Military salutes and Instagram posts – How Turkey’s military campaign in Northern Syria found its way to the football pitch

Turkish military salutes and Cenk Sahin’s Instagram post were among the most-talked-about subjects of the Bundesliga Hinrunde.

Turkey’s military started its invasion of northern parts of Syria at the same time of the October international break. Whilst Turkey’s national team supported its military in updates and with gestures, the media debate about the actions taken by those players going after their trade in Germany raged on. Even players of the German national team got caught in the crossfire.

Given that the media storm has since subsided, it might be a good time to look back at those episodes in order to understand the players’ actions a bit better.

Sahin & St. Pauli – Ending on a Bitter Note

It could have been described as love at first sight at first.

When Cenk Sahin joined St. Pauli, he started making a name for himself by putting in a lot of good performances, playing himself into the heart of the Buccaneer’s fans by scoring goals and creating assists. However, after the initial honeymoon period, the relationship between the two parties cooled off considerably.

Initially at St. Pauli on a loan from Turkish club Basaksehir, the Hamburg side made the deal permanent, signing the midfielder for 1.3 million Euros. Despite being St. Pauli’s second-most expensive signing, the 25-year-old had trouble getting into the team beginning with the 2018-19 season. During the current campaign, the midfielder has only featured in one game, the DFB Cup tie against VfB Lübeck.

That first round match is also going to be the last match for Sahin in the colors of St. Pauli. Why did the relationship sour to such an extent that the player won’t be back in brown and white?

Sahin’s Instagram Post

During the aforementioned international break, Sahin posted an Instagram update in support of the Turkish military and its invasion of northern Syria. The update read: “We stand by the side of our heroic military and the army. Our prayers are with you!”

That statement rubbed St. Pauli ultras the wrong way. In the aftermath of the statement, the ultras demanded that Sahin should be fired immediately. Whilst the midfielder had said similar things in the past, the ultras stated that Sahin, after three years in Germany, should have known that this sort of statement was unacceptable. Staff and players alike at St. Pauli were also not amused by Sahin’s Instagram update.

The military campaign Sahin supported had been labelled “a crime” by Luxembourg’s foreign secretary Jean Asselborn. Turkey’s military started invading the northern part of Syria after the US withdrew support for the Kurdish regiments who were in control of the territory. Whilst the invasion has been heavily criticized by several European governments, Asselborn pointed out that the EU is not in a position to help the forces currently fighting the Turkish army.

The militia forces that were in control of northern Syria are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group which has waged an insurgency from within Turkey for many decades. Having land controlled by such a group seems to be a major worry for Erdogan and his allies, who think that a Kurdish-controlled northern Syria could become a major security threat, as a potential haven for dissidents fleeing Turkey or as a springboard for insurgents plotting attacks on Turkish territory. As of now, Turkey has still military forces stationed in the area. 

After the ultras had demanded the player be fired, the club had a conversation with the player, coming to the conclusion that a parting of ways during the winter break was the best solution for all parties involved.

Sahin is currently looking for new employment,

More Instagram Trouble: Gündogan and Can Make Headlines

Whilst the controversy surrounding Sahin was brewing in Hamburg, there was more news in Germany pertaining to players supporting the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. During the match between Albania and Turkey, former Eintracht Frankfurt youth player Cenk Tosun celebrated his goal by giving a military salute. He was joined by other members of his team in his salute on the pitch.

After the match, the Turkish football association published a picture on social media showing the entire Turkey squad showing the same military salute in the dressing room. Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Kaan Ayhan and Kenan Karaman and Schalke’s Ozan Kabak can all be seen in said picture.

The Instagram update of Tosun, showing the striker making said military salute, was liked by both Emre Can and Ilkay Gündogan.


Se dette innlegget på Instagram


Sesimizi yer gök su dinlesin, sert adımlarla her yer inlesin İNLESİN ‼️🇹🇷⁣ ⁣ We’re not done yet ‼️🇹🇷

Et innlegg delt av Cenk Tosun (@cenktosun14)

Both players quickly retracted the likes, but the initial like was enough for the German press to question whether or not Gündogan had learned something from the controversy surrounding the picture that was taken of him, Mesut Özil, and the Turkish president Recep Erdogan shortly before the World Cup in 2018.

The Background for the Different Controversies

An awful lot has been written on all these controversies surrounding Turkish footballers or German national team players of Turkish descent. There is, however, a need to differentiate between the controversies surrounding each and every player.

In the case of Sahin, it is understandable that the St. Pauli ultras demanded his immediate dismissal from the club. The player had been told time and time again that he couldn’t post such content on his social media channels. The German public and most football fans seem to be okay with the decision that was reached by the club and the player himself.

It is, however, worth noting that the player might have been pressured to publish the controversial Instagram update. German football historian Dietrich Schulze-Mermling stated as much in a Facebook update in the aftermath of Sahin’s Instagram post.

John McManus, author of the book “Welcome to Hell – In search of the real Turkish football”, says that Turkish players like Sahin are often times facing a tricky situation in terms of the pressure they face from all sides.

“I think it’s ultimately hard to know the form, strength and sources of pressure that Turkish players abroad feel. How much of it is explicit from family and how much implicit, even internal, pressure? All we can go on are the many comments of dual citizens (not simply footballers) as to feeling caught between a rock and hard place, think of Özil’s ‘I’m German when we win and Turkish when we lose’ comment. In short: I think they feel pressure for all sides!”

McManus goes on to explain that the military has a strong support within Turkish society, which is ingrained from an early age.

“My office in Ankara for two years was directly opposite a primary school for kids between the ages of 5 and 11. They would frequently hold displays in their playground on national holidays, in which the children would give long speeches about the wonderful Turkish military victories, like in the war of independence. From an early age, people are told to respect their military and to not express opposition to it. If you go to football matches, you can hear chants like “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers!” Mustafa Kemal was the founder of Turkey.

Criticizing an ongoing military campaign or the military itself is rather uncommon within Turkish society.

McManus notes, “In Turkey, especially in recent years, it is expected that everyone rallies around the flag during military operations involving the Turkish army. During the incursion into northeast Syria launched last autumn, the main opposition party came out supporting the government, leaving just the pro Kurdish party, which has won 11 or 12% of the vote as the only party to explicitly condemn and stand against the military incursion. Think of the landscape in Turkey, where 90% of the population are expressing support. Airwaves and newspaper outlets are dominated by pro-government media organisations. What you’re receiving is a heavily pro-government and pro-military point of view. This is the environment in which players like Sahin have grown up in.”

All these factor combined might give us a better understanding of why Sahin posted his update.

The consequences of not supporting the military and Recep Erdogan’s current course of action are currently felt by Kaan Ayhan and Kenan Karaman. Their club, Fortuna Düsseldorf, issued a press statement stating that the club wasn’t condoning their players taking part in Turkey’s national team group photo after the match against Albania. Both players seem to have understood the message loud and clear. After scoring the all-important equalizer in Turkey’s 1-1 away draw against France, Ayhan turned to the fans to celebrate.

When some of his teammates arrived, encouraging him to do the military salute, Ayhan turned away leaving the rest of the players to go through with the controversial celebration. Whilst Fortuna Düsseldorf and the German press might find it commendable, it has put the defender in a tricky spot. In the aftermath of his refusal to show support for the military, the move was seen as treasonous by several Turkish football fans and commentators in the press. It stands to be seen where both players’ national team career is going to lead after the controversy surrounding them in Turkey.

Finally, there’s still the matter of Emre Can and Ilkay Gündogan. Both players stated clearly that they weren’t in favor of the political message sent through Tosun’s Instagram update. Their line of defense seems to be that they were simply liking a post of a friend who had scored a goal. Once it became apparent to them what the picture was representing, both players decided to take back their like.

Oliver Bierhoff and others have pointed out that social media, at times, can be a tricky water to navigate. The online world is fast-paced and even the slightest misstep is caught by the media. However, given the constant and quick flow of pictures and status updates, not every like can possibly be a well thought-through decision. Given that, one might very well read too much into a like of a single Instagram post.

Emre Can was quick to point out that he is a pacifist who is against war. Gündogan, on the other hand side, came with an outburst stating that he clearly doesn’t want to get caught up in politics, especially given what happened before the World Cup. It can very well be the case that both players are truthful in their statements regarding their controversial likes of Cenk Tosun’s Instagram post. Given that the players didn’t know the context of Tosun’s photo, they clearly couldn’t have given a like to what they knew was a controversial post. In that regard, it would be vital to know when Gündogan and Can liked the post and if the news about the background for Tosun’s goal celebration had reached them. Without any knowledge of those facts, any condemnation or defense of the players behavior is at best pure speculation.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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