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Omer Riza - the Arsenal academy star who spent 10 years and £200k to clear his name

18:00 GMT+3 26/03/2020
Omer Riza Watford
Now a coach with Watford's Under-23s, the former Gunner speaks to Goal about his case which was heard at the European Court of Human Rights

It’s been a battle that has run for 10 years and has cost more than £200,000 ($233,000) to fight, but Omer Riza can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.

From the moment the Arsenal-raised youngster - and current Watford under-23 coach - was found in breach of his contract while at Trabzonspor in 2010, he has been determined to clear his name, to prove he had not been given a fair trial by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and to show he was not dealt with fairly by the Turkish and Swiss governments during the court cases that followed.

There have been times during the past decade when his fight looked set to fail. Both the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the Swiss Federal Court found his case inadmissible and, for many, that would have been enough to throw in the towel. But with his family behind him, Riza refused to give up and, in January, he finally got his reward when the European Court of Human Rights found that he had indeed been mistreated.

“Hopefully now all parties will have to pay for all the wrongs they created,” Riza tells Goal while detailing his 10-year long legal fight for the first time.

Riza was 24 when he left England for Turkey, joining Denizlispor in 2003 following an excellent season with Cambridge United in which he scored 17 goals.

He had started his career with Arsenal, progressing through the youth ranks with the likes of Ashley Cole and Julian Gray, scoring prolifically along the way.

Despite being offered a new contract by Arsene Wenger in 1999, he decided to turn down the deal and move to West Ham, where he felt he would get more opportunities with their first team.

He spent three frustrating years with the Hammers before joining Cambridge and it was there that his career really took off, with his fine form earning him a transfer to Turkey.

Three successful seasons with Denizlispor saw him snapped up by Trabzonspor, but then things started to go wrong for the frontman.

“We had a new manager come in and he had a problem with me,” says Riza. “I don’t know what it was. He wasn’t playing me, he wasn’t putting me in training sessions.

"He was isolating me even though I was a senior player who had been bought for a bit of money. His behaviour wasn’t right; it wasn’t normal.

“Then, payments started to arrive late. They stopped paying wages. Not just to me but to the whole team. They started giving back-dated cheques, saying if you don’t sign them you, won’t be involved. All these things were going on.

“In my contract, there was a certain period, I think it was 100 days, that was the maximum that the club could pay me late without defaulting.

“So, one time they defaulted and I told them that they had broken my contract and I wasn't putting up with the behaviour anymore.

“I had my wife and kids at home and I was going in at 8am in the morning and leaving the training ground at 10pm after triple sessions.

“So, I said enough was enough. I put in my letter to Fifa and the TFF saying Trabzonspor had broken my contract and I was done.”

But Trabzonspor fought the case and said that by walking out on them, it was Riza, not the club, who had broken the terms of the contract he signed when he had arrived from Denizlispor.

After a tribunal heard by the TFF, Riza was found guilty of breaching his agreement with his employers and was subsequently banned from playing worldwide for four months.

“I couldn’t sign for anyone and if I did, I couldn’t play until the suspension was up,” Riza explains. “So, no-one would take me on. It took me 15 months before I signed a contract anywhere. They fined me £150,000 ($175,000) at the time as well.

"So, I took it further. I took it to CAS, I took it to the Swiss Federal Court, but they all found it inadmissible because when I went to Turkey, I got dual citizenship as they wanted me to play for the Turkish national team.

"By the time I’d done that, they said I was a Turkish citizen, so CAS couldn't look at it and Fifa couldn't look at it. They put me in a bad situation, really.

"I wasn’t protected by any laws, when I should have been. I was from England, I was a British citizen, I went abroad and I wasn’t protected by anything."

Riza eventually returned to football with Shrewsbury Town and he went on to have spells with the likes of Aldershot, Histon and Boreham Wood during the next eight years.

But the Arsenal academy graduate, now 40, admits what he went through in Turkey took a massive toll on the latter part of his playing career.

“Although I fought and fought, I lost a bit of my performance,” he admits. “It was a hard time.

“I don’t like that part of my career. I ended up going here, there and everywhere trying to find my feet. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that happened and it happened due what went on in Turkey.

“That’s another reason why I took this thing to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Riza continues: “It’s been long-winded, it’s been a tough fight and it’s been very costly. I’ve spent over £200,000 over the last 10 years. I had no other option because if I hadn't, the case would have been dismissed.

“It hasn’t just been me either. It’s been my father and my family helping to push me because there’s been many times when I’ve thought I cannot do this anymore. But having strong people around has helped keep me strong.”

After finding in Riza's favour, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish government to take measures to ensure the independence of football’s arbitration committee by reforming its football disputes settlement system within the TFF.

In response, the TFF said: "The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Ömer Rıza should be compensated due to the structure and formation of the Arbitration Committee of the Turkish Football Federation.

"While the verdict is not yet a final decision, we have started the work of analysis and assessment of the court's findings in cooperation with Fifa and Uefa."

The courts' decision was welcomed by FIFPRO,  the worldwide representative organisation for professional footballers.

A statement released at the time, said: "FIFPRO calls upon the Turkish Football Federation to finally seriously engage with the Turkish Player Union in order to set up a football dispute resolution system that complies with core principles regarding independence and impartiality.

"FIFPRO notes with regret that the abusive behaviour of the club (Trabzonspor) in question in 2008 (non-payment, exclusion of player from training sessions, downgrading him to the youth team) which led to the contractual dispute between the player [Riza] and the club, remains common practice in Turkish football 12 years later."

Despite the positive ruling, Riza’s fight with the TFF still hasn’t ended.

Not only is he now looking to be reimbursed for the lost earnings and opportunities he believes he missed out on over the course of his career, he also wants to ensure no player in Turkey finds himself having to go through what he did ever again.

And so Riza – who had a brief spell as Leyton Orient manager in 2017 – is pushing to ensure that his success in the courts will lead to much needed reform at the very top of Turkish football.

“They have found in my favour so the TFF now has to look at how their boards and tribunals work; they have to be impartial and not just selected by the TFF,” he argues.

“There are a lot of friends involved in these processes. They are not impartial, so the TFF are having to look at that and rejig it.

“It’s become a case about player rights really because they are not protected enough there. Hopefully, those changes will now be made in time.”