ANKARA, Turkey — Cuma Avci already knows what he’ll do if the European soccer championships come to Turkey. “I’ll go to all the matches,” said the barista from the southern city of Gaziantep. “I’ll take holiday for that whole month!”
Turkey is one of two countries bidding for the 2024 UEFA European Championship, whose host will be announced Thursday. For millions in this soccer-mad country, hosting the tournament would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
To do so, Turkey will have to defeat Germany, a behemoth of world soccer and a frequent political foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey is more closely intertwined with Germany than any other European nation. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens migrated to Germany in the 1960s, initially as guest workers filling postwar labor shortages. Today, the Turkish diaspora in Germany is 3 million to 4 million strong, and there is a constant flow of people back and forth.
That migration has fostered strong economic and cultural ties between the two countries — but also plenty of political friction. German Turks have faced decades of racism and suspicions about their loyalties and religion, creating occasional tension between Ankara and Berlin. Germany has also long resisted Turkey's attempts to join the European Union.
Things only worsened after 2016, when a failed coup attempt led Erdogan to launch a wide-ranging crackdown on alleged plotters in the army and civil society. Germany has harshly criticized Erdogan for his human rights record, and he was banned from campaigning for votes on German soil ahead of a constitutional referendum last year. Erdogan responded by comparing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to the Nazis.
The two countries have recently started to repair ties. This week, Erdogan will make his first state visit to Germany since becoming president in 2014. He has also made overtures toward Europe amid a running fight with President Trump and a precipitous plunge in the value of Turkey’s currency.
But while both bidding committees express a desire to keep politics out of the competition, it inevitably seeps in. The German bid emphasizes the “stable” nature of the country and hints at the criticism of Erdogan. “We want to prove that you are able to win a competition with the highest moral standards,” said Markus Stenger, the head of the German Euro 2024 bid.
Beating Germany would, for many Turks, signal acceptance of their nation on the global sporting stage — and a rare victory over what many Turks see as constant snubs by Europe. "It would be a great boost to the nation’s pride," said Servet Yardimci, Turkey’s representative to the UEFA executive committee.
An uphill battle
Turkey is undoubtedly a soccer country. The top division is lively and competitive, and its fans are famed for a delirious, over-the-top devotion to their teams. “We came to be the sweat on your shirt. We came to die for you,” goes one chant sung by fans of the Istanbul team Besiktas.
But Germany has long been the favorite in the race. Along with its own soccer-crazy culture and long-running success on the international stage, it boasts the world's most-attended top-flight league and plenty of large, modern stadiums.
“Germany is a little in front of us,” admitted Avci, 35. “Actually not a little, a lot. If the 2024 European Championship was today, they would be ready.”
Erdogan has attempted to catch up. Since his party swept to power in 2002, he has overseen the construction of thousands of miles of new highways and more than doubled the number of airports. Authorities have also built a spate of new stadiums, an attempt to boost both construction and the country’s chances of hosting big sporting contests. The country previously made three failed bids for the European Championships, along with an unsuccessful attempt to host the 2020 Summer Olympics in Istanbul.
Predictions have also been complicated by the controversy surrounding Mesut Özil, Germany’s star playmaker. Özil, born in Germany to Turkish parents, met with Erdogan when the Turkish president visited London in May. The photo op caused an uproar in Germany and reignited debate about German-Turkish identity.
Two months later, Özil quit the national team, accusing the head of the country’s soccer governing body of “racism and disrespect.” The counterattacks from leading German soccer figures and even former teammates still have not stopped.
Soccer had been used to showcase Germany’s racial and religious integration since the nation played host to a successful World Cup in 2006. The Özil affair has blown a hole in that image.
Sensing an opportunity, Turkish politicians have lambasted the treatment of Özil in the run-up to the Euro 2024 decision. “Where’s your tolerance? Your multiculturalism?” tweeted Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin.
Yet Turkey has its own internal political complications. Soccer has often become entangled in the nation’s turbulent politics: Members of a prominent fan group were put on trial for their role in anti-government protests in the summer of 2013; Turkish soccer officials were among the tens of thousands of public servants who were summarily dismissed in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.
Even some Turkish soccer fans do not want their country to win the bid, worrying that Erdogan, himself a former semi-professional player, would use the contest to bolster his own image.
“I am totally against it,” said Emre Deliveli, who was fired from his job as a newspaper columnist three years ago after a dispute about censorship. "I don’t see much economic benefit to it. I see much political benefit to it for Erdogan."
Deliveli was one of many critics who also opposed Turkey’s 2020 Olympic bid. Another was an academic at a top Turkish university, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the recriminations he previously faced. The academic is also opposed to hosting Euro 2024, which he worries would be used by the government as further cover to erode freedoms and deploy harsh security measures.
Beefed-up security would almost certainly be a feature of the tournament. One of the prospective host cities, Gaziantep, sits just 30 miles from Syria and has suffered blowback from the war that erupted across the border in 2011.
Gaziantep has in the past been a transit point for foreign fighters crossing into Syria and was the first stop for some of the millions of refugees headed the other way. It has also been a target of attacks by the Islamic State. Several European countries advise their citizens not to travel to this part of southern Turkey.
But Turkish officials have pushed back against security concerns, pointing out that the country has not suffered a major attack since December 2016 — unlike Western Europe.
Turkey vs. Europe
Though there are real issues with the bid, some Turks can’t escape the feeling that Turkey is being held to a higher standard than its competitor. This year, for the first time, UEFA officials must consider a human rights provision that has been added to the bidding criteria. A UEFA evaluation report published last week labeled the lack of a Turkish action plan on human rights as “a matter of concern.”
Another rejection would confirm Turks' feelings that, despite being a member of UEFA since 1962 and an official candidate for EU accession for almost two decades, Turkey is destined to remain an ill-fitting part of a continent that has never dealt with it in good faith.
“Turkey is the sixth-largest footballing economy in Europe,” Yardimci said. “And out of these six, five have done all these major tournaments. It’s only Turkey that didn’t have the opportunity.”
But if Turkey does finally get the chance to host the contest, its fans will be ready.
“If necessary, I’ll quit my job,” said Avci, the barista. “Really. For that whole month, from the first whistle to the last kick, I’ll be there.”