On December 29, 2023, all eyes were on Turkey's two biggest football teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, who were scheduled to play in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, as part of Turkey's Super Cup final. Turkey's Football Federation's decision to have the teams play this game on foreign soil was already heavily criticized by fans, politicians, and the general public as the country marks its centennial.
However, the disagreements between the football teams’ presidents, the Turkish federation, and the Saudi authorities that ensued on the day of the game over uniforms, banners, Turkey’s national anthem and flag, eventually led to the match being canceled altogether. While fans flooded Istanbul's two airports to greet the players, the incident stirred much public debate for days to come.
Ties between Saudi authorities and Ankara
The relations between the two countries have been in crisis ever since the Arab Spring protests from 2010–2012, according to Hamdullah Baycar, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. Both countries supported opposing sides in Egypt, where “Turkey embraced president Mohamed Morsi, while Saudi Arabia backed the Egyptian Army that overthrew him.” Then, during the Gulf diplomatic crisis that started in 2017 and lasted for 43 months, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severing ties with Qatar in 2017, Turkey instead backed the latter. There were a number of other political developments that kept the two countries at bay.
In 2018, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey made international headlines when dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jama Khashoggi was brutally murdered at the Saudi Consulate. While at first, the authorities in Turkey pledged to investigate the murder, and the relations between the two countries deteriorated further, Turkey's struggling economy and the country's decision to end its regional isolation eventually took the upper hand.
In April 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time after the Khashoggi murder on a two-day visit, seeking to mend ties between the two countries. An official statement issued by the president's office said, “All aspects of the relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be reviewed, and steps aimed at enhancing the cooperation between the two countries will be discussed.”
The same year Erdoğan traveled to Saudi Arabia, Turkey suspended the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi nationals who were suspected of being involved in Khashoggi's murder.
In June 2022, just a few months after the President's visit, a Saudi delegation arrived in Turkey.
Turkey also received a Saudi delegation, and since then, the two countries have signed a number of deals aimed at improving their ties.
That sports are used as a soft power in politics is not news. Various scholars have argued how football has become a tool in modern-day public diplomacy. In 2021, during his speech at an event organized by the Council of Europe in Lisbon, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino said, “sports diplomacy,” although a new term, “describes an old practice: the use of sport to realize policy goals, to help bring about positive social change.”
But it does not always end well. At least this was the case on December 29, in Riyadh, when neither Turkish team made it to the stadium amid a row over Turkey's national symbols. And although the Turkish Football Federation tried downplaying the incident, describing the issue instead as “some problems in the event's organization,” it was much more than that.
As reporting by Turkey's media platforms and statements by clubs’ presidents started trickling in on December 29, it became clear that the row started with the Saudi Football Federation not approving of the players’ jerseys. Players of the Galatasaray team were planning to wear jerseys with an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, in recognition of Turkey celebrating its 100th anniversary since its foundation. The players planned to wear these during the warm-up game. Meanwhile, the Fenerbahce team wanted to unfold the banner with a famous quote by Ataturk, “Peace at home, peace in the world,” which the Saudi Federation also reportedly did not approve of.
It was also reported that the Saudi officials refused to allow Turkey's national anthem to be played at the opening of the game and banned any show of Turkish flags. In a statement, the Saudi government contradicted this, saying: “It was also agreed that the national anthem of the Republic of Turkiye will be played, along with the display of the Turkiye flag inside the stadium and in the stands, due to appreciation we hold for the Republic of Turkiye.”
An hours-long meeting took place at the hotel where players were staying between the clubs’ presidents and both federations but it bore no results.
There were reports that the local police searched the locker rooms of players for any signs of banners and jerseys with any images of Ataturk ahead of the game.
When Turkish fans at the stadium stood up and started singing the national anthem, the organizers blasted loud music.
Scores took to social media, asking that Turkey's Football Federation boss, Mehmet Buyukeski, resign. #TFFIstifa (TFF resign) was trending on X (formerly known as Twitter), on the night of December 29.
In response to the conflict, a number of well-known athletes shared pictures of themselves wearing jerseys with the image of Ataturk and his signature, pictures of Ataturk and his quotes, as well as pictures from stadiums with Ataturk's image and quotes on social media.
The fact that the teams were banned from wearing their Ataturk-printed jerseys and then the match was canceled altogether was taken as a sign of disrespect among Turks.
“So if you’re Turkish, you’re sitting around, drinking tea on a Saturday afternoon, and the news on your phone is this: the Saudis are banning Atatürk from a big, big Turkish sports event. All hell broke loose. Because, of course, it did,” wrote Turkish scholar Selim Koru, author of Kültürkampf, a blog on Turkish political culture.
In Ankara, according to Mayor Mansur Yavas, posters of Ataturk and Turkish flags were hung on the street where Saudi Arabia has its Embassy.
The Mayor of Istanbul invited all city residents to gather in Besiktas, a neighborhood in Istanbul named after the country's third biggest football team, with their national flags, pictures of Ataturk, and football banners for the opening of Barbaros Square. During the opening ceremony, the mayor also suggested the cup should be split in two and gifted to the museums of the two teams. “I suggest canceling that game altogether and instead organizing a big celebration,” said the Mayor.
The leader of the opposition IYI party, Meral Aksener, called to declare both teams champions over their stand.
Meanwhile, President Erdğoan lashed out at opposition parties for “exploiting” the football game fallout. “We see that the statements made by opposition parties since last night are just the latest examples of political exploitation,” said the president on December 30.
The Minister of Justice Yılmaz Tunç added that a judicial investigation has been launched against some accounts on social media for sharing provocative and criminal posts. According to reports, at least one person has been detained so far as part of the investigation.
Turkey's Directorate of Communication also issued a statement on December 30, warning citizens of “disinformation campaigns by certain groups that undermine our nation's shared values and sensitives.” The decision to play the game in Saudi Arabia was made with the sole purpose of generating additional revenue for the two clubs, and that the decision was approved by the clubs and the Federation. In total, both clubs were to get paid some USD 4 million for the match.
Overall, the ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain intact, wrote Barin Kayaoglu, an Associate Professor of World History and a non-resident fellow in the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington.