After Referee Attack, Turkey Suspends All Soccer Matches
The punch landed only seconds after the referee Halil Umut Meler blew his whistle to end Monday night’s game
The punch landed only seconds after the referee Halil Umut Meler blew his whistle to end Monday night’s game in Turkey’s top soccer league. The first kick, and then the second, came after that, as the referee lay on the grass, desperately trying to protect his head with both hands.
Within hours, the referee was in the hospital, the team president who threw the punch was under arrest and all matches in Turkey had been suspended indefinitely.
The chaos erupted at the end of a match in Turkey’s top division, the Super Lig, between Ankaragucu and Caykur Rizespor in Ankara. The game had been a feisty affair, with two ejections and a dramatic finish: a last-minute goal by the visitors, Rizespor, that denied the home team a much-needed victory. And while the heated scene wasn’t necessarily unusual in a league known for its hothouse stadium atmospheres, the violence — and the reaction to it — definitely was.
Within moments of the final whistle, and as players, fans and others entered the field, Mr. Meler was rushed by a group of angry Ankaragucu team officials, led by the club’s president, Faruk Koca. Approaching the referee from the sideline, Mr. Koca threw a punch that landed on the left side of the referee’s face, knocking him to the ground. Other men quickly surrounded him, aiming kicks to his body and head as he tried to protect himself.
Mr. Meler, a respected referee who is part of an elite group of officials who handle big matches, like those in the Champions League, was protected by players and other officials. Helped to his feet, he was led away under police escort with a visibly swollen, blackened left eye.
As Turkish politicians and soccer officials visited him in the hospital on Tuesday morning, news reports said he had sustained a fracture.
The attack immediately drew condemnation across Turkey. Late Monday, the Turkish soccer federation, which oversees the game in the country, suspended all matches indefinitely after an emergency meeting.
Turkey’s justice minister, Yilmaz Tunc, wrote on the social media platform X, that Mr. Koca and two other attackers had been arrested, and that others involved in the violence on the field would face similar charges.
Even Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is known for his love of soccer, quickly condemned the attack. “Sport means peace and brotherhood,” he wrote in a post on X. “Sport is incompatible with violence. We will never allow violence to take place in Turkish sports.”
On Tuesday, Turkey’s interior minister, Ali Yerlikaya, visited Mr. Meler in his hospital room, and said he had acted as an intermediary when the referee spoke to Mr. Erdogan by telephone.
The incident was particularly embarrassing for the government given Mr. Koca was a founding member of the governing Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., and has been twice elected to the country’s Parliament.
Turkey is not alone in dealing with abuse and violence toward officials. Neighboring Greece’s top league postponed all of its matches last weekend after the country’s referees refused to work in a protest against what they called dangerous working conditions.
In Cyprus, bomb attacks targeting referees have been a problem for years. In June, a pipe bomb exploded outside the building housing the Cyprus Referees Association in the capital, Nicosia, only weeks after a firebomb was thrown at the home of a match official.
Referees in Turkey have long been under intense pressure from fans and team officials who traffic in a variety of conspiracy theories about decisions they contend might have favored a powerful club, or gone against the one they support.
Bagis Erten, a writer and broadcaster for Eurosport, said he was not surprised by the attack “because in recent months Turkish referees have become bigger targets of threats and even violence.” That comes not just from fans but also top club officials, he added, “which is much more shameful and much more embarrassing.’
“No institutions are backing them,” Mr. Erten said of referees, “including the federation and especially the big clubs.”
Yet even in an atmosphere of deep distrust toward referees, the attack on Monday appeared to shock the country. Galatasaray, Turkey’s most decorated club, released a statement saying the club was “indescribably saddened” by the attack and urged Turkish soccer federation leaders to ensure similar incidents never take place again.
Whether the incident will change attitudes, though, is yet to be seen. Shortly after the attack on Meler, Ankaragucu’s biggest fan club released a statement blaming the Turkish federation, and the country’s referees, for the violence. “We stand behind Faruk Koca,” the group wrote on X.