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Why Amedspor's Turkish league win is about more than football

'Barcelona for Kurds': Why Amedspor's Turkish league win is about more than football
6 min read
23 May, 2024
In-depth: A league win is a moment to savour for any club. But for Amedspor, so often vilified and subject to racial violence, victory is all the more sweet.

At a football stadium in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, the voice of a Kurdish soprano entrances a sea of fans in red, green, and white jerseys.

Thousands of supporters came to Diyarbakir Stadium on 11 May to celebrate Amedspor’s Turkish Football Federation (TFF) second-league title win and promotion to TFF 1.

A championship win is a moment to savour for any club. But for Amedspor, victory is all the more sweet.

The past ten years have been nothing short of a slog for the club. Since a name and ownership change in 2014, the club has been the target of rival fan violence and Turkish Football Federation punishment, fuelled by the lows and lower lows of the Turkish state’s crackdown on pro-Kurdish expression in the country.

Like pro-Kurdish political parties, media outlets, and cultural institutions in Turkey, Amedspor has been accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and sowing anti-nationalist dissent.

Security forces have raided the club’s offices and the TFF has doled out frequent bans on Amedspor fans attending away games, substantial fines, and bans on SMS fundraising that Turkish teams sometimes depend on for their very survival.

All the while, far-right politicians have delighted in match-day violence targeted at the club.

“Amedspor was observedly subjected to heavy fines and economic discrimination. It was constantly targeted by nationalist politicians,” Vahap Coskun, an academic at Dicle University and contributor to a recent report by the Kurdish Studies Centre on the discrimination and violence faced by the club, told The New Arab.

“It can be said that fair competition rules never applied to Amedspor.”

While a peace process between the PKK and Turkey was in full swing, the club changed its name from Diyarbakır Buyuksehir Belediyespor to Amed Sportif Faaliyetler Kulubu; Amed is the Kurdish name for the city of Diyarbakir.

It took until the summer of 2015 for the TFF to recognise the change, and only after fining the club for flouting official procedures - a violation the club claimed it had not committed. By then, the PKK-Turkey peace process was beginning to unravel, and with it, the accommodations being made for the expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey.

The club has been cast by some of the country’s most powerful politicians as a sporting vehicle for the PKK, an armed group that has fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for the past four decades.

Even the then, and current, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan chimed in to rubbish the name change when it happened. In 2019, the then-Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu claimed that the club “takes orders from Qandil”, the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan where the PKK has bases. An investigation into the club by Soylu’s own ministry found that claim to be false.

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Perhaps no incident better exemplifies the racially-charged violence Amedspor fans, players, and management have faced than a March 2023 league match against Bursaspor.

Attacks came from multiple fronts; Bursaspor fans chanted racist slogans and held up banners with the images of prominent Turkish police and paramilitary figures, and a Renault Toros - the make of car preferred by members of a Turkish police unit notorious for the torture and killing of Kurds in the 1990s.

Before the match, Bursaspor players stormed the pitch, onto which their fans threw an assortment of water bottles, knives, and bullets. The attack won praise from far-right politicians; who said a club that sympathised with terror groups had it coming.

Amedspor fans celebrate their team's championship victory at Diyarbakir Stadium on 11 May. [Getty]

'Mes Que Un Club'

The club has not shied away from the idea that it is a sporting vehicle for Kurdish expression, despite the vulnerability to attack this brings. Club management, players, fans and pundits alike have proclaimed that Amedspor is “more than a club” - a statement that draws comparison with the Barcelona motto “Mes Que Un Club”, a Catalan phrase of the same meaning.

Indeed, club fans and administration have expressed lofty ambitions of seeing the club match the cultural and sporting impact of the La Liga giants. Club president Aziz Elaldi said early last season that nothing but the TFF2 title would do.

Amedspor’s pull for Kurds in Turkey and abroad is undeniable, with the club enjoying one of the biggest social media followings of any football team in Turkish football, and match attendance is high - reportedly bested only by Turkey’s biggest three clubs of Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Besiktas.

Kurdish social and political actors have jumped to the club’s defence when it has been subject to attack. Its championship win was celebrated by Selahattin Demirtas, a Kurdish opposition politician who co-chaired the HDP and has been jailed by Turkey since 2016.

In a post on X, he congratulated the team and shared a photo in which he wore the team’s red and green striped jersey. He was sentenced last week to 42 years in prison, convicted of undermining Turkey’s unity and integrity, among other things.

Big leagues, bated breath

As the team and fans look ahead to the 2024-25 season, excitement and anxiety are brewing.

The club has long been struggling financially, thanks in big part to the Turkish government’s removal of pro-Kurdish local officials in Diyarbakir a few years ago and replacing them with AKP trustees who stripped the club of public funding.

This has made them even more reliant on sponsorship, but potential sponsors appear to fear being tainted by association with a club whose identity has angered the country’s most powerful politicians, according to the Kurdish Studies Centre report.

Amedspor has instead relied on sponsorship from smaller, local businesses, or businesses in the diaspora. The club has also been prevented from conducting text message fundraising drives. These financial difficulties mean Amedspor will struggle to hold on to its best players and acquire new ones that will give it the firepower to play better-equipped teams in TFF 1.

The club be playing with increased visibility too, with their TFF 1 matches to air on major channels including beIN SPORTS and TRT Spor - a visibility that could draw not just new fans, but new enemies.

Football often acts as a barometer for social and political tension or how oppressed a group of people are, but it can also be an incubator for peace. Coskun noted that Amedspor matches sometimes pass without serious incident, thanks to preventionist statements by politicians governing the area the opposing side is from that call for fraternity and non-violence.

“If political actors act responsibly, the likelihood of violence decreases… the attitude of political actors will be decisive in the first league as well,” Coskun said.

At least some of the onus on protection of the club’s fans and players must fall on the TFF who have so far fallen short, according to Coskun.

“Unfortunately, the TFF has not acted responsibly so far. The TFF was very keen to penalise Amedspor while it was much more tolerant towards other teams,” he said.

“What the TFF needs to do is simple: Treat all teams equally and ensure that the game remains on the field.”

Shahla Omar is a freelance journalist based in London. She was previously a staff journalist and news editor at The New Arab.

Follow her on X: @shahlasomar