Dark day for Turkey after referee assault that highlights football's growing abuse problem

Shocking images of Halil Umut Meler being punched and kicked after Super Lig match leave stain on sport

Turkish referee attacked after last-minute equaliser in Super Lig game

Turkish referee attacked after last-minute equaliser in Super Lig game
Powered by automated translation

Even after the punch had been thrown, there was no safety for Halil Umut Meler. The blow floored him and, as he lay on the turf of Ankara’s Eryaman Stadium, other would-be assailants sought a way through the shocked gathering of stewards and coaching staff to try to kick Meler while prone.

When the referee was helped to his feet, his hand gingerly feeling the swelling beneath his left eye, there was more threat. Police paused before allowing Meler off the field and towards the tunnel beneath the grandstand. Missiles were being thrown towards him from the stands.

Only after a canopy of riot shields had been held up around the wounded match official could he make his way to sanctuary within the stadium and then on to hospital.

The shocking incidents at the tail end of Monday night’s Turkish Super Lig match between Ankaragucu and Rizespor had one easily identifiable perpetrator, the Ankaragucu president Faruk Koca.

He choose to leave his seat, march on to the pitch and punch referee Meler in the face, in full view of spectators and television cameras at the 20,000 arena. Koca, who has served as a politician in Turkey’s parliament, was led away and arrested. Others, spurred on by his violence, felt emboldened to follow his lead.

The Super Lig has been suspended following the episode, which drew immediate condemnation from Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Sport is incompatible with violence,” Erdogan posted.

That would be news to most experienced referees, whose task has become harder and harder, from the elite level of the game to the amateur echelons, where rising levels of aggression towards referees are being registered – from players, spectators and stakeholders whose responsibilities necessarily include speaking up for the laws and mutual respect without which fair sport cannot function.

Meler had overseen a tense, mid-table 1-1 draw in Ankara. The visitors, Rizespor, scored their equaliser in the seventh minute of stoppage time, both teams by then down to ten men.

Ankaragucu striker Ali Sowe received two yellows cards within ten minutes either side of half-time, the first for dissent, while Rizespor’s Emirhan Topcu was booked for a second time two minutes before his team salvaged their point.

All told, Meler issued 10 cards during the game. It was by no means his very busiest day this season. Meler, one of Turkey’s leading match officials and in charge of three matches so far in the 2023/24 Uefa Champions League, showed nine yellows and a red in two of his previous three Super Lig outings, including the Istanbul derby between Galatasaray and Besiktas in October.

None of which makes him exceptional in an era when VAR, designed to assist elite match officials, has increased scrutiny on the decision-making of the senior official on the pitch and, according to refereeing bodies, contributed to the “dehumanising” of their members.

In June, the English referee Anthony Taylor, insulted in the stadium car park after the Europa League final by the losing Roma manager Jose Mourinho, was abused by a group of fans, one of whom threw a chair in the direction of Taylor and his family as they made their way through Budapest airport the following day.

“This inhumane and despicable attack was made against all stakeholders of Turkish football,” the country’s football federation said in a statement. “Everyone who has targeted referees and encouraged crimes against referees is complicit in this despicable act.

“Irresponsible remarks from club presidents, managers, coaches and television commentators targeting referees have paved the way for this attack.”

The Turkish Demiroren news agency quoted Koca as saying, after he had struck Meler, “it happened because of the referee’s incorrect decisions and provocative behaviour. My intention was to speak to him and spit in his face. I slapped him in the face, with a slap that wouldn’t cause a fracture, and he threw himself to the ground.”

Meler, who was expected to remain in hospital for a second night, was reported by medical staff to have sustained a facial fracture and bleeding to his eye but that there should be no permanent damage.

The suspension of matches is the second imposed on the league in a volatile year for Turkish football. In February, following the devastating earthquakes in the east of the country, football was paused and the two most affected top-division clubs, Hatayspor and Gaziantep withdrawn from competition for the remainder of last season.

When games resumed, some stadiums became the focus of grandstand protests against Erdogan’s government for its response to the crisis and for a perceived lack of direction over building safety standards in areas vulnerable to earthquakes.

Updated: December 12, 2023, 2:43 PM