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Dec 23, 2012

Meireles at the centre of a storm

Off the pitch, the intercontinental derby between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce is a little less rancorous than it has been in the past. We are now in the second season of away fans being banned from fixtures between Istanbul's biggest clubs.

So it is down to events on the pitch to express the intensity of these two rivals from either side of the Bosphorus. Last weekend's meeting at the TT Arena didn't disappoint, with champions Galatasaray winning 2-1 in a thrilling end-to-end contest.

Unfortunately, it also ended with a controversial blow-up that has not only overshadowed the match itself but has snaked its way into news headlines across the globe.

Late on Thursday, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) announced an 11-match ban for Fenerbahce's Raul Meireles. The midfielder had been sent off with eight minutes to go after collecting a second yellow card. Meireles, in a rather ill-judged display of defiance, kissed the Fenerbahce badge on several occasions in front of the partisan Galatasaray crowd as he made his way off the pitch. Yet the severity of the ban didn't relate to either misdemeanour.

Referee Halis Ozkahya alleged in his report that Meireles spat at him and made a homophobic slur towards him following the sending-off. Nobody is saying that he behaved angelically in the aftermath, having crossed words with both Emmanuel Eboue and Felipe Melo as he made his way from the scene of the crime, but Meireles' reaction of shock and indignation has been quite unprecedented.

The former Chelsea man has bluntly accused Ozkahya of inventing the accusations leading to the ban, which, if it stood, would rule him out of Super Lig action until the end of February.

"It's unbelievable, a suspension of so many games, and based on the referee's lies," Meireles told Lusa, Portugal's main news agency. "I had access (to the report) and I was reading that he said I spat in his face. It's a total lie. It also says that I made a gesture to him that meant he was gay."

Both player and club have been working overtime to get their side of the story out there in the media. Meireles, usually a reluctant interviewee, also went on to the club's own television channel to protest his innocence, blinking bewilderedly as if he could barely believe what has happened.

Meanwhile, Fenerbahce's English language Twitter feed spent Friday afternoon publishing a series of character references from Meireles' former colleagues, including Fernando Torres ("he is a great player and a great example of a human being"), Pepe Reina ("I don't think the referee's report is true. We're talking about Raul; he's a role model") and Andre Villas-Boas ("This punishment is so weird. Raul is not that kind of player").

The club also published messages of support from club captain Volkan Demirel, Portugal coach Paulo Bento and national skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Real Madrid man saying "he's not capable of doing what he is accused of".

Perhaps the most remarkable backing for Meireles came from the Federacao Portuguesa de Futebol (FPF). President Fernando Gomes made a statement, published by the FPF's official website, showing "solidarity" with the player.

"It is with great surprise that I read about this acts that they [the TFF] are attributing to him," Gomes said. "I have a very positive impression of the personality and character of Raul Meireles, and of him as a person. Also, the images that we've seen from Turkish TV show clearly that he didn't spit at the referee. I want to convey the FPF's willingness to defend him to the limit of our capabilities."

Gomes is falling into line with the prevailing wave of support for Meireles from all levels of the Portuguese game, but such an emphatic response is bold. His desire to protect a good servant of the national side is laudable, but openly defying a counterpart national federation is a big step. As well as affecting future football relations between the two nations, it is another blow to the TFF's international credibility, which has already taken a battering from its handling of the match-fixing saga involving Fenerbahce from last year.

It deserves a degree of sympathy. What else could the TFF do but back its man and believe in his integrity? If Meireles is guilty of the charges then most would applaud a firm sanction. Claims from the Fenerbahce camp that Ozkahya has changed his report have, however, made matters very difficult for the Federation. That Meireles is an internationally-known and respected figure, and a Champions League winner, means the pressure is on to get this right.

It isn't over. Meireles has vowed to appeal, with the full backing of Fenerbahce, and has even suggested he will take Ozkahya to court to get to the bottom of things. It will run and run, one suspects, and common sense should see the ban reduced. Despite Gomes' analysis of the video replays, it's really not that clear what went on.

Footage shows Meireles craning into Ozkahya and maybe spitting, or maybe making emphasis on a particular word in his anger. His international team-mate Hugo Almeida, who also plays in Istanbul with Besiktas, said he thought the images looked "compromising", though he underlined that Meireles "knows he has my full support".

It is likely that the truth doesn't involve anything more malign than simple misunderstanding, with the waters muddied by language barriers and the sheer noise inside the stadium. Ozkahya's claim that he was insulted in Portuguese is an unusual one, with him not speaking the language and Meireles "only having spoken in English", and the alleged homophobic gesture is easily explained with a touch of Portuguese slang. It appears that Meireles was accusing Ozkahya of having a "rabo apertado" ("tight arse"), meaning he accused him of being scared, tallying with the player's own explanation.

Nobody has covered themselves in glory in this episode: "I expected to be banned for my reaction [to being sent off]," Meireles admits. But it's a shame it overshadows a match that was such a great advertisement for the Turkish game. That, rather than anything else, will stick in the mind, sadly.

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