Can Evren (Boston University),
Debts of the City, Debts to the City: Professional Men’s
Football, City Teams, and the Aristocracy-Democracy Dialectic
in Turkey (1960-2020)
Max Weber famously argued that the Oriental city is marked by the “absence of an idea of an association which could unite the city into a corporate unit” (Weber 1966 , 88), a reductive thesis against which historical studies of these so-called Oriental cities demonstrate the vibrancy of civic associational life and institutions. In this chapter, I
will argue that civic football teams have been a key form of association that socially enact the corporate unity of modernizing cities of Turkey as subnational scales of local politics. Based on historical and ethnographic research on postwar Bursa, Turkey, and centering on the politics and business of governing the city’s football team, this chapter will show how professional sport functions as a public cultural platform of civic politics
through the sometimes deliberational, sometimes conflictual interplay between business elites and popular classes in municipal territories. Through performative rituals of football governance such as board elections and fundraising campaigns, I argue, competing notions of democracy, Machiavellian and ordoliberal notions, are put into play. I take these notions as contemporary approximations of what the Ottoman
historian Ali Yaycıoğlu theorized as ‘the order of communities’ and the ‘order of notables’ (Yaycıoğlu 2016). Şehir takımları, city teams, are sportive monopolies that are isomorphic with municipal territories in mid- and small-sized cities and towns across Turkey. City teams were founded between 1960 and 1980 and united neighborhood or workplace teams to create a single city team whose name and identity overlaps with the political territory of municipalities. These unifications took place in the context of the inauguration of new intercity-nationwide sport competitions that pit cities against cities. By the 1970s, the vibrant civic solidarity around rising city teams in rapidly urbanizing areas became a political nuisance to the central bureaucracy, so that the word şehircilik or bölgecilik (civic
partisanship or regionalism) have emerged as the name of a sociological deviance, referring to intercity footballing feuds, unruly riots by masculine working- and middle-class crowds in matchdays, and unruly acts by wealthy civic elites who finance their city teams through loans or donations in exchange for the civic popularity and status that comes with city team presidency. The position of city team chairmanship – almost exclusively occupied by men until several exceptions of female chairwomen in the
recent years – has gradually become an interlinking position of popular notability, linking the civic community and the national-scale public sphere.
My recently defended doctoral dissertation Global Sport, Territorial Ambition (Duke University, 2020) shows that this perceived nuisance of regionalism was grounded in the enactment of vibrant urban public spheres through collective practices of financing and governing these sport teams. As member-owned, non-commercial civic associations, city teams have been governed through elections where a congress of dues-paying members annually elects a board of fifteen to finance and govern the team
for a temporary term. Before elections, fifteen-person lists of mostly business elites announce their candidacy for the governing board. Their announcements are followed by citywide campaigning and lobbying to garner support from the membership, often starting a competition between rival candidates. My work shows that the dues-paying
and voting membership has sociologically expanded over the decades from a relatively restricted circle of business elites to include delegates of the city’s working and middle-class football fan groups, who now have votes in the city team elections. Through these annual or biannual elections over the past five decades, numerous business elite coalitions have rotated through the board of directors, making the city team’s history of
governance a popular narrative frame for vernacular civic history. It is also through these elections that fundraising for the city team has become a participatory ritual of civic governance more widely, often involving municipal governors and parliamentarians in addition to business elites and working- and middle-class fans. My ethnography shows that these electoral campaigns revolve around the key question of the team’s finances, often divided by two contending positions. First of these, which I call the debt to the city discourse, are popular calls for civic fundraising campaigns where
the social fabric of the city is expected to economically unite, the team’s local creditors to write off the debts that the team owes them, and every locally registered business to contribute a local football tax as a fee of civic belonging with the expected amount varying according to business size. Following John P. McCormick (2011), I argue this enacts a Machiavellian notion of democracy based on popular cultural rituals to contain the aristocratic tendencies among the city’s capitalist notables and hold these notables to high standards of civic generosity, leadership, and public spending. A second discourse, often taken up by discontented business elites, is honoring the city’s debt, which is a liberal discourse criticizing populist fundraising campaigns that call for wealthy notables to write off their loans to the team. These campaigns, liberals argue, scare business elites and lead to financially imprudent governance. The liberal discourse calls for democratic elections to be insulated from populist pressures and
prioritizes balanced budgets and capitalist rationality in civic governance. These discourses associate democracy with a business model, as the opposite of populism. In this business model, the football team stands for the city and should contribute to an image of a creditworthy city that honors its debts and is governed by rule-bound conventions of capitalist business. This dynamic public sphere of football elections and rival discourses on elections, my work shows, serves as a participatory civic zone where newcomers to the city can challenge for the status of urban notability: through financial risk-taking in the case of newcomer entrepreneurs vying for football team chairmanship and through investment of time and energy in in the case of entrepreneurial fan
fraternities often coming from the rank of immigrant working class communities.
McCormick, John P. 2011. Machiavellian Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Weber, Max. 1966 . The City. Translated by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth. New York and London: The Free Press.
Yaycıoğlu, Ali. 2016. Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press