Turkey's decision to resume football leagues stirs debate

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Turkish football authorities' decision to restart professional football leagues on June 12 in empty stadiums has received mixed reactions from clubs, officials and experts, with some expressing opposition, arguing it's too soon.

The head of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) Nihat Ozdemir announced on Wednesday that the Super Lig, the First Division, the Second Division, the Third Division and the regional amateur leagues, suspended on March 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic, will resume on June 12 behind closed doors and be completed by the end of July.

Although Ozdemir said the decision was taken after consultations with the health ministry and the Coronavirus Science Board, an advisory board constituted of specialist doctors, health minister Fahrettin Koca said his ministry had no say in the federation's decision, suggesting that he was not endorsing it.

"The federation took the decision at its own initiative, therefore, the responsibility falls on the federation," Koca told reporters.

Turkey has recorded over 135,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,689 deaths. The nation is planning to ease strict restrictions at the end of this month as new cases are reported to drop.

The TFF published an advisory protocol setting very detailed regulations in the transition process, but experts believe that these could simply not be respected on the pitch.

"How are you going to prevent 22 players from jumping on each other on the pitch? Football is after all a contact sport that requires players to break social distancing rules," Istanbul-based football expert and commentator Arda Alan Isik told Xinhua.

"It's a major risk to take for the players, for their families and all the people working in different clubs," he argued, explaining the motive behind the decision to resume games as mainly financial.

The Turkish Super Lig was already in dire straits when the COVID-19 outbreak began as it has accumulated the third highest debt in European football through years of overspending on transfers, excessive wages and limited regulation, with major clubs in debt.

In coronavirus crisis, money from sponsorship and broadcasting revenues are expected to drop sharply, up to 30 percent, for clubs which have millions of fans as football is by far the national sport in Turkey.

"The main reason for the resumption decision is financial. Clubs were already very vulnerable before the coronavirus, now it could become a matter of life and death. The economic loss that the club are witnessing is irreversible," remarked Isik.

"The federation it seems was compelled to restart gaming schedule with lots of uncertainties amid financial fallout from the coronavirus outbreak," he added.

Although the federation said all measures to protect the health of the players and staff will be taken, some clubs have expressed reticence.

Super Lig club Konyaspor argued that the regulations prepared by the TFF were "not applicable" while second and third league clubs were contemplating a move not to resume matches, the Turkish press reported.

Some other teams meanwhile showed desire to resume the game, such as Black Sea major team Trabzonspor.

"We will obey whatever the decision the state takes," said Ahmet Agaoglu, president of the club. "We could have asked the league to be registered based on the current standings. But Trabzonspor has never meddled and will not meddle in state business."

While some well-known commentators have criticized the decision to resume football games, saying that the measures are not enough to guarantee the health of football professionals, others have adopted a more mild approach.

"No one should expect aggressive games like before where players jump on each other, but matches can eventually resume in a single city where teams could be confined separately in hotels," Sansal Buyuka, a veteran commentator said.

Players and team workers are also not immune to the virus. Super Lig club Ankaragucu announced on Monday that one of its players tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized for treatment.

An employee of the Istanbul giant Fenerbahce also tested positive for the COVID-19, the club announced last week while one of it's most famous former players, goalkeeper Rustu Recber, received two weeks of intensive treatment in hospital before recovering from the virus.

Another Istanbul giant Galatasaray's head coach Fatih Terim also contracted the virus and recovered after battling several weeks in hospital. 

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