Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Turkey – A fierce, flare-waving football rivalry

October 25

Hello everyone!

Sport is tribal by nature. One will always support their tribe, yet when pitted against a rival, be it a political, historical, geographical or trivial one, that person will cheer a little bit more vociferously than normal. Anyone who has been with me when Wales have beaten England in the rugby – which has happened quite a few times lately – will be aware of this. The event, the sporting spectacle, becomes much more intense when there is a tribal rivalry attached to it.

Galatasaray fans: notorious for their passion

Fenerbahçe scarves on sale before their derby against Galatasaray

I’ve been lucky to witness quite a few sporting rivalries in my life thus far. From a Severnside derby between Cardiff and Bristol City which was tame due to the kick-off time (Sunday lunchtime) and the gulf in quality between the teams (Cardiff won 3-0) to a hostile and extremely loud ice hockey arena where Slavia and Sparta Prague punched holes into each other, I’ve seen many sporting matches between two sides which openly despise one another.

City and United are the two main protagonists in the Manchester derby, which I've seen twice

Watching from the away section of a Slavia-Sparta ice hockey derby was a fascinating experience

There does seem to be a stereotypical difference for my generation in how exactly these rivalries are played out off the pitch. Mainly, the further east you go in Europe, the more violence there is between fans. Growing up supporting a team which had one of Britain’s most notorious hooligan groups, I’m aware that this is…codswallop. However, television footage often shows Eastern European football derbies, whether inter-nation or intra-nation, descending into chaotic violence due to the tribal vengeance spilling out of the segregated stands.

Fans in Greece are stereotyped as being loud and loving flares

An image from the Bosnian football match I watched earlier in the summer, when play was briefly delayed to allow the smoke to dissipate
Which brings me nicely onto the Kitalararasi Derbi: the Intercontinental Derby, played between Fenerbahce SK and Galatasaray SK. Istanbul's two football behemoths.

A newspaper on the day of the game

Europe vs. Asia
The rivalry between these two teams is legendary and bloody. It’s geographical: Europe (Gala) vs. Asia (Fener). It’s historical: their match in 1934 apparently resembled a warzone by the end, with all players fighting. It’s equal: these are Turkey’s two most successful teams and both have won the league title in the past few seasons. It’s not passionate: to say that these fans are passionate is like saying Siberia is a little bit chilly in winter. They’re nuts. You’re also recommended not to wear certain colours in certain areas of the city. They take their teams very seriously over here.

Gala and Fener are the two most popular teams in Turkey

Tempers often fray both on and off the pitch
Tempers once flared when the manager of Galatasaray (a Scotsman) planted their club flag in the middle of a pitch. Fenerbahce's pitch. He caused a riot. 

Graham Souness inciting the hatred of millions with one idiotic action

Luckily for us, this derby of great magnitude was happening in Istanbul when we…were in Istanbul. Ticket prices were extortionate (€300 was the going rate online) for the match, to be hosted by Fener on the Asian side of the city. I’d never made it across to Asia on my previous visit to Istanbul in 2008, so we combined this new experience with sampling a bit of the pre-match atmosphere.

Of course, this could also mean 6pm as the times were still not synchronised at this point

Fans in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul: Fenerbahçe's patch

The scenic way to get to the Asian side is to take a ferry from the port of Eminönü in the old city. Whilst queueing to board, we realised that we were in the company of numerous Fener fans. One had a drum which he banged until dropping his sticks. Which happened fairly regularly.

Aboard the ferry with the noisy Fener fans
On board we sat outside to witness the spectacular views of Istanbul from the Bosphorus, as well as listen to some of the chanting. We were allowed two minutes of this before this happened…

Safety first! It gets quite difficult to breathe when your lungs are being filled up with smoke from flares, in addition to dodging the sparks whizzing off them at random directions.

We followed the swarm of Fener fans briefly upon disembarking at the port of Kadiköy before heading into the markets to get a feel for Asian Istanbul. The feel we currently had was marvellously loud and mad. All of this was over five hours before the game was due to start.

Fans continued to chant wildly as they left the ferry and headed towards the stadium
Preferring to return to Europe in daylight, we left the Asian side with a plan to watch the match when it kicked off in the evening. Owing to the religious tendencies of the majority of locals, bars are in short supply. It is therefore nargile – shisha cafes – which display the matches on giant screens. They were packed beyond capacity even before the game had started. 

The cafe we were recommended for the match was full before the game had started
On a whim, we headed for the modern centre of Istanbul: Taksim Square. Prior knowledge (also known as looking at a map before visiting) had suggested two reasons why the game might be shown there. Firstly, it is where most of the city’s nightlife of bars and clubs are located. Just as importantly, however, it is situated in the district called Galata. I’ll let you put two and two together there.

Taksim is in the Galata district of Istanbul: GALATAsary claim this as their home

The streets near Taksim Square were dominated by the yellow-and-burgundy colours of their local team
Sure enough, we found a shisha café in an alley just off the middle of Taksim’s busiest street just as the half-time whistle blew. Locals weren’t impressed: Fener were one goal ahead. I settled down to my mint and rose water pipe and watched as the game recommenced. Dozens of other people soon gathered behind us, resorting to standing as all of the seats were taken.

Where we watched the match, in a side street off Taksim's main thoroughfare
My lovely, relaxing, light-headed-inducing shisha pipe

Every misplaced pass was met with a howl of derision. Every ever-so-slightly contentious refereeing decision was greeted with what I’m assuming was abuse in Turkish. Then, with seven minutes left on the clock, Galatasary went and scored an equaliser in the stadium of their arch-rivals.

The game finished 1-1. From where we were sat, it seemed as if the Gala fans had just actually won the league. Particularly from the main street. We popped down to discover why there was so much noise.

These were on sale in Kadikoy, on the Asian side. It might explain why so few had been bought...
Turns out that the Galatasaray club shop was about 50 metres away from where we had been watching the game. The ‘leader’ of a group was on the balcony leading the fans in a variety of songs. I’m sure the lyrics were lovely.

Fans singing outside the club shop in Taksim

A little part of me would have loved to witness this intensity, this insanity in person. However, throughout the day we saw fans lighting flares, banging drums, screaming songs and hugging with joy when their team hadn’t even won. We observed enough to understand the rivalry between Galatasary and Fenerbahce. This was sporting rivalry at its bitterest…and I loved it.

A point apiece left both teams chasing Besiktas, Istanbul's third team, who top the table at present

Love you all


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