football, Turkish-style

Istanbul Travel Blog

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Turkey's been quiet lately.  This has especially been the case for the past few days, because a lot of people used the four-day religious holiday of Kurban Bayrami (which this year happens to coincide with New Year's) as an excuse to get out of Istanbul for a little while.  Yet there's another reason as well:  professional football (or soccer, if to you 'football' conjures up images of helmets and oblong balls) is on a month-long winter break.   Like in most other European countries, football is MASSIVE in Turkey, and the passion for the game and teams here runs probably at least as deep as it does England, Spain or Italy.

The Turkish football landscape is dominated by three clubs from Istanbul, one of whom has won the SüperLig for each of the past 22 years.  Almost every one in the country supports one of these three clubs, which traditionally have a fan-base from different socioeconomic levels:  generally speaking, Besiktas is the people's club, Fenerbahce is the club of the upper-middle class and the nouveau riche, and Galatasaray is supported by old money and the traditional elite.  The Galatasaray-Fenerbahce-Besiktas rivalry is massive and acrimonious, but Fenerbahce (of the three, the one with the most money to splash around) is the biggest lightening rod for passion; if you're not a Fenerbahce fan, you generally fervently root against them at every turn.  A fourth club, Trabzonspor (from the city of Trabzon in the north of Turkey) hovers somewhere above the rest of the teams, but definitely isn't quite on on the same level as the big three. If you're not from Istanbul, you likely have some sort of dual allegiance:  your hometown club, and one of the Istanbul clubs.

Since I've been in Istanbul, I've gone to four Galatasaray games:  three league games at the Ali Sami Yen stadium, and one Champions League game against Liverpool at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium.   Apparently I'm some sort of good luck charm, because Galatasaray won all four games handily.  With the exception of the Liverpool game (whose outcome was meaningless), the atmosphere in the stadium was crazy.  Rather than just sitting and watching and occasionally yelling about one player or the ref, the entire crowd is on its feet, singing and chanting for the length of the game except for a brief break at halftime. Think of the student section at any college football or basketball game, and then imagine basically an entire stadium filled with those fans. The away section (although small, and segregated from the home fans by fences and cordons of police) was in good voice as well - singing and taunting the home crowd whenever there was a decent opportunity.  But since Galatasaray won all of the games I was at, I got to see some disgruntled away fans as well - with the police pretty much passively looking on, they ripped up part of their seats (apparently a lot of new cheap plastic seats are installed after every game), and proceeded to throw them - along with water bottles and anything else readily available- at the nearest home section. 

In general, the match atmosphere is one of tolerated chaos.  Security exists at the entrance to stadiums, where you walk under a 'metal detector' (which I suspect may not make a noise if you carried a steel bar through it), get padded down, and are asked if you have any forbidden items like lighters or batteries.  You're not allowed to bring coins into the stadium, but if you buy anything inside, you get coins as change, and the minute you pull out a cigarette, someone is offering you a light.  In the last league game before the winter break, we arrived too late to grab seats (not that we would have been sitting anyway), and had to spend the first half wedged along the railings.  At halftime, we squeezed our way up to the nosebleed section, then climbed up onto the roof of a luxury-box section for a bit of space and an amazing view of the pitch.  Nobody said a thing. 

But the passion for the game extends far beyond the matches.  Because everyone (most women included) are ardent supporters of a team, there's always something to talk about.  And yet between all but the most die-hard of fans, there's generally good-natured banter about whose club is better.  After one match we stopped at a restaurant for a late dinner, and as one of the waiters held the door open for us on the way out, he noticed my Galatasary jersey and told me just to wait until the derby match next week (implying Galatasaray might have won that night, but wouldn't beat their archrivals Fenerbahce).  Another night, again walking back from a match decked out in jerseys, etc., a guy pushing his kid in a stroller had to stop abruptly while crossing the street as a car came swerving around the corner - he looked at me with a smile and said 'Asshole.  He must be a Fenerbahce fan.'
monsur says:
Good report, I'm hoping to see a Galatasaray match when I visit Istanbul. How can I get tickets ? My search on the internet takes me to gambling sites !
Posted on: Jul 29, 2009
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photo by: Memo