Turkey's Demiral Faces Backlash Over Controversial Gesture

Turkish footballer Merih Demiral's goal celebration at Euro 2024 has sparked international controversy and an ongoing investigation by UEFA.

Published July 04, 2024 - 00:07am

4 minutes read

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Merih Demiral, the former Juventus and current Al-Ahli center back, has come under intense scrutiny after his goal celebration during Turkey's 2-1 win over Austria at Euro 2024. The defender, who scored both goals in the match, performed a celebration that has been linked to the far-right ultra-nationalist 'Grey Wolves' group. This gesture has elicited a broad spectrum of reactions, igniting controversies that span far beyond the football field.

The Grey Wolves, known formally as Ulku Ocaklari, are a Turkish ultra-nationalist organization with a historical propensity for violence, particularly against leftist groups. The organization, which was established as the youth wing of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is reportedly banned in France and Austria but not in Germany, where the match took place. Despite this, UEFA has launched an investigation under Article 31(4), which could see Demiral face penalties including a fine or suspension.

Following the match, Demiral defended his actions, stating, The way I celebrated has something to do with my Turkish identity. I saw people in the stadium who also made this gesture. Despite his assertion that the gesture was a mere expression of national pride, the controversy has escalated. The Society for Threatened Peoples, an international human rights organization, condemned the action, particularly highlighting its occurrence on the anniversary of the 1993 Sivas massacre. They have demanded an apology from Demiral and urged the Turkish national team to distance itself from right-wing extremist symbols.

The fallout of Demiral's celebration has not been contained within just the footballing world. German interior minister Nancy Faeser and German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir, both influential political figures, have strongly condemned Demiral's gesture. Faeser stated, The symbols of Turkey's far-right extremists do not belong in our stadiums. The Euros should not be used to promote racism. Özdemir reiterated, Nothing about the wolf salute is hidden. The symbol stands for terror and fascism.

Turkey's response has been firm. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the German ambassador to protest Faeser's condemnation. They argued that the investigation is politically motivated and pointed out that the gesture is not banned in Germany. The action has sparked diplomatic tensions between the two countries amidst the tournament. Omer Celik, spokesperson for Turkey's ruling party, called the investigation and comments from German officials unacceptable, adding that such reactions were themselves fueled by xenophobia.

The National Movement Party, closely associated with the Grey Wolves, has also weighed in. Devlet Bahceli, MHP's chairman, described UEFA's investigation as biased and wrong and asserted that Demiral's gesture was, the Turkish nation's message to the world. In a display of nationalist support, Bahceli urged Turkish fans and the football community to remain unfazed and focus on the upcoming matches.

Demiral has a history of similar controversies. In 2019, he was among 16 Turkish players reprimanded by UEFA for making military-style salutes during games, which coincided with Turkey's military actions in Syria. The pattern of these political expressions has heightened the sensitivity around his latest gesture, especially against the backdrop of political tensions in Europe.

This controversy also reopened debates about the role of nationalism and political expressions in sports. Various human rights organizations and football authorities are calling for stringent actions to ensure that sporting events do not become platforms for promoting divisive ideologies. The incident has become a focal point for discussions on how best to reconcile expressions of national pride with the imperative to maintain a politically neutral and inclusive environment in sports.

Demiral's actions and the subsequent reactions underline the complex interplay between sports, politics, and identity. As UEFA proceeds with its investigation, which remains unscheduled for conclusion, the broader issues of nationalism, identity, and the appropriate boundaries for political expressions in sports are likely to continue to grapple with both support and condemnation from different quarters. With Turkey's next game against the Netherlands in Berlin looming, all eyes are now on how this incident and the reactions to it unfold further.


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