İstanbulspor president leads team off pitch in latest embarrassing episode for Turkish soccer following assault on referee

ISTANBUL, TURKEY- DECEMBER 19:  Istanbulspor Club President Ecmel Faik Sarıalioğlu disagreed with referee's decision and pulled the team off the pitch in the 2nd half on December 19, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbulspor and Trabzonspor faced each other in the 17th week of the Trendyol Super League.(Photo by Serkan Hacioglu/ dia images via Getty Images)

İstanbulspor president Ecmel Faik Sarıalioğlu disagreed with referee’s decision and pulled the team off the pitch in the second half.Serkan Hacioglu/Dia Images/Getty ImagesCNN — 

More than a week after Turkish professional soccer was suspended following the violent assault of a referee by a club president, matches resumed on Tuesday only for the Süper Lig to immediately became embroiled in more controversy.

İstanbulspor president Ecmel Faik Sarıalioğlu withdrew his players from the pitch after his team was denied a penalty call midway through the second half against Trabzonspor, resulting in the match being abandoned.

The last-placed Boğalar had clamored for a penalty after a collision between Trabzonspor’s Batista Mendy and İstanbulspor midfielder Florian Loshaj, but play went on.

The visitors then quickly scored to go 2-1 up in the 68th minute thanks to a Paul Onuachu header, leading Sarıalioğlu to come onto the pitch and demand his team walk off in the 73rd minute.

ANKARA, TURKIYE - DECEMBER 11: Referee Halil Umut Meler falls to the ground after Faruk Koca, President of MKE Ankaragucu throws a punch to him after the Turkish Super Lig week 15 football match between MKE Ankaragucu and Rizespor at Eryaman Stadium in Ankara, Turkiye on December 11, 2023. The match ended 1-1. (Photo by Emin Sansar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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İstanbulspor defender Simon Deli was seen on one knee pleading with Sarıalioğlu to let the team play the game out, but ultimately, the players followed the club president’s orders and went into their dressing room, with the referees soon following suit.

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According to Turkish state news agency Anadolu, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) will have to decide what happens next.

“A team that leaves a competition will be declared a loser by default, and in addition, the number of points awarded in case of victory will be deducted from its existing points,” according to TFF rules.

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İstanbulspor is currently bottom of the table and five points behind 19th-placed Pendikspor and what happened on Tuesday could significantly endanger the club’s hopes of avoiding relegation.

“It is a sad day for football … We will wait for the football federation’s decision [on what happens with the result],” Trabzonspor head coach Abdullah Avcı said after the game.

Earlier, across the city, the first match to kick off on Tuesday after the Süper Lig’s suspension had Başakşehir hosting Sivasspor in a mostly-empty stadium in an outer suburb of Istanbul.

Flowers were presented to referees before the match by children wearing shirts bearing the Turkish word for “respect.”

The home team’s manager, Çağdaş Atan, was absent from the sideline after having been suspended for a series of yellow cards in prior matches, while referee decisions had a impact on the match: two penalty kicks were awarded to Başakşehir – both hammered home by Polish striker Krzysztof Piątek – and a goal in the 62nd minute by the Boz Baykuşlar was initially ruled offside, but was then given following a video assistant referee (VAR) review.

Basaksehir striker Krzysztof Piatek watches his kick find the back of the net to take the lead over Sivasspor.

Başakşehir striker Krzysztof Piatek watches his kick find the back of the net to take the lead over Sivasspor.Scott MacLean/CNN

After the match, Piątek told CNN – with a smirk – that the quality of officiating “could be better, but it was OK.”

Sivasspor manager Servet Çetin also had his say on refereeing in the Süper Lig when asked by CNN if Turkish soccer culture has a problem with respect for officials.

“We try to approach all referees with respect and love,” Çetin said in a post-match press conference. “Sometimes, we get angry. But this comes and goes.

“Today, for example, I hope the referees were correct in their decisions because, otherwise, they’ll get a reaction from Sivasspor fans. This accumulates. This turns into anger,” he added.

“There are mistakes made in our country that are not made in Europe.”

Criminal charges

Murat Fevzi Tanırlı, a former Turkish pro referee-turned sports columnist and commentator, told CNN that “Turkey is incomparably worse when it comes to respect [for referees] in the world.”

That view seemed to be borne out last week when then Ankaragücü club president Faruk Koca stormed onto the pitch and punched referee Halil Umut Meler in the face, leaving him with a black eye and a slight fracture to his skull, according to Turkish Minister of Justice Yılmaz Tunç.

ANKARA, TURKIYE - DECEMBER 11: Faruk Koca, President of MKE Ankaragucu throws a punch to the referee Halil Umut Meler after the Turkish Super Lig week 15 soccer match between MKE Ankaragucu and Rizespor at Eryaman Stadium in Ankara, Turkiye on December 11, 2023. The match ended 1-1. (Photo by Emin Sansar/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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At least two other people kicked the referee when he was down and three people were arrested by Turkish authorities, including Koca, following the incident.

Koca, however, has refuted the claims of punching Meler, saying he only “slapped” the referee in the face, but he resigned from his position as club president on December 12, saying he wanted to “avoid any further harm to the Ankaragücü club, Ankaragücü fans, the community I am in.”

Koca is now amongst those facing criminal charges and a possible prison sentence.

The Turkish Professional Football Disciplinary Board has also banned him from the sport for life, fined his former club around $69,000 (2,000,000 Turkish lira) and ordered Ankaragücü to play five home games without any fans in attendance.

On Wednesday, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published a lengthy interview with Meler. “I will never forgive those who did it or those who provoked it,” he told the newspaper.

On Saturday, he gave his first public statement on the incident; “I want those responsible and perpetrators of the incident to be punished in the most severe way,” he wrote, according to Anadolu Agency.

‘Verbal abuse and attacks will continue’

The TFF has promised a broader crackdown – and tougher penalties – for bad behavior towards referees.

Tanırlı told CNN that those decisions, which are expected next month, will determine whether any change will be lasting.

“Will this impact only Ankaragücü? Because right now, the matches will start this week and the same verbal abuse and attacks will continue. That’s why the federation needs to make the penalties for this behavior tougher,” said Tanırlı.

Before the matches kicked off on Tuesday, fans were united in condemning Koca’s violent attack but were divided on whether broader reforms were needed.

“No matter how harsh the punishment will be [for Koca], ultimately the problem starts with the fans. We need to educate ourselves first. Only after that, will the changes they make have an impact,” Başakşehir fan Ceyhun Coban, who was attending the match with his son, told CNN.

Istanbulspor players leave the field after their president Ecmel Faik Sarialioglu, called them off the pitch in protest of not getting penalty against Trabznospor, during a Turkish Super Lig soccer match in Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. Sarialioglu was upset that the referee did not call a penalty before Paul Onuachu scored to give Trabzonspor a 2-1 lead at Necmi Kadıoglu Stadium.(Serkan Hacioglu/Dia Images via AP)

İstanbulspor players leave the field after their president Ecmel Faik Sarıalioğlu called them off the pitch in protest of not getting penalty.Serkan Hacioglu/Dia Images/AP

Fatih Ates, another Başakşehir supporter, agreed that harsher punishment was needed for offenders but said there should be no broader sanctions against fans or teams for the behavior of one person.

“We should know that this is a football match, and we are here for entertainment, not war,” Ates told CNN.

Back in the stadium, Piątek doesn’t think major changes are needed to prevent violent incidents in the future.

“I think we are all humans. Football is emotional, we need to keep calm sometimes and I think this cannot happen again,” he said.

“We have conversations always in the game with the referees and sometimes we need to have more respect.”

However, with the latest incident involving İstanbulspor and its club president, the spotlight will likely remain on the Turkish game and its love-hate relationship with referees for the foreseeable future.

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