Hotbeds of Football – Istanbul

According to the Lonely Planet website, Istanbul is the place is “where continents collide.” Given that the Bosporus that divides the city forms the border between the continents of Europe and Asia, some may see the description as somewhat less than illuminating. Delve a little deeper into the intricacies of this polyglot city though, and particularly its football culture as will be seen later, and there’s more than a hint to suggest that the key word in the quote may well be “collide” rather than “continents.” Istanbul is a city of contrasts, some that combine in glorious splendour and others that compete with the reckless abandon of a passion unabated.

Founded some 3,000 years ago the colony of Byzantium grew to become the eastern capital of the Roman empire, named as Constantinople, for the emperor who took it as his own. Later it was conquered by the Ottomans who cemented its prominence as the heart of their own empire. The land on which the city stands has been fought over for many centuries, and in so many ways, that remains the case today.

The conflict, certainly of late however, perhaps has as much to do with possession of the soul of the city, as with the possession of the land itself. Although since 1923, the city of Ankara has been the administrative capital of the Turkey, Istanbul retains its status as the country’s most celebrated city. Over the years, the competing cultural, religious and social influences – both foreign and domestic – have combined to produce a city that simmers and occasionally boils over with the frictional heat of eclectic differences, incessantly rubbing against each other. It’s a heat that is, at times, as warm as the welcome offered to visitors, but at others, as scalding hot as its internecine collisions.

Despite the official designation of Turkey being a secular state as decreed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the first President of the Turkish Republic back in 1923, religion remains a key driving force in shaping and reshaping the various cross-cutting divisions of the city as they form and re-form with the shifting sands of time. The ongoing independence conflict with the Kurds has been a backdrop for many years, and whilst that remains a running sore for Turkey, this underlying current of political instability has almost been subsumed by more recent phenomena. The urgent displaces the important and, of late, this has been tragically illustrated the by the actions of IS, inflicting their brand of fundamentalist doctrine onto the city. The secular state is probably under more pressure now than has been the case for generations, but such issues are not only externally imposed.

The recent failed military coup was another example of unrest. Mercilessly crushed by the authorities under the Cumhurbaşkanı, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the response was a harsh crackdown on dissent by the government. This has also led to an apparent reactionary leaning towards more traditional values – including those of a religious nature – that seem to be in conflict with the founding idealism of Turkey as a secular state. Couple this with a centuries old enmity towards Greece, fed by the dispute over Cyprus, the country’s position as the extreme eastern flank of the NATO alliance and a widely espoused desire to take the country into the European Community, and there’s enough ingredients and spices to make this Tava of a city, that straddles the disparate identities of Europe and Asia, a potent dish.

Despite all this, as so many visitors to the city keen to defend its honour, would rush to say, it’s often the spiciest of ingredients that provide the flavour to the tastiest of dishes. Istanbul retains a charismatic essence that draws visitors, both old and new, to its enticing charms. The mixtures of European and Asian, Muslim and Christian, East and West, traditional and modern combine to produce the sort of intoxicating brew unique among the great cities of the world. Replete with attractions such the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the iconic Blue Mosque, Istanbul may not be dress itself in the newest of garbs, but the clothes it dons are indeed splendid.

It was Virginia Maxwell, writer of so many of the Lonely Planet’s travel guides, who penned the description of Istanbul as the place “where continents collide,” so it seems only fitting that one should also turn to her for a description of its particular charm. She captures it eloquently with the phrase, “I love the fact that, in Istanbul, an extraordinary cultural experience lies around every corner.” The city certainly seems to be Ms Maxell’s cup of tea, or should that be house of coffee?

It’s a fine turn of phrase, and one befitting a travel writer, neatly painting the picture of the image she is seeking to project. As a football writer though, I’ll look for a different way to describe Istanbul; a way to consider the ethnic, religious and social strata apparent, to look at the drives and the divisions, the politics and the passion, the culture. I’ll explore Istanbul using its football clubs as a prism to not only draw a focus on these centres of passion and culture, some of which not only offer a locus for the gathering of likeminded souls, but also provide a focus for a community defined as divided. Beyond that though, I’ll also to look for common cause. That which divides may, perhaps, also unite. Football and the zealous support for the clubs in the city certainly place Istanbul among the hotbeds of the game.

To many people, even many ardent fans of the game across the continent, Turkish football is essentially made up of the three major clubs of the country, all of which are based in Istanbul. The term Üç büyükler essentially means ‘the big three’ and is the term often used as the collective noun for the football clubs of Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. There are of course other smaller clubs in the city, but a consideration of each of the big three clubs, and how they and their supporters understand themselves and their rivals can provide a richly colourful palette for a football fan’s brush strokes on the same canvas as painted by Ms Maxwell.

One of the many contradictions about Istanbul is that whilst the section of the city comprising the extent of the Turkish Republic’s enclave in Europe forms a very minor part of the country’s total land mass, with the vast majority of it being in the old area of Anatolia, that situation is reversed when considering the city as a stand-alone entity. In this case, the majority of the area in question lies to the west of the Bosporus, and this may explain why two of the big three football clubs in the city – Beşiktaş and Galatasaray – are located in this area, with just Fenerbahçe lying to the east. Geographic location, although not insignificant, is however just one element of the many and varied components that go together to offer up football as a meaningful, if by necessity, perhaps, incomplete, metaphor for understanding Istanbul.

It may seem a little forced to use this approach for what may feel more like a Social Science exercise than an article about football, but please bear with me for a while and, after an examination of the origin of the game in the city and then each of the big three clubs, their interlocking rivalries, hopefully an illustration of the microcosm will inform the bigger picture.

As with the birth of the game in so many other countries, its origins in Turkey can be traced back to a British presence in the country introducing the game towards the end of the nineteenth century. At first frowned upon by the Ottoman rulers as a foreign import impinging on the indigenous culture of the country, popularity grew, initially in areas with large Christian or Jewish communities, but quickly spilled from those enclaves, especially into the more cosmopolitan centres, such as Istanbul. Until by the turn of the century, recognising the game as an established sport was very much a fait accompli. Even in its beginnings therefore football was a populist movement kicking against authoritarianism.

Beşiktaş is the oldest of the big three clubs in Istanbul, originally founded in March 1903, but strengthened when joined by two other clubs – Valideçeşme and Basiret- in 1911. As with the other members of the triumvirate, politics played a part in its formation and its history. The latter being demonstrated by the original club colours of red and white, being changed in 1913 to black and white to commemorate the country’s losses in the Balkan Wars.

The club’s base was predominantly drawn from the working class and left-wing leaning sections of the community. As with so many wars, it was the working classes that suffered the most casualties in the Balkan conflict, and the changed colours reflected an empathy with the club’s fan base. That remains the case today, with Beşiktaş being the club of choice for football fans of that particular political persuasion or social position. As with a number of clubs in different countries around the world, they celebrate this distinction by describing themselves as the ‘People’s Club.’

In line with its political inclinations, Beşiktaş is also wedded to the Kemailst approach to the importance of secularity – although it appears likely that Atatürk himself had leanings towards the Sarı Kanaryalar (Yellow Canaries), rather than the Kara Kartallar (Black Eagles), but more of that later. Of late their political identity has been taken a step further by the section of its fan base known as Çarşı. The group, with proclaimed anarchist tendencies, rejoice in chanting about what it is against – the subject changes often – sometimes even being against themselves, as an expression of freedom from control. In 2013 however, conversely, it was the Çarşı group that provided the drive for the creation of something, albeit ephemeral that, to use the phrase of the zeitgeist, suggested there was more that united the fans of the different clubs than divided them. But before looking at that scenario, there’s more of the divides to consider.

Beşiktaş shares the European side of the Bosporus with Galatasaray, and the latter followed the former into existence just a couple of years later. The two clubs however are different in a number of ways, not the least of which is the way they are perceived across the country.

If Beşiktaş is the working-class club, Galatasaray has the airs of a more aristocratic standing. Without trying to over simplify the comparison, to use a Spanish illustration, Galatasaray is Real Madrid to Beşiktaş’s Atletico, or perhaps Valencia as compared to Real Beits. The club was founded in October 1905 at the prestigious Lycee de Galatasaray school in the Beyoglu area of the city, and to its detractors has sought to maintain that air of sophistication, aloofness and superiority. It perhaps should be said however, that this may not be without reasonable foundation. Aslanlar (The Lions) carry a distinction that no other Turkish club can claim. In 2000, they became the first – and, so far, only – club from the country to lift a major European trophy when it won the Cup Winners Cup, before going on to defeat Real Madrid in the Super Cup later the same year.

Achievement feeds the feeling of superiority and success draws in the fan base.  Galatasaray are the best supported club in the country, although perhaps not within Istanbul itself. They are also the most decorated having secured more domestic titles than any other club, holding the record for the most Süper Lig title victories with 20, the most number of Türkiye Kupası wins, with 17 and also, with 15, the most Süper Kupa successes. All achievement is of course worthy of praise, but to then see the club refer to itself as Avrupa Fatihi (Conqueror of Europe) is the very stuff to pique the disdain of other clubs’ supporters.

For all of this supposed arrogance however, it’s also true that the fans of Galatasaray are possessed of loyalty just as fierce as those of any other club. The occasion a decade or so ago, when Manchester United were drawn to play Galatasaray in Istanbul, occasioned the infamous ‘Welcome to Hell’ sign waved under the noses of the visitors from Old Trafford, along with the more amusing ‘Giggs: You play in a women’s league” assertion. A little may have got lost in the translation. A stadium packed with baying fans three hours before kick-off though, told the players that here was a fan base at least equal to any passionate group in England.

Geographically, Galatasaray, and the only one of the big three clubs based on the eastern side of the Bosporus, Fenerbahçe, are separated by a continental divide, but to many of the fans of each club, that division goes much deeper. If the fan base of Galatasaray has a more educated and middle-class base to it, those that follow Fenerbahçe are considered to be more bourgeois and nationalist. It is Fener who claim Atatürk as one of their followers, and this oft-quoted allegiance gives credence to the Turkish nationalists’ support for the club. Even political distinctions and a supposed ethnic divide are transcended though by the perception Fenerbahçe fans have of their club.

For its supporters, the location of Fenerbahçe, to the east of the Bosporus, adds an extra level of ‘Turkish-ness’ to the club’s image. With the remaining two members of the big three sited on the west bank of the city, there’s a perceived ‘Eurocentric’ feel about them for Fener fans, diminishing their claim to be Turkish. If Beşiktaş are the ‘People’s Club’ Fenerbahçe see themselves as ‘Turkey’s Club.’ The strong affiliation between the club and its supporters is illustrated by the number 12. The club laud the support offered by the fans as being akin to having a twelfth man on the pitch, and this had led to the widespread practice of fans wearing Fener shirts with a number 12 on the back, and the club refusing to  give that number to any player they sign, as it already allocated to their most valued resource.

Fener were founded in 1907, and since that day, remain at their original stadium, the Şükrü Saraçoğlu Stadium in Kadıköy. The club’s early days were shrouded in secrecy as, whilst the clubs with European leanings – or under foreign control as Fener fans would see it – were less concerned by the blandishments of the Ottoman rulers not to indulge in this non-Turkish pastime. Fener’s necessarily largely covert early operations therefore led to difficult financial times, but as the sport became acceptable, especially after the proclaiming of the republic, the club’s support grew, and it now is rightly considered as a rival to both Galatasaray and Beşiktaş as one of the big three clubs of the city and, indeed, the nation.

It would be wrong of course to say that all of the supporters of each of the clubs fall precisely into the stereotypes as described above. There is however a required conformity expected of anyone taking one of the clubs to their hearts, and in such circumstances, it’s not difficult to appreciate how the over-spilling of passion can lead to excesses.

The first game between Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş was a ‘Friendly’ in November 1924. It may well be one of the very few, if not only encounter, that particular description could accurately be ascribed to. It ended with a 4-2 victory for Fener. Whilst since that time, the ascendency in the rivalry has swung one way then the other, at least one thing has become an expected norm. No episode in the rivalry now takes place without the hooliganism and fighting between fans that moves beyond threatening chants to ripping up of seats, hurling fireworks and running battles, between the two sets of fans and police.

The rivalry between Beşiktaş and Galatasaray should logically be the most closely disputed of Derby games, contested to decide prominence on the western edge of the Bosporus. Throw in the spice of the apparent political divide between the fans of each club and there’s plenty to define the conflict. Additionally, they are the two most popular clubs in Turkey, commanding the biggest support across the country. The first game between the clubs occurred in 1925, resulting in a 6-2 victory for Galatasaray, and for spells over the years, the Lions have maintained that dominance. To date, they have won 71 major domestic honours to the Beşiktaş total of 54. Regardless of the results however, the passion and devotion of the fans seems to know few bounds.

Perhaps the greatest rivalry of all amongst the big three however lies between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. It is the most fiercely contested game in the Turkish domestic calendar. There are lots of passionate Derby games against the globe. El Clásico in Spain, played out between Real Madrid and Barcelona re-opens the wounds of the fratricidal civil war fought out in the late 1930s. The ‘SuperClásico’ in Argentina where Boca Juniors face up to River Plate is about politics, social class and economic disadvantage and, in Scotland games between Rangers and Celtic have sectarian undercurrents that often manifest themselves in the most tragic of circumstances. The game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, very much like the city of Istanbul itself takes a pinch of all of these elements, and adds in its own particular element of nationalism for the game labelled as the ‘Intercontinental Derby.’

The first game between the clubs took place in 1909, but by the thirties, the enmity had grown to feverish extents. On 23rd February 1934, Istanbul witnessed its first football-related riots during one instalment of the rivalry between the two teams at the Taksim Stadium. The game had to be abandoned, and from that day, violence has become an accepted part of the fixture, and even government restrictions on away fans attending games had little real effect on dampening down the fury. To supporters of both teams, winning the league is but a Pyrrhic triumph unless the ‘Intercontinental Derby’ was also won, and with 15 of the last 20 league titles falling to one of the two clubs, the Derby Day battles held even greater significance with increased passion, often accompanied by brutal aggression, regardless of whether your particular team won or lost.

It’s certainly a game that needs no added impetus to drive up the furore and raise the blood pressure. In 1996 however, after Galatasaray had won a two-legged cup final against Fenerbahçe – with the second leg being played out at Fener’s stadium, a Scot nearly sparked a riot. After the game, and doubtless fuelled by the elation of victory, Galatasaray’s manager Graeme Souness raced back onto the pitch with a huge yellow and red flag, representing the colours of his club and rammed it into the ground on the centre spot of the pitch. It was a move akin to some invading soldier claiming the territory for his country. Within the connotations of this particular fixture, that may not be stretching a metaphor too far. The action was surely as bold as it was foolhardy. From that day, Souness would be lauded by the Galatasaray fans and reviled by Fener’s in equal measure. It would be wise for Mr Souness to avoid the Kadıköy area of the city should he venture to Istanbul in the future.

The fixtures darkest moment of recent times, came back in 2013. On 12th May, a young Fenerbahçe fan named Burak Yilidrim was waiting to catch a bus home after the game. As he stood there, a man wearing a Galatasaray shirt walked across to him and stabbed him to death. Whilst many would argue – and with some merit – that such actions have little to do with football, there’s surely little room for doubt that such actions would have been far less likely to have happened without the passion inspired by the club rivalry. It was an event that the Turkish press labelled ‘Black Sunday’ and led to the government’s restrictions on away fans attending games. The ban was an understandable response from the authorities, but if someone has the mentality to fuel murderous intent, merely from the sight of an opposing club’s shirt, attendance of the game itself is surely nothing but a sideshow.

It was from this strange portent though that an unforeseen hope arose. Seventeen days after the stabbing, a civil uprising occurred that united young people who felt oppressed by a perceived increasing amount of authoritarianism by the government. At the centre of the movement were the fans of the big three clubs; not in opposition, but united in the cause. Not unsurprisingly perhaps, at the centre of the movement were the Beşiktaş fans, known as the Carsi. Hatchets were buried, not in each other, but foresworn in a movement that saw longstanding enmities put aside for the sort of common cause that has ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ at its core.

Three days later, under the stewardship of Carsi, fans of the clubs were marching arm in arm in the street. They formed a new club called ‘Istanbul United.’ It never played a game; it was never meant to it, but it had the widest fan base of any club in the history of Turkish football, and its battles were with the police and the oppressive nature of an overzealous government. Social media buzzed with support. Fans of other clubs would tweet that “I’m a Fenerbahçe fan but I support Carsi,” for example. Even others not interested in football picked up the digital cudgels with messages such as “I don’t support any team, but I support Carsi.”

The government was stunned by the unexpected turn of events and laid about them for someone to blame. Prime Minister Erdoğan lashed out the opposition Republican People’s Party, external influences and even foreign governments bent on destroying the unity of his country. He should have looked closer to home. Of course, the movement didn’t last, but there was an all-too-brief moment when a tragedy pinned on football had brought a moment of crystal clear clarity to disparate groups of people who saw that supposed divides were indeed mere gaps, not too wide to step across.

With apologies to any Hellenic opposing Turks, there’s a tale from Greek mythology that may fit the bill here. It can go some way to describing Istanbul as a hotbed of passion and a teeming mass of conflicts “where continents collide.” Suitably, it’s centred on the biggest divide in Turkey, the Bosporus.

Leander, a youth from Abydos falls in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Sadly, they live on opposite sides of the Bosporus, or the Hellespont as it was known previously.  Abydos is on the east bank, whilst Hero lives in a tower in Sestos on the European side. Each night, throughout the summer, Leander swims across the straits to be with his love. Hero keeps a light on in the tower to guide Leander to her. Then, on a winter’s evening, with the young lover some way into his swim a storm brews up. It confuses Leander and he loses his sense of direction. Worse follows as the winds blow out Hero’s light. Leander is lost and drowns. When Hero sees his body washed ashore, she throws herself from the tower to be with him in death.

While we’re in the realms of romanticism, perhaps the moral is that Amor Vincit Omnia – love conquers all. No divide, even one as great as the Bosporus would keep Leander from his love. No enmity that brews in the great city of Istanbul should prevent its heady cocktail of influences merely serving up the most delicious of combinations. And for its football clubs, there’s perhaps a lesson that passion does not always need to turn itself to belligerence and enmity. Keep Hero’s light burning, and any gap is crossable, even in the hotbed of football that is Istanbul.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Hotbeds’ series in ‘The Football Pink’ magazine).




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