On Saturday, Turkey will face the Netherlands in a high-stakes UEFA European Championship quarter-final match. However, the Turkish team will be without their star center-back Merih Demiral. UEFA has handed him a two-match ban for a controversial gesture made during Turkey’s match against Austria. This decision has stirred significant controversy and debate within the soccer community and beyond.

During the Euro 2024 knockout stage match, Demiral scored two crucial goals, leading Turkey to a 2-1 victory over Austria. However, it was his celebration after the second goal that landed him in trouble. He raised his arms and pointed his fingers in a gesture associated with the Ülkü Ocakları.

They are also known as the Grey Wolves, a far-right ultranationalist group in Turkey. The European Union considers this organization as a terrorist group. It has a history of violence against Kurdish people, as well as other ethnic minorities such as Armenians and Greeks.

Following the incident, UEFA conducted a disciplinary investigation into Demiral’s actions. According to Bild, UEFA concluded that the gesture was a breach of their regulations; they prohibit political slogans and messages both on and off the field. Consequently, Demiral was handed a two-match suspension, ruling him out of Turkey’s quarter-final against the Netherlands and potentially the semi-final should Turkey advance.

Turkey defends Demiral amid Euro 2024 ban

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) quickly responded to the reports, denying the claims made by Bild and stating that the decision was premature. The TFF emphasized that they had until the following morning to present their defense to UEFA. Despite these denials, the controversy continued to escalate, drawing comments from various political and sports figures.

Demiral’s celebration and subsequent ban have sparked significant political and public reactions. Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser condemned the gesture, stating, “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. We expect UEFA to investigate the case and consider sanctions.”

In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized UEFA’s decision to investigate Demiral, labeling it as xenophobic. The ministry pointed out that not everyone who makes the Grey Wolves gesture is an ultranationalist. It added Germany has not banned the gesture. Demiral echoed this sentiment. He defended his actions, saying, “I am very proud because I am Turkish. So, after the goal, I felt strongly [about it], and I wanted to do it. And I am very happy that I did it.”

Similar previous incidents and historical context

This is not the first time the 26-year-old defender has faced scrutiny for his on-field actions. In 2019, he was one of 16 Turkish players earning consequences for making military-style salutes during games, coinciding with his country’s military operations in Syria. The Grey Wolves group, associated with Demiral’s recent gesture, has been banned in several countries, including France and Austria, due to its extremist activities and nationalist rhetoric.

Demiral’s suspension is a significant blow to Turkey’s Euro 2024 campaign. His stellar performance against Austria was crucial in securing Turkey’s place in the quarter-finals. Without him, Vincenzo Montella faces a formidable challenge against the Netherlands. If Turkey manages to progress to the semi-finals, Demiral will also miss that critical match, depriving the team of one of its key defensive players.