Facing discrimination, Kurdish football team withdraws from Turkish competition

Cizrespor is not the only Kurdish team that has experienced racist attacks and discrimination.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Maruf Sefinc, president of Cizrespor football team, speaks during a news conference. (Courtesy of Maruf Sefinc)
Denouncing injustice. Maruf Sefinc, president of Cizrespor football team, speaks during a news conference. (Courtesy of Maruf Sefinc)

ISTANBUL - Once again, politics in Turkey reached the football pitch. The team of the predominantly Kurdish border town Cizre, Cizrespor, withdrew from the Turkish football league, accusing the Turkish Football Federation of racism and discrimination.

The club’s players and executives justified their decision with their unwillingness to further deal with the abuse of nationalist football fans and partisan referees.

“We do not have enough power to stand up to the lawlessness of the [Turkish Football Federation] TFF and the Central Referee Committee,” the team said in a statement.

“Due to the injustices we have faced in our own stadium as well as at away games, due to the racist and nationalist behaviour of referees and with the decision of the president of our club, Maruf Sefinc, we will pull our team Cizrespor out of the league.”

Founded as an amateur team in 1972, Cizrespor has competed in the TFF’s Third League since 2015. Sefinc, a 32-year-old businessman from Istanbul, has been with the club since then and became its president two years ago. He said Cizrespor had been the victim of systematic discrimination for years: denial of penalties and goals, unjust referee decisions and constant racist abuse from fans and the TFF. A disciplinary investigation has been opened against him by the association.

The decision followed a long list of racist incidents. Almost a year ago, when Cizrespor played in the southern town of Serik, the team was confronted with nationalist songs and physical violence from Serik fans. The Cizrespor team was forced to exit the stadium in armoured vehicles provided by security forces. Similar scenes occurred during a match in Bayburt in 2017, where at least four Cizrespor players were wounded in physical attacks.

While the discrimination against Turkey’s Kurdish population has never entirely ceased, it has been on the increase again since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in 2015.

What followed was the worst violence that Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east had suffered in two decades. Blanket curfews were imposed on several jurisdictions in the region, including Cizre. The trauma looms large for many residents.

The town, near the banks of the Tigris and the borders with Iraq and Syria, was badly hit in the scale of destruction and the casualty toll. Human Rights Watch said at least 66 Cizre residents, including 11 children, were killed during the security operations. Human Rights Watch further documented that about 130 people -- armed militants and civilians -- were “deliberately and unjustifiably killed” while trapped in basements and surrounded by Turkish security forces.

During the curfew, Cizrespor was unable to play in its home stadium and players’ salaries dried up. However, the end of the security operations did not bring relief. Because of the renewed crackdown on Kurdish rights in Turkey and the increasingly harsh stance of the government, the team has faced enmity from nationalist football fans and the TFF.

“During almost every away game we were subjected to verbal abuse by the opponent’s fans,” former Cizrespor coach Metin Akpunar told German news site DW. He said they were treated like terrorists and confronted with nationalist slogans. “In international football, black players are being subjected to racism but the racism in Turkey has reached a very violent point.”

When Sefinc, along with 15 other teams from across Turkey, applied for new facilities two years ago, Cizrespor was the only one that was overlooked. “If you discriminate and don’t gear young people towards sports, you’ll leave them to drugs and terrorism. Even if you don’t give material support, you shouldn’t put stones in our way,” Akpunar said.

The withdrawal from the league ends an attempt to bring Turks and Kurds closer together through sports. While most of the club’s 33 players were from the south-eastern province of Sirnak, where Cizre is located, there were players from other cities, such as Rize or Istanbul, many of whom are ethnic Turks.

Sefinc said the decision to withdraw from the league was not easy. “It was difficult to say goodbye to the players and the coaches. Those were emotional moments. I did not want it to come to this but we have written countless requests to the [TFF] because of the referees’ mistakes and the injustices. They never even replied,” he told the Turkish newspaper Gazete Duvar.

Despite the TFF’s silence concerning the racist abuse Cizrespor faced, the club was regularly fined and its supporters were banned from the stadium because of throwing plastic water bottles or cursing. Sefinc recalled that Cizrespor was fined because the team’s supporters purportedly shouted curses from the stands during a match from which Cizrespor fans had been already banned.

Cizrespor is not the only Kurdish team that has experienced racist attacks and discrimination. In 2016, executives of the Diyarbakir-based team Amedspor were beaten by a mob in Ankara after a match against Ankaragucu.

In 2018, the TFF banned German-Kurdish Amedspor midfielder Deniz Naki for life, accusing him of “separatist and ideological propaganda.” Naki had called for people to protest Turkey’s military offensive into northern Syria’s Afrin region on social media. Naki had previously been handed an 18-month suspended prison sentence for “terrorist propaganda” for publicly criticising the Turkish government’s military offensive against Kurdish militants in Turkey.

Following the withdrawal of Cizrespor, Amedspor President Metin Kilavuz published a letter to the TFF, stating: “There is no longer a Cizrespor towards which you can direct your racist songs and slogans and your violence. There is no longer a Cizrespor against which you can whistle without a conscience and against which you can write up unfair goals. We invite those who caused [this decision] to start acting with conscience and common sense again, even if they have very little of it left.”