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Apr 25, 2012

Turkey forced to air dirty laundry again

The Turkish SuperLig was always a potential tinderbox this season, against the background of a major match-fixing investigation and the champions Fenerbahce being refused entry to the Champions League. It certainly seemed that the introduction of a play-off system to decide the title after the regular 34-game season might be an unnecessary accentuation of the resulting tension.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had moved to take the sting out of the situation, banning away fans, but as the play-offs dawned it has been events on the pitch, rather than off it, that have been the source of rancour. After the grand launch of the Super Final (as the play-offs have been dubbed) between Besiktas and Galatasaray was called off at the last minute due to torrential rain, the scheduled second clash, between last season's top two of Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor, took its place as the curtain raiser.

It was not the flattering showcase that the TFF had hoped for. Fenerbahce's 2-0 win was completely overshadowed by an ugly spat between two former Premier League players, the home side's midfielder Emre Belozoglu and his Trabzon counterpart Didier Zokora. The pair crossed words during the game and it quickly escalated, with Zokora furiously confronting the Turkey international and pushing him.

Zokora told journalists in the post-match press conference at Fener's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium that he had reacted to Emre racially abusing him (in English), calling him a "f***ing n*****". The former Tottenham man apologised for having to utter the word, before expressing his disdain and shock. "What upsets me more," he continued, "is how disgraceful it is for a player who has African team-mates like (Moussa) Sow and (Joseph) Yobo to insult an African from another team."

Certainly there has been no ducking the gravity of the incident in Turkey. The headline in Hurriyet the following day removed any doubt outsiders might have over local culture glossing over it, headlining its report: 'Turkish football player drops 'N-bomb' on the field.'

Of course, this is not new territory for Emre. In his time in England with Newcastle United, he was accused of using racist language on the pitch three times - by then-Everton defender Yobo and his team-mates Tim Howard and Joleon Lescott, Watford's Sierra Leone international Al Bangura and in an incident involving Bolton's El-Hadji Diouf. It must be underlined that the Everton case was found unproven, the FA opted not to charge him over the Bangura matter and that Diouf declined to complain. Nevertheless, mud sticks and at the time - all three incidents occurred in the 2006-07 season - Newcastle released a statement criticising the "highly prejudicial" press coverage of the controversies.

Then-Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder defended his player, entering the Everton dressing room after the December match at Goodison Park to build bridges and calm the situation. He said at the time: "At no time did I make any apology for racist comments because Emre had told me clearly what he had said, and while not being particularly pleasant, it was not racist."

This has some correlation with Emre's explanation of the Zokora incident. He has denied using any racially pejorative words, though he admitted swearing at Zokora and conceded that he often uses language that "isn't right" on the pitch. "I've done things I regret," he said. The midfielder still has a reputation in Turkey as a garrulous and edgy presence on the field, even as an experienced 31-year-old.

Whatever the truth at the bottom of it all, it is clear Emre could have handled it better. He is still dealing with the hefty weight of suspicion heaped upon him after initially appearing to admit racially abusing Zokora in a telephone interview on LigTV's post-match show, Maraton. He retracted that the following day, saying he had misheard presenter Sansal Buyuka's question and had only intended to admit using vulgar - not racist - language towards his opponent.

Emre's next move, also on the Sunday following the game, was to call a press conference at the Sukru Saracoglu, with his colleague - and former accuser - Yobo at his side to back him up. An uncomfortable-looking Yobo confessed he'd been put in a "difficult" situation, having "fallen between my friend Emre and Zokora, another friend. In football there are lots of swear words, it's a competitive sport and you use compact words on the pitch".

The defender admitted he "had issues" with Emre over the Everton incident, but put it down to the fact "that he was fighting for his team, [and I was] fighting for the team". Yobo also said he wouldn't have joined Fenerbahce, for whom he signed for a second successive one-year loan this season, had he thought Emre was a racist.

It was a partially understandable yet rather ham-fisted attempt by Emre - and Fener - to stick up for himself. By then, the public had already seen numerous slow motion replays of the on-field exchange, and lip-reading appeared to back up Zokora's complaint.

The following week saw the situation escalate further, with Trabzonspor filing a complaint of racism against Emre with the Kadikoy Prosecutor's Office in Fenerbahce's home district, in accordance with Penal Code Article 6222, relating to "violence and disorder" in sport. If charges are brought and Emre was subsequently found guilty, he would face up to a year in prison.

He has already been punished with a two-match ban, handed down by the TFF's Disciplinary Committee last Thursday after being found guilty of "insulting" Zokora - but not of racially abusing him, as has been reported by some outlets. Had a racist element to the incident been proven, Emre could have been banned for up to eight weeks, missing all of the SuperLig Super Final games. As it is, he already missed Sunday's crucial derby with Galatasaray, something he finds hard to accept for an action he says he "did not commit".

The current situation provides no sort of conclusion, with the racism angle unaddressed and Emre, as it stands, banned for the sort of language that's used almost every minute on most football pitches - amateur and professional - on the planet. Yet, once again, Turkey is under unwanted pressure to be seen to be delivering justice, at a moment when it has more than enough matters of that nature on its plate already.

• Follow Andy Brassell on Twitter: @andybrassell

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