadium in Turkey for design and acoustics. Didem protested again: “Our new stadium is better”. Galatasaray had moved to the Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex Türk Telecom Arena recently, a new stadium with increased capacity recently.

As luck would have it, the Kıtalar Arası Derbi was scheduled on December 7, my last week in the project at Istanbul. “How do I get hold of a ticket?” was my immediate concern. Just so my team members don’t feel they have a novice amongst them when it comes to football, I narrated some stories of watching the game in England and Spain, over lunch. “The experience here will be very different from watching football anywhere else in Europe”, they retorted. And must I say, true to their word, it was…and how!

With a stadium capacity of a little over 50,000 and seats filling fast, getting tickets to the match would have been impossible, had Didem not gone the extra mile to ask her brother a favour – to use his Galatasaray card to book tickets for us. She had used her own to buy tickets for herself and her dad. Her husband being a Fenerbahçe fan had to stay at home, since by law, no Fenerbahçe supporter can go to the Galatasaray stadium for the derby game and vice-versa. The games between the two clubs had often caused mass uprisings in the past and last season’s match-fixing scandal had only added to the tension among fans. The Fenerbahçe president, Aziz Yıldırım is still in prison on charges of bribery.  As many as 92 club officials and football players are still suspect and the trial will begin on February 14, 2012.

Having experienced the madness among Turkish football fans on my first day at Istanbul when Besiktas, the other city rival, had hosted Galatasaray, I was preparing myself for another emotionally charged night of football. But the reality was nothing compared to my imagination. Anticipating heavy traffic on the street, we decided to take the metro and by the time we reached Taksim, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience. Thousands of fans singing together in support of their club wasn’t new to me, but the intensity was clearly manifold higher. It was a rainy evening in Istanbul but that couldn’t dampen the spirit of the Gala fans.

Some of the singing and chanting was clearly targeted at two Fenerbahçe footballers. One of them being Volkan Demirel, the Fenerbahçe goalkeeper, who went on record saying he will not shave his beard until the club president comes out of prison. Didem had said about him: “He always plays against us”. The other was Emre Belözoglu, the 31-year-old midfielder who was one amongst 125 best living footballers in the FIFA 100 chosen by Pelé. He had left Galatasaray to join Internazionale in Italy and then spent three years in Newcastle United in England before moving back to Istanbul to join Fenerbahçe. Gala fans had greeted him with a garland made of money when he first came back to play there. That night, he was being remembered with the choicest of words again.

The Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex TT Arena

The Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex TT Arena, the newly built home of Galatasaray, was absolutely packed with fans. Coming into the game, Fenerbahçe was at the top of the Spor Toto Super League with 28 points from 13 games while Gala at number two with 25 points from equal number of games.

Galatasaray started the game strongly but Volkan made three very good saves which reminded me what Didem had said about him always playing well against the Galas. Fenerbahçe played some good passing game but failed to penetrate in the final third. Felipe Melo of Brazil did a good job of holding for Gala while Johan Elmander gave the Fenerbahçe defence a really tough time. The former Liverpool man Milan Baroš missed a sitter for Gala before the ex-Arsenal man Emmanuel Eboue danced them into the lead in the 32nd minute from an assist by Elmander. Eight minutes later, Elmander grabbed the ball from Bilica (Fabio Alves Da Silva) and netted a goal, thanks to a poor piece of goalkeeping from Volkan.

Fenerbahçe started the second half with a little more composure. Alex de Souza, their Brazilian captain started showing more initiative but Tomáš Ujfaluši was rock solid at the Gala defence. Fenerbahçe had more possession of the ball during this half of the game but they failed to create clear chances for goals. In the 66th minute, the Fenerbahçe defenders were caught sleeping when Melo got a free header to score the third for the Yellow-Reds from a corner from Selçuk İnan. Alex scored a consolation for Fener in the last minute of the game.

Fenerbahçe left too much of space for Felipe Melo to score from a free header to make it 3-0 for Galatasaray

With the 3-1win, Galatasaray moved up to the top in the league standings with superior goal difference. A dejected Aykut Kocaman, the Fener manager revealed after the game: “We are truly very upset. We had to have dominance over Galatasaray and we were supposed to direct the game. However, we failed in meeting our expectations and we did not perform at our utmost in the first half of the game. In the second half, we seemed to play better but that did not help us win the necessary points at the end. Now we have to focus on the upcoming game against Bursaspor.”

In terms of overall quality of football, the game might not have scored enough to be topmost in my memory but the sheer intensity and energy among the Gala fans before, during and after the game sure have. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in words; superlatives like ‘most electrifying’ may also seem understated. They all sang for Cim Bom on their way back home. Even the most helpless of Gala fans hadn’t quite expected the score they saw.  Little wonder that the score was discussed the next day; it will continue to be discussed in offices, bars and bedrooms until the two fiercest of rivals meet again.

La Liga 2011-12: Issues and Preview

For Spanish football it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. Spain won the European Championship in 2008, lifted the FIFA World Cup last year, and won the UEFA U-21 and U-19 championships this year. FC Barcelona won everything in 2009 and is the reigning champions of Europe. At this very moment while Spanish football is basking in  glory, the La Liga kick off got delayed by a week due to the strike called by AFE, the players’ union, which was the result of a negotiation failure between the player’s union and the league (LFP). Different clubs of the top two divisions owed close to €65 million to almost 200 players. According to José Luis Rubiales, the president of AFE, during the 2010-11 season €52.8 million in players’ salary went unpaid and in the previous season €12 million went unpaid. The players’ union demanded a fund to protect the players against unpaid wages, particularly when clubs are in administration. LFP initially offered a fund of €10 million per annum, which does not cover even a sixth of the current unpaid salaries. Even though the league president José Luis Astiazarán thought that it is blackmailing, the players’ union was perfectly justified in its strike. Players like Puyol, Alonso, Casillas and Villa had thrown their weight behind the players’ union. AFE and LFP reached an agreement on the morning of August 25, 2011. The players’ union called off the strike after LFP promised €50 million towards unpaid wages.

Even though strikes are not unheard of in professional sports and despite the fact that a similar players’ strike loomed large and threatened the Italian football league, the news of this strike may surprise a lot of football lovers who does not closely follow the economic issues of professional football. However it is not at all surprising to someone who followed the finances of Spanish football clubs over last half a decade. The primary, but not the sole, culprit is the lopsided broadcasting revenues earned by the Spanish clubs.

In 2009-10 FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF made €160 million and €140 million respectively from TV broadcasting rights, which were 21% and 19% of the total €850 million TV revenue of the league. The scenario did not change much in 2010-11 with these two clubs each getting approximately 20% of total TV revenue of the league. Atlético Madrid and Valencia came a distant third and fourth each making approximately 7% of the total TV revenues. Sevilla and Villareal followed with each making approximately 4%. The remaining 14 clubs of the Spanish top flight made between €12 million and €20 million, which is 1.5% to 2.35% of the league’s TV revenue. This is in contrast to the EPL where in 2009-10 the highest earners of TV revenue, Manchester United and Chelsea, each garnered 6.4%, and the least earners, Portsmouth and Hull City, garnered 3.9% each. In absolute terms Portsmouth and Hull City, which got relegated in 2010-11, made more money from TV rights than Sevilla and Villareal, the European contenders from Spain.

In EPL, the broadcasting rights are marketed, negotiated and sold by the league. 50% of the revenue is shared equally among clubs, 25% according to TV appearances (live matches on TV) and the remaining 25% distributed according to position on the league table at the end of the season. This model is also followed in Bundesliga, whereas in Spain, the clubs individually negotiate and sell the TV rights. La Liga has proposed to centrally negotiate and sell the TV rights from 2014-15, after the current contracts expire. 18 clubs including the big two agreed on a deal wherein FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF will each get 17% of the TV revenue, Valencia CF and Atlético Madrid 5.5% each, and the remaining 16 clubs will share the remaining 55%. This deal will not alter the economic disparity between the La Liga clubs. Being the biggest losers from the proposed deal, Sevilla and Villareal objected to it and proposed a more equitable deal wherein 40% revenue will be equally shared and 60% according to the finishing rank on the league table.

It requires money to make a team, to run a nursery, to build a stadium, and to increase global fan base by making pre-season tours. Given the lopsided distribution of TV revenue, the dominance of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is not at all surprising. The now deeply entrenched financial crisis with unemployment rate hovering around 20% is not helping either. Attendances in the stadia are sure to go down. Even TV viewership may take a hit. One club that got badly hit by the financial crisis is Valencia. They thought of selling the Mestalla and building a new stadium that will make the owners of Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu jealous. They made investments and then the financial crisis hit Spain.  At present, there are no buyers of La Mestalla. Atlético Madrid and Valencia have debts of €300 million and €500 million respectively. To manage their debts they are selling players. Atlético sold Kun Aguero to nouveau riche Manchester City, De Gea to Manchester United and now Diego Forlan to Inter Milan. Valencia sold Juan Mata this year to Chelsea, and last year they sold David Villa to Barcelona. Such downsizing of the two major European contenders is not good for the health of La Liga.

Even FC Barcelona has debts over €400 million. Barcelona can remain solvent with a debt of €400 million, but a club like Zaragoza goes into administration with a debt of €150 million. Real Betis, Zaragoza, Rayo Vallecano, Racing Santander, Levante and Granada are presently in administration. Real Mallorca also applied for administration but they found a messiah in Rafa Nadal who rescued the club. Valencia too could have applied for administration if the Regional Government of Valencia had not bailed them out with €74 million. 22 clubs from the Première Division and Segunda Division passed through administration over last two years. Given that in La Liga, clubs do not dock points for being in administration, the clubs in deep trouble prefers to be in administration. This year AFE succeeded in tabling a bill in the Senate, which if made into a law will relegate clubs that do not pay the players’ salaries specified in the contracts.

Apart from Real Madrid, only Malaga, Villareal and Espanyol managed their finances prudently. Seikh Abdullah Al Thani, after taking over Malaga, spent €58 million in the summer transfer window but spent it wisely. With Toulalan, Joaquin and Diego Buonanotte in their attack, and Sergio Sanchez and Mathijsen in central defense, Malaga is a serious contender for UEFA Europa League, if not a Champions League spot.  A broadened fan base in the Middle East will help them to garner more TV revenue next year. The Yellow Submarine failed to pay their players last year but did well by selling Cazorla and Capdavilla. Espanyol wisely adopted the policy of their Catalan rivals and emphasized on youth program. However, the model club has been Atlético Bilbao. With their policy of picking only home grown players they managed their finances the best. Athletic Club, with help from the Regional Government of the Basque Country, spent €160 million to build their new stadium San Mamés Barria, which is a UEFA 5-star stadium of capacity 55,500. The limitless Basque passion for Athletic Club, when channelized in cash flow from the gate-money of San Mamés, will pay the dividends.

 The 2011-12 Season Preview

The colour of the ribbons on the trophy hasn’t changed in the last 3 years. Even if it changes this year, we all know it will be the colour of Real Madrid. Even before the kick-off of the 81st edition of the Spanish Première División, it is a well accepted fact that there are only two teams in the title race. The competition will get fiercer and we hope to see some spectacular football. The other 18 clubs will also produce superlative football but the unfortunate reality is well put by the Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido: “We’re chasing third place because of the adulteration of the league.” The reality, Del Nido added, is that “18 teams can’t compete for the league”.

And we know that there is more than just football behind this reality. Many Spanish clubs including FC Barcelona are in a financial distress. La Liga and the Liga Adelante (2nd division) together have by far the most clubs in administration than any other league in Europe. Still there were some interesting transfers with creative deals involving players, deferred payments etc.

The title-contenders

The football season started with the two-legged Spanish Super Cup between Barcelona and Real Madrid and it was a pleasant surprise to see Jose Mourinho adopting a positive strategy to take on Barcelona. Although the final result still favoured the Catalans, thanks to the genius of Leo Messi, the two games have shown what the season is going to be like; fiercely competitive and not always in the highest spirit. For both the clubs, the pursuit of perfection is as relentless as it is costly.

Barcelona has made two very significant signings in Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean forward/winger from Udinese and Cesc Fabregas ending the saga that was running for three summers. Much of the spending was funded by selling off Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Bojan Krkic and Jeffren Suárez. With Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and now Sanchez and Fabregas, Pep Guardiola’s side looks ever stronger and have already bagged two trophies this season. They also have the luxury of dipping into their youth system and give some playing time to the likes of Thiago Alcántara and Andreu Fontàs.

Although Real Madrid failed to land either of Kun Aguero or Neymar, their squad got stronger with the signing of the talented midfielder, Nuri Sahin and the Portuguese international Fabio Coentrão, a specialist left-back who could play in multiple positions in the midfield too. In the pre-season, both Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have shown very good form.

Project Málaga

Now that there is a Sheikh in Spain, there is optimism in Malaga. They had a wonderful second half last season and this year is a definite candidate for the European spot. Julio Baptista was in a goal scoring spree for them last year and now they have made significant investment and made some intelligent signings for them. With the additions of Jeremy Toulalan, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Joris Mathijsen, Nacho Monreal, Isco Alarcon, Santi Cazorla and Joaquín Rodríguez, Coach Manuel Pellegrini has a wonderful and deep squad heading into the season.

The European Spots

Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal will fight it out for the final Champions League spot, and Villarreal are the most likely of the trio. Although losing Santi Cazorla to Málaga had angered and saddened a lot of the Madrigal faithful, they have managed to retain rest of their stars like Borja Valero, Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar da Silva. Among the new signings, the most significant is Cristian Zapata from Udinese to shore-up their defense where they were vulnerable last season. They are certainly capable of improving on last year’s success.

Sevilla has a new coach in Marcelino Garcia, the ex-Racing coach. Alvaro Negredo had an exceptional end to last season, and the arrival of Ivan Rakitic finally brought control and creativity to midfield. Manu Del Moral and Piotr Trochowski are good signings for them. The Andalucians will be fighting for a place in the ‘best of the rest’ category.

Losing their star of last season, Juan Mata to Chelsea will hurt Valencia. Before the start of the last season, they had lost David Villa and David Silva, but still managed the 3rd spot, albeit 21 points behind Madrid which was an improvement on the previous season. They have made some shrewd signings this season in Adil Ramis, Danny Parejo and got the Spanish U20 captain Sergio Canales in loan from Real Madrid.

Atletico Madrid’s Europa League triumph a season before is almost forgotten with the departure of the coach followed by 3 of their key players, Sergio Aguero, David De Gea and Tomas Ujfalusi.  The return of Gregorio Manzano as coach and the addition of the Colombian international, Radamel Falcao Garcia have brought in some optimism and the fans would hope to watch exciting football once again.

Another club which will be watched closely by the people who follow La Liga is Athletic Bilbao. They have got the eccentric Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa to fit in the shoes of Joaquin Caparros. With the club’s Basque-only policy, there is always a certain degree of stability in their squad. This year they have signed the impressive creative midfielder Ander Herrera from Real Zaragoza and have been able to retain the talented Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Iker Munaín. There is hope that they can improve on last season’s Europa League qualification.

The Survivors

The other football club from the city of Barcelona, Espanyol produce sufficient talent to survive but sales of the likes of Jose Callejon and Javier Chica have weakened them. We may not see them fighting for a Champions League place like midway through last season but with the ambition of the coach  Mauricio Pochettino, we should see some good football from them.

Sporting Gijon’s 1-0 victory in the Bernabeu last season ended Mourinho’s nine-year unbeaten home league record. Manolo Preciado’s side survived a poor start to the season to secure their top-flight status with a couple of weeks to spare. The departure of Diego Castro to Getafe is a blow to them but they will try to remain solid in defense.

Getafe, another club owned by the rich Arabs, didn’t do much shopping except Castro. Instead, they have been selling. Manuel del Moral, Juan Albon, Derek Boateng and Dani Parejo were all sold off, but then managing within a tight budget is not new to the coach Luis Garcia.

Mallorca was chasing a European place last season but found them within a goal of going down on the final day. Coach Michael Laudrup needs to establish his credibility in the role.

Real Zaragoza avoided relegation last season on the final day with a 2-1 victory over Levante. The club is in financial distress and had to sell the star of Spain’s Euro Under-21 triumph, Herrera. Coach Javier Aguirre has the same job cut for him, battling against the drop.

Another club that survived relegation last season on the final day was Real Sociedad. Coach Martin Lasarte has lost his job and the new boss is Philippe Montanier. Primarily a home-grown side, with the likes of supremely talented Xabi Prieto and Mikel Aranburu, Sociedad is expected to produce some good football even after losing Diego Rivas.

Osasuna’s survival last season had reached epic proportion with a bleeding Javier Camunas’ amazing assist against Sevilla in the dying minutes of the penultimate week. They have financial problems too and have lost Josetxo (José Romero Urtasun) and Monreal.

Real Betis is one of the sides promoted to the Première Division this year.  Though La Liga is not unknown waters for them, being under administration, due to presidential mismanagement and accusations will restrict their ability to compete in the top flight. But they have a good coach in Pepe Mel, a huge fan base and an important history.

The Relegation zone

Levante survived last season despite slipping down from the twelfth spot to fourteenth on the last day, but they may not be able to survive this season. Losing their coach Luis Garcia, who managed primarily with effective vocal tonic, could see them dropping down. The new boss, Juan Ignacio Martinez is to work with a non-existing budget and without their top-scorer, Felipe Caicedo.

Racing Santander has been left high and dry by the owner Ahsan Ali Sayed, and there is a vacuum of leadership there.

Granada is back in La Liga after 35 long years, thanks to the Serie A club Udinese. 12 members of the Granada first-team squad came in on loan from there and Quique Pina, Granada’s president and chief executive, was working at Udinese before taking over at the financially-stricken club. Seven of the Udinese players went back this season, but Granada loaned in three players from Benfica to remain afloat.

Rayo Vallecano, another newly promoted side went into administration last season with protests by unpaid players. Jose Ramon Sandoval is an impressive coach but has a very tough job at his disposal.

Verdict

Barcelona are to continue their on-field magic with the players working in pitch-perfect harmony. They would defend both their La Liga crown and the Champions League throne. Only other serious contender is the archrival, Real Madrid. Malaga and Villareal are the most likely contenders for the other two Champions League spots.

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Sumit Sarkar is a football lover and an ardent follower of La Liga; you can follow him on twitter @SumitS_

Indranath Mukherjee can be followed on twitter @indranath

What’s with Argentina?

The 1986 World Cup was a memorable event in more ways than one. The tournament was pulled off beautifully, albeit the skepticism surrounding Mexico hosting the tournament following the devastating earthquake. The kind of football on display that year was matchless. Nations like West Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, England and Uruguay along with the champions, produced superlative football that year. Several players like Zico, Platini, Littbarski, Butragueño, Laudrup (Michael), Scifo, Linekar and Francescoli left a lasting impression ; however one man rose above the rest to attain a ‘God’-ly status.
The following World Cup, four years hence, was a different ball game altogether for Argentina. Although they managed to make it to the final, after much struggle, Andreas Brehme’s penalty made West Germany taste its sweet revenge of 1986. The final game was appropriately described by George Vecsey of The New York Times as, ‘Winning Ugly, Losing Ugly, Just Plain Ugly’. The 1994 World Cup witnessed an unfortunate exit of a great football playing nation. The team had been a tad disoriented post the suspension of their talismanic leader and Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania probably had played their game of the tournament to eliminate Argentina.
The last time Argentina senior team won a title was the 1993 Copa America. It’s been eighteen long years now. Is the team falling back owing to a dearth of talent? Winning 5 FIFA World Youth Championships (now FIFA U-20 World Cup) between 1995 and 2007 and 2 successive Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008 might suggest otherwise. Argentines are dominating
the international club football scene for some years now; however, there seems to be some issues within the national team, right from the selection process to the manner of play on the pitch. Fans back home in Argentina blame it on the Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona. Grondona had taken

over as the president of AFA following the World Cup triumph in 1978, and the 1986 World Cup win had cemented his position at AFA. Recent allegations against him suggest he is running it as a personal business for the last 15 years or so. He’s got the media and the general people to back him by having the manager include several popular players into the team, without much care for the team strategy. Grondona has plans to re-contest in the forthcoming AFA elections due in October. There was a protest demonstration held on August 2, in front of the AFA offices in Buenos Aires demanding Grondona’s resignation.
One may wonder how far the allegation surrounding Grondona is true. Let’s consider this year’s Copa America. Carlos Tevez was initially not a part of manager Sergio Batista’s plan. In the friendly matches held prior to the Copa, Tevez was left out. Could be because he once refused to play for the national team or could be Batista, having already worked with
       
many of the players in the current squad in Olympic 2008, didn’t find a specific role for Tevez in the team. However, for the Copa, Tevez was named in the starting line-up in the first 2 games. There is no denying that Tevez is supremely talented and had a great season at Manchester City, albeit the tactical chemistry not being fluid between him and the rest of the players. The allegation here is Tevez being the most popular national team player back in Argentina, Grondona had instructed Batista to include him in the team and in honoring the In the 1998 World Cup, Argentina’s (and arguably Real Madrid’s as well) then best player was left at home because of his long hair! Everybody demanded Ariel Ortega; he made a mistake, and got all the blame while
the president, the manager sacrificed his original plan and we found a lacklustre team in the first 2 games.
After a few brilliant matches in each tournament, the players pretty much resembled the NBA players from the movie Space Jam, who, devoid of skills after the aliens take away their power, moved about like zombies, lifeless; without any chemistry, cohesion or tactic, they stepped over each other’s feet, out of position, and with no leader in the middle.
One concern, however, has been common since the 1998 World Cup – that of inappropriate selection of players and / or playing them in unsuitable positions. Surprisingly, not only the coaches, but Grondona, the media and the fans, have always demanded certain players to play and more often than not these players have been brought in at the middle of a crisis when the chances of failure have been high. And once that happens, then the media starts blasting the players and as a consequence, they get so emotionally drained that they find it tough to recover.
manager, Daniel Pasarella still had every chance to destroy River Plate by hiring Juan José “J. J.” López.
River Plate’s relegation this year is ample testimony to where Argentine football has reached. AFA has a plan to merge first and second divisions the next 6 months. This apparently is Grondona’s plan to get the votes of the second division clubs. The project is on hold for now and a topic for a separate discussion.
In the 2002 World Cup, manager Marcelo Bielsa left Juan Román Riquelme, Javier Saviola and Santiago Solari, and got 35 year old Claudio Caniggia in the team. Fernando Redondo was ignored once again although he was the player of the match against Brazil at Buenos Aires in 1999 where Argentina won 2-0 under Bielsa. There was Pablo Aimar, who was flourishing at Valencia, having made it to two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 and at the time, acknowledged as one of the most creative players around. Aimar needed the World Cup to cement his status as an Argentine great, but he was benched. Bielsa
       
got him in when it was too late, in the must win last group stage game against Sweden and put him in the central midfield alongside Ortega, a situation where he was more likely to fail, and he did. In the earlier games against Nigeria and England, he was used merely as a substitute. The same people who had demanded his inclusion later felt that he may not be that good. Aimar was never the same again; in fact he didn’t get a decent opportunity to redeem himself. A player who could have been one of the greatest in his generation was set up for failure by external circumstances, and then hung out to dry. However, Bielsa who had an equal, if not greater responsibility came out with his reputation intact, in spite of not managing to survive the group stages of the tournament.
2006 was complicated. Manager José Pekerman, the man behind the success in the World Youth Championship, looked all set to carry it to the senior level. For some reason, he left Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel at home. Hernán Crespo and Saviola played with great chemistry. Many wanted Tevez and Lionel Messi to start although they were better off as super-subs against tiring oppositions. In the quarter-final against Germany, Tevez started instead of Saviola, as Pekerman gave in to the popular demand. The chemistry between Saviola and Crespo could not be recreated by Tevez. Notwithstanding the issues, Argentina scored early in the second half and looked all set to progress beyond the Quarter Final stage for the first time since 1990. However, the good deed was undone by a momentary lapse of reason by Pekerman. He took off Crespo and Riquelme to bring in Julio Cruz and Esteban
Cambiasso. One may have felt that Argentina is leading and needs to consolidate their defense and justify Cambiasso’s introduction, but with Riquelme’s departure, the team lost its key player, who was holding the team together and channelising the play from midfield. To this date, Argentine fans fail to comprehend Pekerman’s rationale behind Julio Cruz’s introduction, while the likes of Messi and Saviola were made to cool their heels on the bench. Cruz was not even a regular at Inter Milan.
2010 was more like seeing the nation go on a suicide mission; one couldn’t possibly do much to prevent it with someone like Diego Maradona at the helm. Maradona, the magician with the ball, was never quite known for his tactical ability. Zanetti was once again ignored, when he could have been the ideal leader at the pitch, and this was perhaps also the time to have Cambiasso in the team, especially due to what they had achieved at Inter Milan that season. Argentina won all the group games and the 2nd round against Mexico, but the portents were visible with the team being too much dependant on Messi. Predictably, Argentina were badly found wanting against the tactically sound Germans and went out with a whimper.
Messi’s goal scoring statistics for the club and the national team is so in contrast that critics find it easy to put the sole blame on him. Thankfully he is still quite young and a powerhouse of talent. But if the ‘blame it on Leo’ game continues, the young man may find the burden beyond his scope to tackle, and consequently Argentina may lose arguably one of the best players to have touched the ball. The manager needs to ease the pressure and
       
provide him with more space to play. Apparently, a convenient solution might be to have Messi take over as the leader. There, however, lies a fundamental flaw in such a thought process. Messi to me is not a born leader. Javier Mascherano, the only footballer with 2 Olympic gold medals, is clearly not an ideal leader either. Neither is his performance awe-inspiring nor does he maintain a stable head on his shoulder.
Well, it’s indeed been a difficult couple of decades for Argentina fans. I have spent many a painful night seeing Argentina choking at critical moments – be it in the World Cup, the Copa America or the Confederations Cup since 1993. There were times when my wife could gauge the outcome of an Argentina game from my sleeping posture. It was not until I read Orhan Pamuk that I learnt how severe pain has its way of being manifested. It’s like acid-filled grenades exploding in my veins as I sort through my bundle of fond memories with the way the team may have played in the past; distracting myself, briefly and intermittently, until the same memories would propel me deeper into the void.
I am greatly concerned about this national team’s future. Most people are looking forward to Javier Pastore. The question is, do we really want him to play in such dire conditions? I see 2002 all over again, Pastore is the new Aimar now. If he fails to live up to the expectations of his followers, fans may look out for another target like Erik Lamela.
Alejandro Sabella has been confirmed as the Argentina coach until after the 2014 World Cup finals, contingent on Argentina qualifying for
the tournament. Is he the right man? We would like to hope so. His managerial stint with Estudiantes de La Plata, where he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores, earned him a lot of respect. But he needs to be given time and space which may not be a real possibility with

Grondona and his men running the show.
I am not too sure what might ensue as a consequence to the protest against Grondona. Argentine football needs to revive drastically; else one of the best generations of footballers would be overshadowed by other football playing nations. I’d rather let Grondona, the media and fans take the blame for the current state of affairs. A revamp of the domestic league could perhaps keep more Argentines at home, and help improve the coordination among them and compassion for the country. Argentina national team needs a capable coach who can make the right decisions. With more able leaders, this nation is bound to recover from this abysmal state and relive the golden times.
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Indranath Mukherjee follows South American and European football. Apart from Football, Film and Music keep him going. You can follow him on twitter @indranath