Hunched over plates of fries, eggplant salad, and feta cheese in a rowdy Istanbul bar last weekend, fans of the city’s Besiktas soccer club watched their team play to an almost empty stadium.
“A year ago it would have been full,” says lawyer Batuhan Arpaci, tearing his attention from the match to explain why he and his friends – along with thousands of other soccer fans in Turkey – have begun boycotting games.
Match attendance for the country’s once-vibrant soccer leagues has plummeted after the government this season introduced a new e-ticketing system that requires fans to submit personal data in return for a bank card used to purchase passes.
Anyone attending a match, including children and tourists, are now required to register for the credit card by submitting personal information.
Officials say it will reduce violence at soccer games – a longstanding problem in Turkey.
But in a country where soccer is deeply entwined with a polarized political landscape, and with the government facing allegations of creeping authoritarianism, the so-called “Passolig” system is being viewed by many fans as an attempt at covert surveillance and clamping down on dissent.
Mass protests erupted in June last year against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His administration crushed the demonstrations through the use of force. Groups of soccer fans played a prominent role in clashes with police.
Fan groups targeted
Although legislation was passed for the e-ticketing system in 2011, two years before the protests, opposition to its implementation earlier this year has been heightened as fans’ groups have become a target of government wrath.
“Any family members who want to join us for even just a single match have to become slaves to this system that the government has created,” says Mr. Arpaci.
While he and his friends used to attend every match, they have vowed not to attend a single game since the system began, and now watch them in the lively bars of the club’s home neighborhood.
They are not alone. In recent weeks the unusually empty stands greeting top teams in the soccer-crazed country have been making headlines.
At a World Economic Forum summit this past week, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek defended the scheme on the grounds it was eliminating illegal ticket scalping and increasing tax revenue.
“People are complaining that the stadiums are empty, but actually our tax income has increased,” he told reporters. “These kind of systems are popular all over the world. It’s useful for dealing with underground ticket sales.”
Only 3,000 people filled the 82,000-capacity Ataturk Olympic Stadium, where Besiktas drew 1-1 with rival Eskisehir last weekend. Last year the team’s home games attracted an average crowd of 20,000.
Galatasaray, one of the city’s other “Big Three” clubs, drew 10,000 fans for its last home game, compared with an average attendance of 32,000 last season.
Fenerbahce, the third main Istanbul club, only agreed to join the scheme last week, having resisted on the grounds that it had created its own e-ticketing system independent of Passolig.
“All the clubs have been affected very badly by this law,” says Tugrul Aksar, a sports economist writing for Dunya newspaper. “Attendances have fallen sharply. Many clubs' match day revenues have decreased dramatically.”
Soccer fans at protests
Other than Fenerbahce, whose owners have poor relations with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s other top teams have remained largely silent about the scheme.
Fans’ wariness of it has been fuelled by the AKP’s recent efforts to clamp down on opposition in other fields.
During last summer’s protests, which erupted over the conservatism and alleged authoritarian drift of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, members of Besiktas’ fan group, known as Carsi, were often seen clashing with police at barricades.
The group, which has existed since the 1980s, has a long history of left-wing political activism, championing an array of causes from labor rights and animal welfare to anti-nuclear campaigning. Its members became heroes to the protest movement, but were reviled by the government.
Thirty-five of its leaders are now on trial, facing possible decades-long prison sentences, on charges relating to “attempting a coup and seeking to occupy the Prime Minister’s office” during the summer protests. They deny the allegations.
“At first Carsi was only representing people from Besiktas, but in time it became something more important,” says Arpaci. Since the summer protests, “it’s become a civil society organization, and that’s what the trial is about.”
Antigovernment slogans at games
In the past year, antigovernment slogans have become widespread at soccer matches, with AKP officials vowing to stamp out the practice. Fans fear the new system will be used to blacklist supporters based solely on their opposition to the government.
However the idea for an e-ticketing system was hatched long before the protests. Preparation for it began when the government passed a law aimed at combatting violence and disorder in sports in 2011.
Soccer hooliganism has long been a problem in Turkey. At one match in March this year between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahce, played in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, fans began showering the pitch with bricks and flares, prompting the referee to abandon it, after declaring conditions unsafe.
Away fans are forbidden from attending derby matches between the big Istanbul teams. As a penalty for violence, the Turkish Football Federation has recently forced teams to play to empty stadiums, or distributed tickets free to women and children.
“The main purpose of the [Passolig] system is to prevent spectators from entering stadiums who are [blacklisted] for sport-related offenses,” says Kemal Hacioglu, the official co-ordinator of the e-ticketing system at Turkey’s soccer federation, in an e-mailed response to questions.
“The law is aiming to establish a safe environment for the families and women who are expecting to have a good time in sport arenas.”
This view finds support among many fans. Ilker Cakir, 43, a Fenerbahce supporter and taxi driver, hopes Passolig will create a more family-friendly atmosphere.
“Some of the fans behave like maniacs,” he said as he listened to the Besiktas-Eskisehir game on his cab radio. “I have a wife and child and I would never want to take them to matches. The atmosphere isn’t appropriate.”
Suspicions of nepotism
Opposition to Passolig is also driven by suspicions of nepotism in the government’s creation of the system. The contract to operate it was won at tender last year by Aktif Bank, a subsidiary of Calik Holding, a company that at the time was run by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Aktif Bank has been given exclusive right to operate the system. Anyone wishing to attend a soccer match in Turkey’s top two leagues must buy its Passolig credit card for between 15 and 20 Turkish Lira ($6.50-$9), which can then be used for purchases on an array of non-football related services, from retail shopping to public transportation.
Aktif has not been granted a commercial banking license by Turkey’s banking regulator, and critics have characterized the system as a backdoor route for it to offer credit services.
Ozgur Gundogan, Passolig’s general manager, told The Christian Science Monitor that it was not aiming to be a profitable service. He said it aims to have enrolled one million card holders by the end of the year, but will only become profitable when four million have enrolled.
So far, however, only 400,000 have done so. Aksar, the sports economist, believes that the company will seek to make money through other services offered to cardholders. “For Aktif Bank, it has given them a valuable opportunity to reach new customers,” he said.
Mr. Gundogan dismisses the idea that the system will be used for surveillance and profiling of antigovernment football fans.
“If you use a credit card or a cell phone, then your mark is everywhere and traceable. The government doesn’t need Passolig for your information.”
That doesn’t convince many Besiktas fans, however. “If I go to the matches now they will know everything about me,” says Onur Erdogan, while watching the game in the neighborhood bar with his friends.
“They’ll know when I was married, how many children I have, where I was born. Here I feel more free.”