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Football Fans Vs. The Bureaucratic Modern State: Debate Over Road Signs in Britain Both Geometrical and Sociological

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Author’s Note: As a marginal Sociologist I will support Mathematician Matt Parker from the perspective of my own discipline. In the spirit of C. Wright Mills, it is a Sociologist’s job to point out the difference between “personal troubles” and wider “public/social issues”: One person’s unemployment is a personal trouble; but if that person can transcend their individuality and see that others are unemployed as well the personal trouble becomes a wider social issue, like an economic recession. In this case, what may at first seem like a small personal “trouble” (people upset at a minor detail on highway signage) could actually be part of a wider public/social issue (the inflexibility of the modern bureaucratic state or the dumbing down of modern society in the context of one-dimensional thought). This is why it is important to move away from our own individualism and start thinking outside of ourselves.

Yesterday, on 31 October 2017, the BBC ran a piece focused on the incorrect depiction of footballs on British roadways. The piece notes that “Currently, the image on the sign is made entirely of hexagons but a ball like that would be geometrically impossible to make. Instead, a real football has a mixture of hexagons and pentagons . . .”. Mathematician Matt Parker has started a petition—and gathered 20,000 signatures from football fans supporting him—to get the signs changed. Even though UK law stipulates that the hexagon pattern is the only one that can depict stadiums, Mr. Parker rightly points out that this incorrect depiction of footballs is “embarrassing” due to the UK’s national tradition in sport and “very proud” tradition in math and science.

 

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Does This Really Look Like a Football Without the Iconic Pentagon? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-41813720

 

Of course, the bureaucrats in the British government are not amused, and their argument is that traffic signs are merely a “general representation” of the activity they are supposed to depict. A spokesman for the Department of Transportation (DfT) claimed that since these signs have been in use since 1994, “drivers have become ‘accustomed’” to the design. The spokesman goes onto explain that any new details would not be visible from the distance drivers typically see them from while on the roadway, while adding that “the higher level of attention needed to understand the geometry could distract a driver’s view away from the road for longer than necessary which could therefore increase the risk of an incident.”

Mr. Parker’s response points out the odd contradictions in the DfT’s response:

I’m not sure what the DfT thinks a football looks like but they say both: the change would be too small to be noticed and that the correct geometry would be so distracting to drivers it would increase the risk of accidents. I’m not asking for angles and measurements on the sign, just for it to look more like a football.”

Mr. Parker does well to point out the contradictions inherent in the response, and while the signs should certainly be made to look more like a football there is also a worrying condescension that comes out of the DfT’s response: the bureaucratic state seems to be assuming that its citizens are morons. To say that a new design will not work since drivers have become “accustomed” to the current one suggests that British drivers suffer from a sort of mental atrophy. Has the modern world become so one-dimensional in its thought that the modern mind is no longer flexible enough to comprehend any changes to what it is accustomed to?

It is certainly ironic, since—in other areas of the modern world—it seems that the bureaucratic state is all too willing to force change on its citizens in the name of “progressive” politics: In the United States the name of the first President, George Washington, can be removed from the church he worshiped at while statues of prominent figures from American history can be removed to white-wash the history of slavery in the United States, yet British drivers cannot deal with a “change” to their highway signs? It would seem—to me at least—that this is an insult to the intelligence of British drivers.

Similarly, the argument that “the higher level of attention needed to understand the geometry could distract a driver’s view away from the road for longer than necessary” and thus increase the risk of an “incident” seems to ignore the fact that—in the modern world—we are already distracted by much more than the correct depiction of footballs on a highway sign. I—like anyone who has ever driven on a highway—am quite certain that the millions of people taking selfies in their cars, texting in their cars, stuffing their faces with fast food burgers in their cars, or even doing make up in their cars are much more likely to cause an “incident” on a roadway than someone “distracted” by a geometrically correct depiction of a football on a highway sign. To argue otherwise—as the DfT did—is merely to insult the intelligence of British citizens.

In fact, if modern society were not as dumbed down as it has become, it is likely that this incorrect depiction of a football would be more likely to cause an incident than a correct depiction would be! (Of course, that would hinge on people actually knowing what a football should actually look like…or knowing that “Bluetiful” is not a word, as I have argued before). The football sign row shows that the bureaucratic state in Britain is more willing to insult its national traditions and history—as well as the intelligence of its citizenry—than attempt to rectify an oversight in graphic design. We all make mistakes, and that’s ok—we are human after all (for now at least). But it is pretty embarrassing for the government to give excuses that are—for lack of a better word—just lame.

 

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In Italy, Signs That Actually Look Like Footballs Are Not Causing Massive Pile-Ups On The Autostrada (At Least, Not As Far As I Know). So If They Can Do It In Italy, Why Not In Britain? Image Courtesy Of: https://footballtripper.com/san-siro-stadium-guide-milan/

 

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The Humor of the ZIraat Turkish Cup First Round Offers Some Relief for the Turkish Football Scene

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22 August 2017 was a rough day for Turkish football fans. Istanbul Basaksehirspor—a team I have written about in the past—was a post away from qualifying for the UEFA Champions League in their tie with Sevilla FC. Meanwhile, the chairman of Atiker Konyaspor—Turkish Super Cup champions—Ahmet San was questioned by prosecutors for having ByLock (an app used by the alleged planners of the 15 July 2016 coup) on his phone. After being questioned by prosecutors, his cellular telephone and computer were confiscated while he himself was released. After being released Mr. San resigned from his post at the head of Konyaspor, but it did little to quell the controversy.

 

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Mr. San Has Resigned, But The Controversy Rages On. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.haberturk.com/spor/futbol/haber/1606389-konyaspor-baskani-nin-bylock-sorusturmasinda-ifadesi-alindi

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Former Goalkeeper Omer Catkic Was Arrested For Possessing the Same App as Mr. San. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.diken.com.tr/darbe-girisimi-macka-ilce-jandarma-komutani-tegmene-gozalti/

 

An MP from the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), Metin Kulunk, questioned the decision to release Mr. San and asked the rhetorical question “Is there someone protecting this person [Mr San]?”. Indeed, it is a good question since—on the same day—former goalkeeper Omer Catkic was arrested for having the same “Bylock” app on his phone as Mr. San! Mr. Kulunk went on to say that the state needs to get tougher on FETO’s organization in Turkish football and that “football’s intestines must be cleaned”. (Here FETO refers to the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, a loose group of the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who is blamed for masterminding last summer’s failed coup attempt). Regardless of whether or not Mr. San is guilty, the double standard in use here is unmistakable. Since Konyaspor have reached unprecedented heights—experiencing the most successful period in the club’s history—due to investors with ties to “green capital” (businesses connected to the conservative community), it is clear that the Turkish state does not want to alienate too many of their supporters. It will be interesting the follow the fall out from this latest development but, in the meantime, I will share some new from the lighter side of football.

22 August 2017 was also the first round of the Ziraat Turkish cup, the national cup competition that brings together teams from all corners of Turkey. Since the first round is played by teams from provinces that are not represented in the top four (professional) leagues, this is grassroots football at its best. Turkish television showed five of the matches live, and it was a good way for fans to appreciate Turkey’s geographic diversity. Even if fans couldn’t go in person, they could see the different scenery ranging from the Central Anatolian steppe behind MKE Kirikkalespor’s stadium to the majestic peak of Mount Ararat rising behind Igdirspor’s stadium in Turkey’s easternmost province. The Aegean hinterland was represented by the derby between Kutahyaspor and Tavsanli Linyitspor, while the black sea could be seen behind the stand of Sinopspor’s stadium (even if it was blocked by one gentleman’s head in the broadcast).

Twitter users laughed at the small idiosyncrasies of small town football—like the post which blocked the view of television cameras in Sinop’s stadium, the weight of some of the amateur players, or the policeman who wandered onto the pitch seemingly oblivious to the match being played. As one Twitter user said, “if there is a better sports organization than this one, please tell us”. In response to the poor policeman’s embarrassing gaffe, an editor of an online news aggregator penned the headline “I cannot watch a match in another country!”. While the football may not have been great, these small moments from the first round of the Ziraat Turkish Cup gave Turkish fans something to laugh about and that is something to be celebrated during these troubling times. Football can unite just as it can divide, and in this case the Ziraat Turkish Cup allows fans to appreciate all parts of Turkish life regardless of what region of Turkey they may live in. I share with you some of the best moments from the first round and congratulate all the teams that have moved onto the second round!

 

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Clearly, Sinopspor’s Stadium Is Not Made For Televised Matches. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/search?q=bhdrizgec&src=typd

 

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The Gentleman Is Not Only Blocking the View of the Field, But Also Of the Black Sea! No, There Might Not Be a Better Sports Organization Than This One. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/mossmeister/status/899984776882532353

 

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The Footballers In the Lower Leagues Are…Not the Fittest. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/KocumKosecki/status/899982792439758848

 

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The Snowcapped Summit of Mount Ararat Rises Behind the Stands of Igdirspor’s Stadium in Turkey’s Easternmost Province. Image Courtesy Of the Author (From ASpor Channel).

 

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The Plains of Central Anatolia Behind the Stands of MKE Kirikkalespor’s Stadium. Image Courtesy Of the Author (From ASpor Channel).

 

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It Feels Like Your’e In the Stadium! As Fans Lean Over In the Stands, They Block the Cameras During the Kutahya Derby. Image Courtesy Of the Author (From ASpor Channel).

Anderson Stadium at Providence College: New England Revolution-Rochester Raging Rhinos (3-0)

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Almost a month ago I attended a U.S. Open Cup match at Providence College’s Anderson Stadium between the MLS’ New England Revolution and the second-tier USL’s Rochester Raging Rhinos. Among the almost two thousand spectators cramming a college stadium on an early summer afternoon I could not help but realize that—in some small way—this match served as an allegory for wider U.S. society amidst its current polarization. It was a David Vs. Goliath match, with a much richer MLS side facing off against a second division opponent (realistically, the outcome was never in doubt). Since the result was so predictable, I turned my attention to the fans—the most sociological aspect of a soccer match.

 

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Early Summer In Providence. Images Courtesy Of M.L.

 

The U.S. Open Cup is one of the most storied cup competitions in the world, even if it takes place in a country that does not value football. This year there have even been a few Cinderella stories, like the amateur side Christos FC. Given the history of this cup competition, one that is over one hundred years old, the fans had come out in full force for one of the few matches that the New England Revolution have ever played in Providence, Rhode Island.

The “hardcore” fans, on the other side of the field from where I stood, were vocal in their support while also advertising their increased politicization (a subject I have written about in the past). Some fans were waving a rainbow variation of the “Flag of New England”, an interesting meshing of Revolutionary War America and current LGBT movements, while on my side a priest (likely from the Catholic Providence College) was taking in the match. In that moment, I wondered if the LGBT activist/fans on the other side of the field—and the Catholic priest on my side—had ever had a conversation with one another. The likely answer is that they have not, and that the two should watch the match from opposite sidelines was an allegory for some of the issues we see these days in the polarized climate of the United States. If people holding opposing points of view do not even speak with one another, then how can they empathize with one another?

 

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Soccer Brings All Walks Of Life Together. Images Courtesy Of M.L.

 

This lack of communication, of course, is not specific to the United States; it exists throughout the global “West”. We believe in the myth of globalization bringing us closer together by cutting down the cost and time of communication; in reality society is just as fragmented as ever—people at a dinner table prefer interacting with their phones to interacting with their fellow diners. In Europe—and to an extent in the United States—the idea is that “pluralism” will bring a more diverse society and thus bring us closer together. This myth has been debunked by the ghettoization of non-whites in the United States and Muslims in Europe; just because “different” people are made to live in separate areas does not make a society more “diverse”, it just means that the disparate parts of society are not actually talking to one another; they are in fact drifting apart, rather than coming together.

This kind of situation—where communication between different social groups is discouraged—fosters a society where individuals are not able to make the connection between personal troubles and societal issues that C. Wright Mills once explained. The only way to make such sociological connections is through communication, something that is sorely lacking in the technocratic world of the modern-day West. As I watched the sunset over Providence behind one of the goals I thought about something my dentist had told me, when I said I was studying Turkish soccer: she asked me if “I was afraid to go there because it is dangerous”…clearly, she had not communicated with anyone from outside of her bubble. It is not, of course, completely her fault. But it is a characteristic of the individualistic society that has taken root in Western cultures.

 

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Sunset Over Providence. Image Courtesy Of M.L.

 

In order to actually get to know others, we must—as I have argued before—first travel. Former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel makes some great points along these lines in an article he wrote for The Players’ Tribune, when he describes playing for Galatasaray in Istanbul (I have bolded the pertinent parts):

 

For one thing, on the pitch it was just an incredible game. It was quick and intense and it pushed me as a keeper. We won the Turkish Cup that year and qualified for Champions League. Off the field, it was absolutely phenomenal. For a kid from Bay Village, Ohio, to go and live in a Muslim country was an eye-opening experience.

 Which brings me to the sheep.

 We were walking to a game right after Ramadan was over, and the fans were holding a sheep. On a list of things you don’t expect to see on the soccer grounds, I’m pretty sure a live sheep would be somewhere near the top, but there it was. I had no idea what was about to happen, while the rest of my teammates couldn’t have been less fazed. There was a lot of yelling and then the fans just slit the sheep’s throat — right there in front of us. Blood everywhere. They dipped their hands in it, and swiped it on their forehead as a sign of good luck. Then they asked us to do the same.

 This wasn’t something that most Americans would consider normal, but it was absolutely brilliant to be a part of. I had teammates who, during Ramadan, had to fast during daylight hours even as professional athletes. We’d be at training and a call to prayer would go off and certain players who were very religious would stop their training, go pray and come back to the pitch. Once you learn that that’s how things work, it’s not a big deal, but in the U.S. you can go through your whole life in a little bubble. But when you live in these places, you find out that these people are very good human beings. It was incredible. It was understanding other cultures. It was a phenomenal thing to see.

 

Friedel goes on to explain, “I had two choices: Learn Turkish or don’t understand a word that anybody was saying. So three days a week, I took Turkish lessons”. Mr. Friedel should be commended for his willingness to communicate with—and assimilate into—a culture that was so different than his own. It is a lesson that all of us—whether football fans or not—would do well to heed. There are a lot of perspectives out there, the only way we can begin to understand them is by communicating with those who we might—at first—not think we have anything in common with.

 

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Brad Friedel Appearing for the United States National Team. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/2016-6-26-brad-friedel-soccer-copa-america/

 

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Brad Friedel (R) In Turkey (Please Note the Classic Adidas Shirt Designs). Image Courtesy Of: https://onedio.com/haber/galatasaraylilarin-duygulanarak-bakacagi-nostalji-goruntuler-512738

The Pawtucket Red Sox: Baseball, The United States, and Globalization in 2017 at McCoy Stadium

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A few days ago I went to a baseball game with my little brother in the Pawtucket Rhode Island, a city that could be characterized as epitomizing the pitfalls of globalization and representing post-industrial revolution America. Author Dan Barry’s interesting account of the Pawtucket Red Sox baseball team, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game, shows what baseball means to this depressed post-industrial town. It also shows what sport can mean to a struggling community. Although I had read the book years ago, it echoed in my mind as I sat in the seats of aging McCoy stadium with my brother, taking in a typically American sporting event in the early days of summer.

Schools were passing the time before the end of the school year by giving the kids a de facto day off by taking a field trip to the ball park; the voices of children melded together and created such a buzzing sound that my brother and I referred to them as “bees”. Later I learned that it was “kids and seniors day”, an odd combination but it made sense when my brother (himself only fifteen) pointed out that “people walk slow when they are young,” pointing to a small child negotiating the stadium steps with his father, “and they also walk slow when they are old,” no doubt referring to our father. Indeed, it is the circular nature of life that my brother—perhaps unwittingly—uncovered on this afternoon.

The afternoon consisted of a double header, two seven inning games. The first game is spent behind home plate, “the best seats in the house” as my brother said. I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of (empty) seats around us were those reserved for corporations. It was normal for them to be empty for a game with an 11 am start time, after all the owners of said seats were busy at work making the money to afford those seats. It was also an example of industrial sports at their finest, the best views go to those with the most money. The rich get richer (financially and culturally) while the rest…well, you know how the story goes.

 

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Behind the Plate, Welcome To Pawtucket. Image Courtesy of the Author.

 

The first game ends with a victory for the home team as my brother and I head over to Papa Gino’s for a pizza, waiting out the twenty-minute break between games. As we wait we watch a a controversy over payment: did the woman in question pay or did she not? It is a meaningless discussion since life will go on, it is—after all—an overpriced cheese pizza that is in question. Perhaps those working could have kept track of things, but that is beyond my purview. Maybe they’ll just build some more security cameras in the future in order to ensure payment (and ensure our surveillance as well in the process).

As the second game starts we are sitting on the grassy berm in the outfield, behind the left field wall. The stadium is now empty, as both the school children and the elderly have left. This, I think to myself, is the essence of both baseball and America: the ball hitting leather, the crack of the bat, and the sun on your face. It brings you back to a simpler time…it is a time, judging by the empty stadium, that no one wants to remember. Perhaps a double header is too much; people have more important things to attend to…people must get on with their days and engage in the other American national pastime: shopping.

 

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An Empty Stadium But An Amazing Day. Image Courtesy of the Author.

 

The mascots come out to amuse the few fans that are left by throwing cheap plastic balls into the stands. My brother and I each catch an oversized plastic ball, sponsored by Wendy’s, and toss it around for a few minutes. I watch a young boy and girl, probably eight or nine years old, play with the same plastic ball which they had caught. It was shades of Jack and Diane, harkening back to a time when a plastic ball could amuse as much as an iphone. It reminded me of my own obsession with plastic footballs in Turkey as a kid, as Bryce Brentz heads to the plate to the tune of country music completing the theme of Americana.

The crack of the bat turns my attention back to the game It’s a line drive foul and the visiting team’s left fielder tosses the ball into the bullpen, and the bullpen pitcher tosses it up to us. My brother fields the ball and tosses it over to me, completing a different type of life cycle. I examine the Rawlings ball—the writing half smeared by the spot where the bat made contact. “Official International League Ball”. I feel the seams and turn it around in my hand. “Made in China”. I look at the plastic Wendy’s ball . . . “Made in China”.  I yell over to my brother: “Hey-the official game ball—and the fake ball—are both made in China. This is absurd!”

 

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Made In China. Images Courtesy of the Author.

 

At that the young kid—of Jack and Diane fame—asks to no one in particular (even though Diane is standing next to him) “Why is everything made in China?”. When even a nine-year old can ask the questions politicians can’t ask, you know we live in an absurd world. At least—in this classic American scene on an early summer’s day in the post-industrial Northeast—the home team won both games of the double header.

Industrial Football May Have Soured Turkish Fans On the Eve of Eskisehirspor’s Unveiling of New Stadium

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Ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, Turkish media published a story on 28 October 2016 about a man going out of his way to make home feel like “home” for his team. Ali Erginer, a fan of Turkish Second Division side Eskisehirspor, answered a social media call to help prepare his side’s new stadium before opening day on Sunday 30 October. Mr. Erginer said he responded to a call on social media for fans of the team to assist the municipality’s workers, who were understaffed, with preparing the stadium for its first match. Mr. Erginer said that he expected 100-200 people to help with the preparations—or at least 50—but ended up being the only fan to answer the social media call.

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Mr. Erginer Cuts a Lonely Figure. Images Courtesy Of: http://spor.mynet.com/futbol/ptt-1-lig/102480-eskisehir-stadi-icin-cagrilara-sadece-o-yanit-verdi.html

In the age of social media—where even a simple cat video can go viral in minutes—it is surprising that only Mr. Erginer should come out to prepare his team’s new stadium; indeed if this were a story about anything else I would have been suspicious as to its veracity. Given the political nature of stadium construction in Turkey, however, I can see why Mr. Erginer might have been the only one willing to volunteer his time. As Christopher Gaffney writes in his eminently readable study of stadia Temples of the Earthbound Gods, “at the local level, stadiums are monuments, places for community interaction, repositories of collective memory, loci of strong identities, sites for ritualized conflict, political battlefields, and nodes in global systems of sport” (Gaffney 2008, 4). Given the importance of the stadium to local community and culture, it is not surprising that a fan would want to help prepare one for its opening; what is surprising, however, is that a single fan should want to help. And this is where we visit another of Gaffney’s observations, that “stadiums are sites and symbols of power, identity, and meaning that allow us to enter and interpret the cultural landscape through a common medium” (Ibid., 24).

Eskisehir’s old stadium, built in 1965, was the Ataturk Stadium named after Turkey’s founding father. The new stadium may not be named after the nation’s founding father, since those in power realize that—in Gaffney’s words—the stadium is “a symbol of power [and] identity”. An opposition MP wanted the new stadium to be called the “Yeni Ataturk Stadyumu” (New Ataturk Stadium) but, as of this weekend, media stories are calling it just the “Yeni Eskisehir Stadyumu” (New Eskisehir Stadium). Regardless of what happens with the name, even by attempting to take the name away—and certainly in taking the stadium away—from the fans a new identity can be fostered for subsequent generations; this does not mean that this new identity will be accepted by all fans, and that fact that Mr. Erginer was the only one to show up to prepare the stadium for its grand opening is telling.

eskisehir-ataturk-stadi-16-10.jpgOut With the Old. Image Courtesy Of: http://amkspor.sozcu.com.tr/2016/10/16/eskisehirde-bir-tarih-kapandi-539577/

Even if the fans have a grievance with the renaming of the stadium, they—as true fans who have an attachment to the stadium if only because of its role as “repository of collective memory”—should be expected to support the new stadium, right? Perhaps—but that would depend in part, of course, on the motives of the capitalist entrepreneur(s) at the helm who pushed for the construction of the new stadium itself. Indeed after the last match was played in the old stadium fans got together and a banner was put up in the (empty) stadium reading “Separation Shouldn’t Be Like This”.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.haberler.com/eskisehirspor-yarim-asirlik-evine-galibiyetle-veda-8864924-haberi/

The team’s (old) stadium has been closed for the first four weeks of the season following events that took place on the final day of last season, when Eskisehir fans burned down part of the Ataturk Stadium. For a few stories on this one can visit Sports Illustrated‘s  heavily biased piece that cites—of all things—Russia Today. The media in the United States only saw the fan violence on a surface level, a visceral paroxysm of rage because the team had been relegated. Knowing the passions in Turkish football, I have no doubt that emotions played a part in the inferno. But I think there were deeper concerns that the likes of Sports Illustrated could never hope to understand.

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The Final Match Attended by Fans at the Old Eskisehir Ataturk Stadium. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.rt.com/sport/343071-turkey-football-stadium-fire/

It is also possible that the fans were angry that their home was being taken from them, and that pushed them to violence. Judging by the fact that Mr. Erginer was the only one to answer the social media call suggests that some fans are not happy with the erasure of the past resulting from the construction of a new stadium. Industrial football—like the capitalism that finances it—has a way of erasing (and even re-writing) history to suit current needs. The closure of the Eskisehir Ataturk stadium—and its replacement with a modern, state-of-the-art facility—is just the latest chapter in a trend that is unfolding throughout Turkish (and indeed world) football.

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The New Digs. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.fanatik.com.tr/2016/10/28/eskisehirspor-bandirmaspor-maci-ankara-da-oynanacak-1259526

Author’s Note: The opening of the stadium was ultimately delayed, with this weekend’s match taking place in Ankara’s Osmanli Stadium.

I’m Experiencing the Dystopia of an American Airport While American Olympic Athletes Distort Reality in Rio: What it Says About Wider U.S. Society’s Interactions With the World

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A few weeks ago I was returning from Turkey to the United States via Germany. I didn’t mind the eight-hour layover since it meant that I could drop into one of my favorite cities in the world, Munich, and have a relaxing summer stroll around the city. When I got to the border of the European Union I handed my passport and boarding pass to the police officer on duty. He took a look at the boarding pass and reminded me that I had a connecting flight in eight hours. I assured him that I was well aware of that, and that I was only going to take the train into the city for a few hours. He looked at the pages of my passport and just shrugged (probably thinking “this guy won’t miss his flight”); then he stamped me in and handed back the passport and boarding pass with a smile. And that was that. No elaborate questioning, just two people interacting.

I got a day ticket for 13.75 Euros and took the S1, getting off at Moosach. Since I am interested in seeing the famed Munich Olympiastadion, built for the 1972 Summer games, I head in the direction of the Olympic Park. The wide tree lined streets which feel like a mix between central and eastern Europe are peaceful and I take in my surroundings, my last tastes of Europe before returning to the United States. It is one of those times where the traveler thinks “what would my life have been like if I grew up here?”

The Olympic park is off the main street and when I finally enter it feels like a secret garden. The rolling hills and small pond make for an idyllic setting, one of those that could only be on the “old continent”. I hike up the tallest of the park’s hills and, at the top, am rewarded with a stunning view of urban Munich on the one side and natural Munich on the other. The day is calm and peaceful, August in Germany, and I feel as if my senses have been heightened by virtue of these few moments in this small pastoral greenery in the middle of Bavaria. I decide to grab an 11am beer at a beer garden—one of those things that would be impossible to do across the Atlantic—and think about my route to the center; after all no trip will be complete without a few jerseys.

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Beautiful Park, and the Beautiful Munich Olympiastadion. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Among the tourist hordes in central Munich I find a couple shirts from last season on deep discount—a Puma Borussia Dortmund shirt and Kappa Wolfsburg shirt. For lunch I head to one of the Turkish kebab places in the red light district by the Hauptbanhof; to my surprise the man behind the counter speaks Turkish to everyone in line except me (I am spoken to in German—guess I’m not Turkish looking enough). I eat my doner and watch a group of Turkish construction workers come in for their lunch, like the Mexican construction workers at the Mexican restaurants I would frequent in Texas. I can’t help but think how strange it is that societies get stratified like this, cheap labor from abroad creates a social hierarchy based on ethnicity—the economic system comes to define the ethnic group and create a new social reality where none existed before. Knowing its nothing I will change, I go back to my doner—the must-try snack of Germany that has overtaken the traditional German snack of bratwurst as the nation’s most popular fast food. Of course, the popularity of the street food itself shows how the imagined ethnic hierarchy can take on a mind of its own.

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The Shirts Spread Out on the Counter at a Munich Airport Bar. Because…I wanted to. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Back at the airport I myself get stratified into another kind of imagined hierarchy, this one based not on ethnic background but on nationality. I take the long trek to gates H43 through H48 at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport. It feels like a Japanese death march, the long grey nondescript corridor leading to the special zone of the terminal where flights to the United States depart from. At the ID check kiosk I ask the man if there is anything beyond me—I do it every year, just hoping—praying—that it will change. But it never does. “Just a vending machine. And toilets. There is no restaurant or bar”. Since the disappointment on my face is noticeable, the gentleman levels with me: “I’ll give you the stamp—you have a while until boarding, it won’t board on time. Go back to one of the bars and when you come back just show your stamp and walk to the gate”. I thank him for being a human being and head to the convenience store for a Lowenbrau to pass the time. Its 3.25 Euros, and the lady accepts the 3.20 Euros I give her.

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Its a Lonely Walk to the End of the Line. Image Courtesy of the Author.

When I enter the boarding area at Gate H45 it feels like I have entered another world. Indeed, there is nothing to eat save for what one can scrounge from the vending machine with their left over Euros. My fellow Americans count their (Euro) pennies to perhaps purchase a small bag of potato chips as sustenance before boarding. There are not enough seats to accommodate all the passengers bound for a transatlantic flight so everyone stands around like refugees awaiting their departure to a new future. In the bathroom, the paper towel dispenser is broken and it is clear that the single rest room cannot possible satisfy the demand of four gates worth of passengers. I marvel at the chaos all around me that marks my trip to the United States, sequestered in a small corner of one of the world’s most modern airports. When I ask why we are sequestered as such, a Lufthansa employee tells me that it is for “security”. I can only nod, finding myself wishing I was back in the Olympic park taking in the fresh air of Munich instead.

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The Toilets Have Seen Better Days While We Stand Like Refugees. Images Courtesy of the Author.

After an eight-hour flight full of romantic comedies I find myself waiting in line for one hour at the Boston Logan International Airport. U.S. citizens are left in a hallway, being let inside to the main “processing area” in fifteen person groups. I marvel at the tight security—certainly the tightest I have seen on my journeys over the past summer. “These guys are crazy” mutters the gentleman in front of me, an Italian-American, and we begin talking. I find it amusing that entering countries in Europe rarely necessitates as much song and dance as entering the United States—my own country of residence and birthdoes. The man uses the word “dystopia” to describe the proceedings and I have to admit that its an apt description.

As the “cowboys” of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol “herd” me into the “processing area” where I wait to use one of the automated self processing passport scanners, I wonder how efficient this system is. While the process to enter the United States at airports is one of the most draconian I have ever experienced on my travels, the Mexican border is still porous and many Americans are up in arms when talk is made about increasing security on a border that has become so world famous that even people from as far as Africa are flocking to it. The man in front of me is as frustrated as I am when he mumbles “I don’t think they even catch anyone”. I have to agree—the police state mentality only exists in the world of airports, a realm that is dis-engaged from life on the ground outside. It’s a sort of nether region between the Orwelllian world and the real world. But it is also this emphasis on “security” that allows the United States to portray itself as an oasis of stability in a world rapidly becoming characterized by seemingly random outbursts of violence; it is a city on a hill while chaos swirls below. And that is where I now move into discussing this in the context of the sports world.


On 14 August 2016 four members of the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team accused Brazilian police of robbing them at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro when they were returning from a party. American Olympians Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen claimed that their taxi was stopped by people posing as police officers and that money and personal belongings were demanded from them. The state media organ of the United States, the New York Times, was quick to frame the story as one reflective of security concerns in the Brazilian city when they wrote that the robbery heightened “anxiety over violent crime in the host city of the Summer Games” in the article’s opening paragraph. It is not surprising that the New York Times was quick to denounce Brazil and play up its instability, but they may be regretting their decision now.

Four days later, on 18 August 2016, it emerged that the swimmers had actually fabricated the whole story. In fact, if it was just a mere fabrication it might not have been so bad; instead it was an outright lie trying to cover up the fact that the swimmers themselves had been the ones in the wrong. They allegedly urinated on the wall of a Shell gas station, then vandalized the bathroom in a drunken rage and refused to pay for the damages. Mr. Lochte himself then claimed that he mistook the gas station’s security guard for local police—something I might have believed had I been born yesterday.

Police in Rio didn’t believe it either and charged Mr. Lochte with filing a false robbery report, and the swimmer was forced to admit that he “over-exaggerated” parts of the story which, I imagine, is the politically correct way of saying “I lied through my teeth”. On 19 August 2016 Mr. Lochte wrote on his Instagram (the post-modern form of apologizing, in which the most crucial part—looking the one you offended in the eye while asking forgiveness—is impossible): “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.” For some reason, his defense hinges on his being in “a foreign country with a language barrier”; in Mr. Lochte’s mind this simple fact exonerates him for vandalizing someone else’s property. In all honesty it is an embarrassing defense, but one that cannot be separated from the situation perpetuated, in part, by the United States itself.

Take this small excerpt from ABC News’ 30 August 2016 story as an example:

“I think it’s everyone blowing this way out of proportion. I think that’s what happened,” Lochte, 32, said today on “Good Morning America” when asked whether he embarrassed the United States with his actions in Rio de Janeiro.

“Like I said, I did lie about that one part,” Lochte said of his claim that a gun was held to his head at a Rio gas station. “I take full responsibility. I’m human. I made a mistake. A very big mistake.”

Here Mr. Lochte is still downplaying his actions when he says it was “blown out of proportion”, and when he does admit lying it is only about “that one part”, the gravity of the situation—that there is a larger lie that is insulting to another country—is missed. Even when admitting responsibility, it is only on an individual level. “I take full responsibility”. ”I’m human”. “I made a mistake”. Of course, this focus on the individual can be traced back to the American ideals of individualism and “freedom”. But don’t think that Brazilians aren’t, rightly I may add, a bit perturbed. In a 18 August 2016 New York Times story Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, tells the truth in no uncertain terms: “[The episode] has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it”. Although Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, said that “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil . . . This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality,” I do not believe it. I’m not convinced that it could happen with individuals of any other nationality.

And this is where I return to the immigration line at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit many interesting international (and domestic) destinations around the globe, something that I owe my parents a huge thank you for encouraging no matter the destination. Therefore, I have been able to see that all is not what it may seem. Of course the United States is a safe, stable, country. Of course in the United States things run fairly smoothly and with (comparably) minor disruptions when compared to some other places in the world. But—and this is important—that does not mean the United States is without its flaws, and it does not mean that other countries do not have their positive sides as well. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can commit a crime in a foreign country—like vandalism—and expect not to be held accountable for it. Like the golden rule in life, doing unto others as you would want done unto you, there is the golden rule of travel: Do not do in foreign country what you would not do in your own country and expect to not face the consequences.

Too often in the United States we hear about “how bad it is over there”. “There” can be anywhere. It can be Mexico when we hear about the drug cartels. It can be the UK when we hear about the Brexit. It can be Africa when we hear about Ebola. It can be Greece when we hear about the financial crisis. It was Turkey when my neighbor, having heard the news about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told me “I heard its really bad there”. Unfortunately, the judging that is implicit in such comments comes without any real knowledge of the situation. Just like the reporting done by the state media organ The New York Times, which rushed to emphasize security concerns in Brazil following the first reports of the swimmers’ “robbery” so as to frame the swimmers as innocent victims, U.S. newspapers are often all-too-quick to frame events taking place in foreign countries. (Note the use of the term “state media”—you might hear it mentioned in many publications in the United States, but never in reference to domestic media. This is an example of that framing). And, given that just 35% percent (a generous figure) of Americans have passports, many Americans are unable to visit places to see the truth for themselves. Although the number of passports in circulation is increasing, I tend to believe this is more due to the increased global interconnectedness of the world that necessitates a passport—if only for one trip—that then stays in circulation albeit unused. I even have friends who have passports but have never used them.

It is this combination—the desire to portray the United States as somehow above the fray of the world and the population’s relative ignorance of international affairs—that creates a dystopian reality at airports. It is also one that, unfortunately, sometimes results in people acting out and confirming the image of the “ugly American” abroad that is already present in people’s minds. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the whole incident is that Mr. Lochte really didn’t face any repercussions for his actions. Instead, he was handed a role on the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. Only in America can you embarrass yourself, your team-mates, and your country and…be given a role on TV in the end. Life—and the American Dream—go on.

Farewell to Boleyn Ground/Upton Park: Community and Modern Football

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I will preface this with an admission: I am not a “fan” of any team in the English Premier League, although I do have sympathies for certain teams. Among those teams is West Ham United, a team I saw play two falls ago on Green Street. As someone who appreciates fan culture, I enjoy the ritual of “bubbles” at Boleyn Ground/Upton Park. After the final match at the ground, with West Ham pulling out a 3-2 victory over Manchester United, I am left thinking “what next?”.

The pageantry of the celebration was amazing and did justice to the end of an era. But I cant help but realize that this end of an era is yet another manifestation of the modern football that many fans are speaking out against.

Slaven Bilic, the Croatian coach of West Ham United for whom I have great respect after his year in Istanbul with Turkish side Besiktas, made his own views clear on the move to the Olympic Stadium. He noted that “The Upton Park stadium was a first home. No matter where you move after that – if you move to a fancy apartment, a big house or to a mansion – your favourite one is always the first. You are losing something because it is impossible to make the Olympic Stadium a fortress”. His analogy is apt—even if the new surroundings will be posher, they cannot replace the memories (and atmosphere) of “home”. His assertion (referring to Arsenal’s ground change) that Highbury felt dangerous, while Emirates is for selfies, is also spot-on—new grounds have become tourist destinations.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Dave Kidd of the Daily Mirror seems glad to be rid of Boleyn Ground/Upton Park, where the author first “witnessed serious violence, hardcore racism, drug-taking, frightening levels of crushing and the warm feeling of having your leg urinated upon by a man who was never going to travel across a sea of humanity to the toilets at the sides of the North Bank.” While it is hyperbolic, I’m sure that all of the incidents mentioned have, indeed, happened inside the ground. But…then again…in what old ground have such things not happened? I still remember my first baseball game at the Boston Red Sox’s iconic Fenway Park; a drunk man vomited at my mother’s feet and the language was not something I should have heard at that age. That was, needless to say, the last Red Sox game for my mother. But that was the 1990s; since then rising ticket prices have been the preferred way to keep undesirable elements out of the stadium—without destroying it and building a new ground. While the pre-match violence was unfortunate, it is hard to believe that the move to a new stadium will stamp out this kind of behavior either. To blame the ground on the activities of patrons seems wrong to me, and I cannot agree fully with Mr. Kidd’s claims that the Boleyn Ground/Upton Park “should not be mourned” and that it is “not worth idealizing”. It is fan mentality—not a stadium—that incites violence.

It is not just for the fans that I lament. The effect of the ground’s closure is felt even harder by the small businesses that make a living on the game-day experience of football fans, the establishments that make game-days around the world. The BBC did a great piece on the future of Upton Park (the neighborhood), detailing the local issues. The owner of one pub estimated that he would lose two thirds of his income—almost 500,000 Pounds—while a restaurant owner claimed that a quarter of his earnings come from West Ham fans. The Mayor of Newham is more optimistic, noting that the families moving into the 800 new flats being built in place of the stadium will contribute to the local economy and that “only a few businesses” set up to cater to fans will suffer. While this may be true, it is certainly the end of an era. As the BBC notes, fans will no longer crowd the Upton Park tube station (as even I have).

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36170590#orb-footer

As stadiums move—often in the name of money—from their traditional locations within the community to outside of the community, a piece of the game is lost. As this happens, it is important to remember that it is not just the fans that are affected. There are many others—from small-business owners to part time programme sellers—that feel this change not just emotionally, but financially as well. The old style football supporter—who was tied to the team because, perhaps, they could take in a match from their flat—is on the way out as well. For me, the disassociation of sport from place is what really hurts; sport adds meaning to geography. Unfortunately, in the world of modern/industrial football, it seems like money is the only thing that matters.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3583769/UPTON-PARK-PICTURE-SPECIAL-West-Ham-bid-farewell-Boleyn-Ground-style-Winston-Reid-scores-winner-dent-Manchester-United-s-Champions-League-hopes-emotional-night.html

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