As thousands of loyal fans chanted their support, 93 suspects including the jailed president of Turkey's top soccer team went on trial Tuesday in a match-fixing scandal that has upended Turkish soccer.
Aziz Yildirim, head of the celebrated Fenerbahce soccer team, and the others have been charged in the scandal allegedly involving 19 league matches last season.
Fenerbahce, the champion of the Turkish league, was barred from the Champions League — the biggest, most lucrative international soccer tournament — because of its involvement in the match-fixing scandal. The team could be stripped of its domestic title, tossed out of the top flight and forced to play in a lower soccer league, penalties that could cost the club millions.
Match-fixing scandals last year tarnished leagues in Turkey, Italy, Israel, Finland and Greece even though UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, spent millions to monitor betting and investigate cases in which players and referees were allegedly bribed.
"The government might collapse, (chronic) inflation might go down but Fenerbahce can never be relegated!" Fenerbahce fans shouted outside the courthouse in Silivri, a town near Istanbul.
The head of Turkey's soccer federation and two of his deputies resigned last month following a controversy on how to deal with the teams that have been implicated in the scandal. The court case involves officials or players from at least eight Turkish clubs.
Yildirim, who has denied any wrongdoing, is accused of match-fixing and establishing a crime ring, according to the indictment, which includes records of wiretapped conversations between the suspects who allegedly exchanged encoded messages.
He faces a maximum of 72 years in prison if found guilty. Prosecutors accuse Yildirim of attempting to manipulate 13 league games, mostly in the second half of the season, to edge Fenerbahce past then-leader Trabzonspor in the league standings.
Fenerbahce went unbeaten through the second half of the season and beat Trabzonspor to the title only on goal difference. Officials with Trabzonspor, which replaced Fenerbahce in the Champions League, have also been implicated.
The indictment accused some suspects of bribing rival team's players to play badly, or not play at all, and coercing referees to make favorable decisions.
In one case, Yildirim is accused of ordering his aides to pay 100,000 euros ($134,000) to Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor player Ibrahim Akin ahead of a match in May.
"I'll jump off the bridge if they can prove it," Yildirim told reporters during a break in the trial, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Yildirim, who has led Fenerbahce since 1998, is also accused of getting federation officials to arrange "favorable" referees for his team's games and of promising transfers, money or luxury cars to players from rival teams.
Among the games Yildirim is alleged to have rigged was a crucial final league game between Fenerbahce and Sivasspor that ended in a 4-3 win for Fenerbahce and helped it clinch the title. Fenerbahce officials are alleged to have offered Sivasspor officials and players money to lose the game.
Yildirim defended himself by saying he had met with a Sivasspor official merely to discuss the allocation of tickets, according to the indictment.
Former Giresunspor President Olgun Peker is also charged, described as the main ringleader in another match-fixing scheme. Peker is accused of fixing matches to help prevent his team from being relegated from Turkey's second league to a lower level, as well as using threats and extortion. He faces a maximum 115 years in prison.
Fenerbahce risks having its name tarnished like Italian club Juventus, which was stripped of its 2005 and 2006 Italian league titles and sent down to play in a lower league.
Former Fenerbahce forward Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria, who was detained and released without charge in July, is among 14 players charged over alleged match-fixing attempts. Emenike left Turkey following his release and joined Spartak Moscow without playing a game for Fenerbahce. He is on trial in absentia.
Emenike, who was playing for Karabukspor at the time, was reportedly promised a transfer to Fenerbahce in return for not playing in a match against the team — an allegation Karabukspor has denied. The club said Emenike was injured a week before the game and has a doctor's certificate to prove it.
Emenike faces maximum three years in prison if convicted.
In December, Turkey's Parliament approved a sharp reduction in prison terms for match-fixing and hooliganism, a move that led to lighter sentences for any suspects found guilty in this scandal. Lawmakers overrode a veto by President Abdullah Gul, who had argued that the amendments gave "the impression of a special arrangement" for the suspects, including Yildirim.
Match-fixing can generate enormous profits and often involves crime syndicates. FIFA, the world soccer body, estimates that fixers make between $5 billion and $15 billion in profits each year from manipulating matches across all sports, which attract $500 billion in wagers with legal and unlicensed operators.
Match-fixing scandals were also reported last year in Africa and Asia.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.