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Nesha Starcevic / Associated Press, Published February 17 2013

Turkish trial shows corruption at the top

ISTANBUL – Turkey loves both soccer and strong men, so it’s no surprise that Aziz Yildirim is a household name.

A civil engineer, Yildirim made a fortune in military contracts with the government and NATO before turning his attention to Istanbul’s Fenerbahce soccer club, a perennial title contender.

As chairman since 1998, Yildirim renovated the stadium, increasing it to 52,000 seats and installing outdoor heating.

Under his leadership, Fenerbahce became one of the world’s top 20 wealthiest soccer clubs and was the pride of Turkey as it ventured often into Europe’s lucrative Champions League, which pits the top finishers in each of Europe’s major national leagues.

The 60-year-old tycoon was convicted in July 2012 by Istanbul’s 16th Heavy Penal Court of “forming and leading a criminal gang” that rigged four games and offered payments to players or rival club officials to fix three others – all so Fenerbahce could stay in the Champions League, a benefit the club estimated to be worth $58.5 million a year. He is appealing his conviction, maintaining his innocence.

Matches can be rigged so that criminal gambling rings and others in the know can make money off bets. But sometimes, the rigging is done to keep a team in a more prestigious league, where it can earn big revenue.

In two recent seasons, the team had lost the league championship in its final few games, an outcome the prosecutors’ indictment said Yildirim wanted to avoid repeating.

Faced with that pressure, in spring 2011, Fenerbahce won 16 of its last 17 games to come from a distant third place and stay in the Champions League.

“Whatever you do in a season, if you don’t qualify for Europe (Champions League), it doesn’t mean anything,” explained Turkish lawyer Emin Ozkurt, who has represented Fenerbahce in other cases.

Yildirim was put on trial last spring along with 92 other officials, players and coaches.

Turkish police had 1,028 wiretaps relating to the 13 games in question, 103 of them tied to Yildirim. He was charged with match-fixing and accused of trying to get favorable referees assigned to his team’s games. Prosecutors also said that the transfer fees he paid to some rival clubs and players were actually payoffs for fixing games.

A 2012 global study on match-fixing conducted jointly by four international research institutions noted that “chairman-to-chairman” fixing is quite common in the Balkans, eastern Europe and Russia, especially when a win is very important to one club and less so for a rival.

“The risk of matches being rigged in this way increases as the end of the season approaches, if a team is still in contention for a promotion or a victory in a championship or is trying to avoid relegation,” the study said. “Club chairmen ... not only often know each other personally, but above all, understand each other because they all have the same aims and constraints.”

Club officials also know which players are less scrupulous or in financial trouble and can be easily pressured into throwing a game. The report said chairman-to-chairman match-fixing “can even assume systemic proportions” in which favors done for one team one year are paid back by rigging more games the next season.

Yildirim denied any wrongdoing and mocked the allegations against him, saying police initially declared irregularities in 19 games but mentioned only 13 in the indictment.

“Six games vaporized?” he asked.

Yildirim called the trial a plot “to block Fenerbahce and prevent its rise.”

“It is clear as day that this is an operation against the Fenerbahce Sports Club and against Aziz Yildirim,” he testified. “A group wanting to take over Turkish sports organized this operation.”

Yildirim was convicted and sentenced to six years and three months in prison. He spent a year behind bars, but was released pending an appeal. If the conviction and sentence are upheld, he will return to prison and be forced to step down as Fenerbahce chairman.

Three other Fenerbahce officials and officials from five other teams also were found guilty.

Fenerbahce was barred from last season’s Champions League as a result of the investigation, but UEFA says the team is eligible to participate in next season’s competition, pending a final ruling by the disciplinary board of UEFA, Europe’s soccer body.