Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 13:07 GMT

A naturalized citizen plays for Turkish national soccer team, and not everyone is happy

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Nicolas Birch
Publication Date 21 August 2006
Cite as EurasiaNet, A naturalized citizen plays for Turkish national soccer team, and not everyone is happy, 21 August 2006, available at: [accessed 19 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Nicolas Birch 8/21/06

"How happy is he who says 'I am a Turk'" – so goes one of the most famous sayings of modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk. Plastered on walls, bridges and mountainsides throughout Turkey, the saying is supposed to represent the spirit of inclusiveness contained within the republic's national identity.

That was certainly the sense in which it was used by Turkish national soccer coach Fatih Terim when he announced that Brazilian-born Marco Aurelio would be playing against Luxembourg in an international match on August 17.

Other foreign-born athletes have represented Turkey in international competition. But Aurelio – who adopted the ubiquitous Turkish name Mehmet when he gained Turkish nationality in July – is the first soccer player to win the honor. In a country where soccer is near enough a religion, Aurelio's addition to the national squad was bound to stir debate.

Some see nothing wrong with his inclusion on the team. "'Devsirmelik' is this country's oldest tradition," political columnist Ergun Babahan wrote in centrist daily Sabah, referring to the old Ottoman tradition of levying members of the empire's Christian population for state service.

"He [Aurelio] is one of us now," Turkey's star striker Hakan Sukur said after the match, in which Turkey struggled to gain a 1-0 win. "Tonight, he was the best player on the pitch."

Others were less inclined to see the positive side. Following the news that Aurelio had been granted Turkish citizenship, fans at an Istanbul match unfurled a giant banner reading "Mehmets are born, not made." The head of Turkey's soccer referees' association, Mustafa Culcu, then sparked a widely covered row with coach Terim when he warned that the Brazilian's selection would lead to the "degeneration" of the national team.

"I come from a military family, that's why I'm so sensitive to national issues like this," Culcu told private TV channel Haberturk.

Much more common were complaints Aurelio did not even know the words of Turkey's national anthem – a martial ballad that Turkish players sing before every league match, and school children sing at the start of every school week.

"How would you look at a player who feels nothing for the colors he's wearing," asked football analyst Kazim Kanat, who writes for Sabah. "I'll tell you what I think: when they play the national anthem at such a match, I won't even stand up."

More liberal-minded Turks pass off such attitudes as just the latest evidence of increasingly intolerant nationalism that appears to be gaining strength in Turkey. Nobody raised an eyebrow, they point out, when record-breaking, Bulgarian-born weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu obtained Turkish citizenship in the late 1980s. Suleymanoglu, nicknamed "Pocket Hercules," became a national hero by winning three Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

"True, Naim was a Turkish-speaking Muslim, while Aurelio is a black Brazilian," the economist Eser Karakas noted in a column in the business daily Referans on August 16. "According to the constitution, though, skin color, religion and language should not be relevant."

A historian who has written extensively on Turkey's Jewish minority (now estimated to number around 30,000), Rifat Bali, agrees with Karakas that much of the debate has to do with the ambiguity over the concept of Turkishness.

"It can be interpreted in two ways: either broadly, or as an ethno-religious identity," Bali explains. "The fact is that many people in this country see non-Muslims as some sort of foreigner, not citizens with equal rights."

It's a mentality that Timur Topuz – one of a tiny minority of Turkish Muslims who converted to Christianity – has experienced first-hand. He describes sitting down to watch a soccer match between Turkey and Ukraine with his elderly grandmother. She met his jubilation at Turkey's victory with surprise. "You, a Christian … happy we won?" she questioned.

Yet it would be too easy to dismiss all the gripes as the products of what one soccer analyst called "narrow-minded skull-measuring."

A resident in Turkey for more than five years, Marco Aurelio fulfilled all the legal criteria for Turkish citizenship. The same is not true of fellow Brazilian Marcio Nobre, who changed his name to Mert when Turkey's government ruled in early August that there were "unavoidable reasons" for giving him citizenship after a mere two years in the country. According to the rules of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, Nobre too could soon be playing for Turkey's national team.

The government's decision – widely attributed to the close relationship between some Turkish ministers and Nobre's soccer club, Besiktas – risks setting a troubling precedent. Already over a dozen other foreign footballers from half a dozen other Turkish clubs have followed Nobre in applying for citizenship. Analysts say it is difficult to see how the government can now block them.

"Before too long, we'll be looking for Turkish-born players to give our national team a boost," jokes Haluk Sahin, a columnist for the daily Radikal. "And if things go on like this, kids growing up in Brazilian slums will soon all be singing the Independence March [Turkey's national anthem] in unison."

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Posted August 21, 2006 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

Search Refworld