Demiral's 'wolf' gesture and Turkish football's complicated relationship with Erdogan

On the face of it, a head of state travelling to watch their country play a big game at an international tournament isn’t that unusual.

But when that head of state is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country involved is Turkey, things are never quite that simple. Particularly when one of their players has been banned for a celebration, in the team’s previous game at said competition, linked to Turkish nationalism and far-right symbolism.

Erdogan was supposed to be attending a conference in Azerbaijan this weekend but instead he’ll be at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, where Turkey face the Netherlands in the European Championship quarter-finals tonight (Saturday).

Perhaps he would have made the trip anyway: after all, Turkey were not expected to beat a strong Austria side in the round of 16, so this is probably the national team’s most significant match since they reached the semi-finals of the Euros in 2008. And given the large German-Turkish population in Berlin, many of whom are eligible to vote in Turkish elections, the game represents a significant opportunity for Erdogan to play to the crowd.

But it’s difficult to think it’s a coincidence Erdogan will be in attendance given Merih Demiral, the hero of that Austria match as he scored both Turkey’s goals in a 2-1 win, has now been given a two-game suspension for the ‘wolf’ hand gesture he not only made in the moment, but then posted a picture of himself doing on X.

UEFA, European football’s governing body and organiser of this tournament, confirmed Demiral’s ban on Friday for, among other charges, “using a sporting event for manifestations of a non-sporting nature” and “violating the basic rules of decent conduct”. Demiral was investigated after he made the gesture with both hands, which involves raising the index and little fingers, and pinching the middle and fourth fingers together with the thumb to form, roughly, the shape of a wolf’s head.

He has been banned because that gesture is associated with the Grey Wolves, an ultranationalist group closely affiliated with the MHP, a right-wing party in Turkey. The Grey Wolves are banned as a terrorist organisation in several countries, including France, but not Germany, though their activity is monitored in many places.

The Turkish ambassador to Euro 2024’s host nation was asked to explain the gesture to the German foreign ministry, just as Germany’s ambassador to Turkey was summoned in Ankara, the capital, to explain the backlash. German interior minister (the equivalent to the home secretary in the UK) Nancy Faeser condemned Demiral’s actions, saying: “The symbols of Turkish right-wing extremists have no place in our stadiums. Using the European Football Championship as a platform for racism is completely unacceptable.”

Seems fairly cut and dried, then: footballer appears to endorse the far-right during a game, is duly punished.

But it’s not quite as straightforward as that, and is deeply wrapped up in the politicisation of football in Turkey, which is no more evident than with the man at the very top.

While many political leaders use football for their own purposes, there are few who do so with more enthusiasm than Erdogan.

Which is partly because he used to be a footballer. How good he actually was is slightly tricky to ascertain and is wrapped up in his own self-mythologising, but it is well-established that, at the very least, he played at a high amateur level in his twenties.

He was born in Kasimpasa, an area of Istanbul whose football club have named their stadium after him. He joined a team connected with the Istanbul transport authority and played in the city’s regional leagues, even though his authoritarian father disapproved, telling him that “football won’t feed the belly”.

If you look closely at pictures of Erdogan, you’ll see a small scar on his chin, the result of an errant elbow from Hayri Ulgen, who would go on to play for Fenerbahce, the Istanbul club who have been Turkish champions a record 28 times, and Turkey’s national team. “Every time I look in the mirror, I remember my time as a footballer,” he said a few years ago.

Erdogan, now 70, played to a good level as a young man (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Depending on who you talk to, Erdogan was either an elegant libero who earned the nickname ‘Imam Beckenbauer’, combining the extent of his Islamic faith and a playing style reminiscent of the German legend, or a beefy hatchet man who had more in common with Vinnie Jones than the man known as Der Kaiser.

He has claimed Fenerbahce tried to sign him twice, but like that guy down the pub who insists he had trials at Arsenal or Manchester United but didn’t quite make it, there’s not much evidence to actually support those claims. That he voluntarily stopped playing seriously at age 27 suggests he was not exactly the great lost talent of Turkish football.

But from his earliest days in politics, he has used football.



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When he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he attached himself to Hakan Sukur, Turkey’s record goalscorer then playing in the city for Galatasaray, even performing the ceremony at the striker’s wedding. Erdogan was credited by some people (mainly slightly obsequious club presidents) as being responsible for the economic boom of the 2000s which helped many of the country’s biggest teams recruit expensive stars from abroad and build new stadiums.

Erdogan attached himself to Hakan Sukur in the 1990s (Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

It’s fairly widely accepted that Erdogan is a Fenerbahce fan, but it’s not something he tends to emphasise: such are the fierce rivalries, the benefits of a politician attaching themselves to one of Istanbul’s big three (Besiktas complete the set) would be far outweighed by the negatives of alienating fans of the other two — not to mention the rest of the country.

So in terms of the club game at least, he has to be a little smarter about how he uses football.

Istanbul Basaksehir, the upstart club who won the domestic title in 2020, became known as ‘Erdogan FC’ for a little while, thanks to the national president’s backing. He played in a charity game for them, scoring a hat-trick while wearing the No 12 shirt, representing his status as Turkey’s 12th president. Basaksehir later retired the number in his honour.

He has tapped into the power of football like few other politicians, mainly because there are few nations who are as passionate about the game as Turkey, and almost none where it is so politicised.

“Football became part of Erdogan’s mythology as both man of the people and natural-born leader,” writes Patrick Keddie in his 2018 book The Passion: Football And The Story Of Modern Turkey, “a shortcut to people’s hearts and an easily understood language in a football-mad country.”

Turkish footballers routinely align themselves with Erdogan. Hundred-cap winger Arda Turan expressed his public support for a referendum that Erdogan called in 2017 which greatly strengthened presidential powers, and others including former national-team forward Burak Yilmaz and Fenerbahce legend Ridvan Dilmen have also supported him. Famously, Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, Germany internationals with Turkish parents, received extensive criticism after they were photographed with Erdogan in 2018: it precipitated Ozil’s departure from the German national team, and Gundogan was booed during a game against Austria.

Gundogan, Ozil, Erdogan and Cenk Tosun (Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It hasn’t always been smooth: one of the first really prominent displays of dissent towards him came in 2011 when he attended the grand opening of Galatasaray’s new stadium. He was booed when shown on the ground’s big screen ahead of the game and left in a huff before kick-off, calling the fans “ungrateful”.

Football was also one of the vehicles through which the crackdown on daily life was expressed following an attempted coup in 2016.

Nearly 100 people, including one assistant referee, were sacked from the Turkish Football Federation because of some loosely perceived connection to the alleged perpetrators of the coup.

Sukur is probably the most high-profile victim of that crackdown: he has been in exile since around 2013, broadly because of his links with a preacher named Fethullah Gulen, whose movement was blamed for the coup. Sukur was not the only footballer with such links, but he was one of the few who refused to distance himself from Gulen in the aftermath, and as such is persona non grata.

Erdogan will also use the Netherlands game to court votes.

There are a little under three million people of Turkish descent in Germany, about half of whom are eligible to vote in Turkish elections, and they tend to support Erdogan in greater numbers than the public back home. The sight of Erdogan in Berlin this weekend will, to say the least, not hurt the president’s support among the diaspora.

The sight of him might also be interpreted as an act of defiance against the backlash to Demiral’s gesture, defending Turkish identity against foreign actors.

Because while on the surface it would seem a fairly straightforward case, that’s not how it is viewed in Turkey.

“There’s a sense that it’s being used as a stick to beat Turkey with,” says author Keddie, speaking from Istanbul. “They see the reaction as overblown, from UEFA and other countries. They don’t see it as such a big deal.”



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Demiral defended his actions by simply claiming he was connecting with the fans in the stadium in Leipzig. “How I celebrated has something to do with my Turkish identity,” he said afterwards. “I had seen members of the crowd making this gesture. We are all Turks. I’m very proud to be a Turk. That is the meaning of the gesture. There is no hidden message in it, I simply wanted to show how joyful I was and how happy I am.”

Demiral scored twice against Austria (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

The gesture has been widely interpreted as being a symbol of the Grey Wolves, which it is… but even that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

For a start, the term ‘Grey Wolves’ isn’t used a huge amount in Turkey these days. In the 1970s, and to a lesser extent the 1980s and 1990s, they were a paramilitary offshoot of the right-wing MHP (whose name translates as Nationalist Movement Party) and were responsible for hundreds of deaths, mainly among leftist and communist groups. Many of their most extreme members were arrested in the 1980s, and now they are more widely known as Ulku Ocaklari, which roughly translates as ‘idealists’: the term ‘Grey Wolves’ is now typically used to refer to their actions in the past.

Which shouldn’t imply that they are righteous choirboys now. They have been banned in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The wolf hand gesture itself, if not the group as a whole, is banned in Austria. They were banned in France in 2020 after a monument to the Armenian genocide — the mass killings of Armenian people from 1915 to 1917 has never been recognised as a genocide in Turkey, despite 34 other countries worldwide officially recognising it as such — was defaced with wolf graffiti and pro-Erdogan slogans.

But for many in Turkey, the gesture is genuinely seen as simply an expression of their nationalism and goes back centuries, to way before the modern Turkish state was founded: in Turkic mythology, a grey wolf is said to have led ancient Turks out of the wilderness, and has become a symbol of protection. A wolf’s head carving would be put on golden poles outside Turkic warriors’ tents before battle.



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“The wolf salute does have a strong connection with the MHP and the Grey Wolves,” says Keddie, “but it has also been used across the political spectrum. By Kemal Kilicdaroglu (a centre-left opposition leader), and Erdogan himself. It’s not exclusive to the MHP and the Grey Wolves: it’s a broader Turkish nationalist salute, even if it does have those connotations to people.”

Even with that context, it would be extremely naive to ignore the current associations with right-wing ideology, and yet it is perfectly possible Demiral is actually that naive. “People saw (Demiral performing the gesture) as more a misguided attempt at an expression of Turkish nationalism,” says Keddie.

There are some who are angry with Demiral’s actions, who can’t/won’t disconnect the gesture from its far-right connotations and see it as another example of toxic nationalism that has happened before with Turkey’s national team. For example, in 2019, several players, including Demiral and the side’s current first-choice goalkeeper Mert Gunok, celebrated goals against France and Albania in Euros qualifiers with a military salute, something that was reciprocated by many fans present.

Turkey players celebrated a goal with a military salute in 2019 (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

That celebration was controversial because it came as Turkish forces were invading Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, an act so unacceptable to the international community that then U.S. President Donald Trump demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities.

But for many in Turkey, Demiral still hasn’t done a huge amount wrong.

“Some are disgusted,” says Keddie, “but mostly people see it as overblown and detracting from the main story, which should have been that Turkey did incredibly well to beat a really good Austria team and reach the quarter-finals.”

There is a strong sense of frustration, at those who have punished Demiral but also at the player himself for doing something that is at best naive, probably stupid, possibly more sinister than that, which takes attention from what the Turkish team are trying to achieve. It should, in the view of some, just be about the football.

But like Erdogan’s trip to watch them play the Dutch this weekend, with Turkey and Turkish football more generally, it’s never just about the football.



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(RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images)