- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) - 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 with a vocal fan base nicknamed “the Republic of Fenerbahce.”

As chairman since 1998, Yildirim built up not only the local soccer club, but also its clubs in basketball, volleyball and table tennis. He 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 blustery, volatile Yildirim was as well-known as the prime minister.

In 2012, however, he got attention for all the wrong reasons.

The 60-year-old tycoon was convicted in July 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.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.

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Yildirim’s case is another sign that soccer _ the world’s most popular sport _ is increasingly tainted by a multibillion-dollar scourge of match-fixing. Investigations in dozens of countries in 2012 have involved hundreds of players and officials, revealing the extent of the problem that threatens to undermine the integrity of the game.

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.

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Fenerbahce was founded in 1907. It has 18 national league titles, the same as Istanbul rival Galatasaray, and a fan base that expects more.

The name “Fenerbahce” means “lighthouse garden” in Turkish. Many of its fans take the 30-minute ferry ride from the European side of Istanbul across the breezy Marmara Sea to Kadikoy, the bustling district on the city’s Asian side where Fenerbahce plays its home games.

Fans wearing the club’s blue-and-yellow stripes pack Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, which sits along a boulevard lined with shops, bars and restaurants.

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