Knoxville and Eastern Europe

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One of the true joys I get out of travel is being able to connect the places I visit to one another. For many the Southern United States and Eastern Europe might as well be on different planets. And that’s ok—they are, after all, on opposite sides of this all-too-large world we live in. As if that were not enough, I also acknowledge that Knoxville, Tennessee specifically may not sound as exotic as Tallinn, Estonia or Sofia, Bulgaria or anywhere in between, for that matter.  But I hope to bridge that gap if only for a few minutes.

On Sunday morning I went for a walk in downtown Knoxville for a few hours. I wandered through the perfect tourist spot that is Market Square—complete with a Cormac McCarthy quote embedded in the granite—and purchased some suitably “southern” University of Tennessee gear (a substitute for a soccer jersey) at the Mast General Store, before heading towards the campus.

While aimlessly wandering down Cumberland Ave (I didn’t care that those driving by may have thought I was on a walk of shame) I found myself in World’s Fair Park. Despite the cold temperature I felt strangely at home in the park, and when I came upon the statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff (who played his last concert seventy-one years ago at the University of Tennessee, by the way) I realized why. It felt like I was squarely in Eastern Europe. Forget the beautiful campus that screams “America” just meters away, forget the discarded red solo cups and cans of Natural Ice that dotted the sidewalks; just focus on the statue—built by Victor Bokarov of Russia—and the puddles that have formed at its base, the rail road tracks and the Sunsphere rising into the grey sky in the background. In this moment, standing in the mist, I could be nowhere but an Eastern European capital. And that is not—necessarily—a bad thing.

Underneath that cloudy sky I reflected on the places I have been and the places I will go, ultimately realizing that one does not need go to exotic locales to feel the thrill of travel within oneself. In fact, Tennessee and Eastern Europe are not really that far apart. Think, for a moment, of what the American South is—or was. Essentially, it was a resource rich periphery for the industrial north. It was mainly about control of the South’s agricultural land—not about slavery, despite what some historians may tell you—that the American Civil War was fought. And what was Eastern Europe? In addition to being a buffer to Western European expansion, it was also an agricultural breadbasket for the Soviet Union. So how far apart are Knoxville and Kiev, really?

The name University of Tennessee’s sports team—the Volunteers—can serve as an example. It comes from the fact that Tennessee provided an unprecedented number of volunteer soldiers to both the war of 1812 and the Mexican-American war (http://www.utk.edu/aboutut/traditions/). The university itself was also not immune to war, it once served as a hospital for Confederate troops during the US civil war (https://www.utk.edu/aboutut/history/). All just a few small things I learned in one drizzly early spring morning in Knoxville.


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Greek and Turkish Brotherhood in the Stands: Berkin Elvan and Alexandros Grigoropoulos Side by Side, Remembered by AEK Athens Fans


Football can sometimes warm even the most calloused hearts—this story from Sunday March 16 is no exception. The picture below (courtesy of Ultra Style’s Facebook page) is worth a thousand words and more:

AEL-Triglia Rafina, Greek 3rd Division, 16032014

During a Greek third division match between AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina, AEK’s Ultras—Gate 21—hung a banner commemorating 15 year old Berkin Elvan of Turkey, a boy whose death on March 11th (which resulted from being hit by a tear gas canister in protests last summer: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/turkey-protests_n_4942943.html) sparked a new wave of protests across Turkey. AEK’s black and white banner put two faces together: Berkin’s face is alongside Alexandros Grigoropoulos’—another fifteen year old—who was fatally shot by Greek police in 2008 during riots in Athens.

Despite the macabre nature of the banner it is a unique look at football’s ability to bridge historical and political divides that the politicians have yet to succeed in doing. That the two fifteen year old boys lost their lives in conflicts that they were only spectators to is the sad result of modern governments that are perceived—by those living under them—to have failed to uphold the social contract. When governments act with impunity no one wins. These two preventable deaths attest to it in the darkest way.

AEK Athens are mired in the third division—the amateur ranks—after self relegating themselves to escape debt, an economic crisis on the small scale that mirrors the larger economic picture in Greece. Their crest is the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Byzantium. The “K” in AEK stands for “Konstantinoupolis”; the team was founded by Greek refugees who fled Istanbul during and after the Turkish war of independence (for a similar story please see my writing on PAOK Thessaloniki). Triglia Rafina share AEK’s black and yellow colors—the colors of the Byzantine flag. When taking the history of both AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina in question it is not shocking that a Turk, Berkin Elvan, should be remembered at an obscure third division football match in Greece. It may not be shocking, but it is certainly commendable.

Animosity between Turks and Greeks is long standing, stemming from years of Ottoman occupation and culminating in a brutal population exchange after the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. For years Greeks and Turks lived together under the Ottoman flag until the divisive ideologies of nationalism shattered the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century—indeed, Greek and Turkish cultures are almost indistinguishable (the foods, the coffee, the yoghurts). I myself have written before on the similarities and differences between Greece and Turkey; having grown up seven kilometers from Greece on Turkey’s Aegean coast I know how similar—yet different—these two cultures truly are.

Where the fortunes of both countries began to diverge was during the mid part of the 20th century. While both Greece and Turkey were taken under the West’s security blanket—via NATO—as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Greece (due to the perception of its being the birthplace of Western democracy) became a darling of the West. They were allowed to join the European Community (EC), the precursor to the European Union, in 1981 despite having a mainly agrarian economy. This ushered in unprecedented years of economic growth as European Community funds supported the development of industry and infrastructure throughout the country. In 2001 it culminated in the adoption of the Euro, a disastrous decision that takes us up to where we are today.

Turkey, on the other hand, was continually given small concessions and valued partnerships with both the EC and EU but was never given a truly viable path to membership. Indeed the divided island of Cyprus is one major roadblock—and a thorn in the side of Greco-Turkish relations since the 1960s. It is notable that it was current events that led to Greece’s abandoning their veto on Turkish membership into the EU following two destructive earthquakes that rocked both countries in 1999. It was similarities—this time the fact that both countries share similar geographies—that brought the two back together.

In 2014 it is different earth-shattering events in both countries that are bringing people together, and the AEK ultras are proof of this. It is no longer Greeks and Turks that are divided as nationalities, but Greek and Turkish individuals that are uniting in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and the increasingly reckless hubris of their politicians. Respect to Gate 21 for abandoning the old animosities between Greeks and Turks—if only for 90 minutes—and for bringing to the fore the similarities between these two nations that go beyond their cultures, addressing the real concerns of twenty-first century people on the streets regardless of where they were born or where they live, what passports they hold or what languages they speak.

As protests rage on in Turkey and instability rules in Ukraine it is times like these—more than ever—that humanity needs to unite in the face of chaos and governmental oppression. I commend the football fans for making their voices heard. Fenerbahce fans quoted eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/football-fans-from-turkey-greece-italy-remember-berkin-elvan-.aspx?pageID=517&nID=63703&NewsCatID=362) over the weekend: “Let no children die, let them play”. It is a sentiment I think we can all agree on, no matter what our politics are or which football team we support.

Turkey’s Social Malaise Comes Out On The Pitch In Trabzon

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Sports are often presented as a figurative “war in peacetime”. Sometimes, however, sports can also become a staging ground for wider social malaise—and create war zones itself. That was the case this weekend, as the Trabzonspor-Fenerbahçe derby at the Hüseyin Avni Aker Stadium in Trabzon had to be abandoned at halftime due to crowd violence. It is the second derby to be abandoned in Turkey this year (I attended the first).

On Saturday night—the night before the derby—I had planned to write a post for this blog on an unfortunate event that occurred at an amputee league match. Yes, you read that right. Not only do amputees have a soccer league in Turkey, but they also have incidents at the matches. On March 9th Malatya Bedensel Engellilerspor faced off against Istanbul Özürlülerspor at the Inönü University’s synthetic grass field in Malatya in the Turkish Amputee Football Super League.

According to the news report the guests from Istanbul went up 1-0 in the 12th minute, before Malatya Bedensel Engellilerspor got an equalizer in the 36th minute and then a go-ahead goal in the 40th minute. Three minutes later Gazi Öztop of Malatya Bedensel Engellilerspor was sent off for a second yellow—at that point his team-mate, Mustafa Çolak, was sent off as well for dissent. That is when everything fell apart. Çolak was apparently seen to hit the referee, Sadık Kayhan, with one of his crutches before a pitch-invading fan attacked Mr. Kayhan, followed by the rest of Malatya’s team. Kayhan had to escape to the locker room and called the game off while riot police entered the field with tear gas in a bid to restore order.

For me, this was reminiscent of a similarly disgusting event at a Turkish Wheelchair Basketball Super League match between Beşiktaş and Galatasaray on 10 December 2012. Indeed the headlines on Sporx.com were the same for both events—“Sözün Bittiği Yerdeyiz” (We Are At The Point That Words End). In that incident the match had to be abandoned in the second quarter with Galatasaray up by 5 as debris rained onto the court while Beşiktaş and Galatasaray fans clashed; videos of players crawling from damaged wheelchairs were gut-wrenching. In the aftermath, grainy pictures—taken through clouds of tear gas—showed a basketball court strewn with destroyed wheelchairs in an unthinkable embarrassment for two of Turkey’s biggest sporting clubs.

A friend of mine in Istanbul—a life long Galatasaray fan and season ticket holder for the football matches—was so angry that he was brought to tears by the incident—to think that his fans could do such a thing. Indeed, it was unthinkable. It is unthinkable. Yet, Sunday happened in Malatya. And Monday happened in Trabzon. The signs of social malaise, creeping through all levels of Turkish sport, are undeniable.

Before Monday’s match there were fears of major clashes because of the bad blood between the two teams. Fenerbahçe beat Trabzonspor to the Turkish title on the final day of the 2010-11 season, a championship that led to chairman Aziz Yıldırım landing in jail over a match fixing scandal. Snipers were placed on roof-tops surrounding the stadium, a move by Turkish security forces that—according to one news report—angered fans before the match even started.

In the match, Fenerbahçe’s Emmanuel Emenike put Fenerbahçe up 1-0 in the 23rd minute—seven minutes later rocks rained down on the pitch from Trabzonspor’s fans and the referee had to stop the match for ten minutes. When the unruly displays started again in the last minutes of the first half the referees went to the locker room. The match would not continue.

Trabzonspor fan favorite and Turkish national team star, goalkeeper Onur Kıvrak, went outside the stadium with security escorts to urge the fans to leave. His words, however, may have egged them on even more:

We are the followers of this virtuous jersey. But these [events] don’t befit our virtuous fans. We will fight until the death but now is not the time. Now leave in a way befitting of Trabzonspor. Later, we will fight until death.”

I hesitate to brand Kıvrak as a rabble-rouser—he was bold enough to attempt to do something amid the chaos, and that should be applauded. However, one cannot predict the fans’ reactions to his words—perhaps they could have been chosen more wisely. Indeed, Trabzonspor board members were allegedly furious at Ibrahim Hacıosmanoğlu, himself a controversial figure in Turkish football, about Kıvrak’s move while taking a shot at their own fans (!):

President, who sent Onur amongst the fans? There are [alcohol] drinkers and [marijuana] smokers among them. What if someone had stabbed him?

Hacıosmanoğlu just chose to ask the question back: “Who sent Onur?” I’m not so sure anyone sent him, my personal opinion is that he—a representative of the Turkish national team himself—just felt a personal duty to go where no one dared go and confront the social malaise head on.

Unfortunately, he had no calming effect as police wounded in the riots had to be carried into the stadium to be treated by Fenerbahçe’s team doctors (the team was stranded inside the stadium as chaos ensued outside). In the end an armored vehicle had to be brought in to carry the Fenerbahçe team to the airport—at 12:45 am. This was more than four hours after kick off, and more than three hours after the referee called the match off.

In the fall I attended an amateur league match at Çeşmespor’s stadium, in my hometown. There I had written about the tensions simmering below the surface in Turkish society that, unfortunately, tend to come out at sporting events. Hopefully Turkey’s social malaise—that manifests itself most often in the football stadium—will be dealt with. But the weekend ended with improbable violence at an obscure amputee match in central Anatolia before this week started with more probable—and still unacceptable—crowd violence on the Black Sea coast. It is something to be wary of as local elections in the wake of last June’s protests take place later in March. My friend, the life-long Galatasaray fan, told me “The people of this country are full of hate for each other.” As a Turk I certainly hope the politicians take note in this election season. Otherwise, it will certainly be a rocky road ahead—on and off the field.


NOTE: All translations are my own.


Thanks to Ultras Tifo (http://www.ultras-tifo.net/news/2323-riots-trabzonspor-fenerbahce-10032014.html) for the pictures below, please check the link for more photos from the match.


The violence was real on the pitch:

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And off the pitch: