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Sports and Society: Religious and Ethnic Identities Come to the Fore in Turkish Stadiums

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In the past couple of weeks Turkish stadiums have become the venue of choice for the airing of political views. The tensions of the final weeks of the football season have only served to heighten tensions already existing in both sport and society. What is most interesting, however, that in the past weeks two groups within Turkish society—seemingly at odds with one another—have both been targeted in stadiums: Kurds and secular Turks. In the context of the stadium it is possible to see that these groups may have more in common than outside observers may initially believe.

On 17 April 2016, Altay, from Western Turkey’s liberal port city of Izmir that sees itself as representing the progressive idealism of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, faced Erzurum Büyükşehir Belediyespor in eastern Turkey in a third tier soccer match. After the first half, which ended 1-1, the Altay team claims that their players were attacked on the way to the locker rooms; allegedly one man brandished a knife. Before the match, fans in Erzurum chanted “Gavur Izmir”, or “Infidel Izmir” the (not-so-flattering) nickname of Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, the old Smyrna. One Altay administrator claimed they feared for their lives. A local newspaper from Erzurum responded to these claims, noting all of the heroic acts that Erzurumians have done over the course of Turkish history including taking Greek soldiers hostage after the Greek invasion of Izmir. The local paper, Yeni Akit, also claims that the Izmir team’s fans called those in Erzurum “terrorists” and demanded an apology from Turkish football pundits who disparaged the city for the “infidel” chants. We may never know what truly happened in the stadium but it points to an important ideological division within Turkey that is not insignificant, one that I will return to in a moment.

One week later, on 24 April, 2016, MKE Ankaragücü faced the Kurdish side Amedspor in the Turkish capital in another third tier soccer match. After Amedspor scored to go up 2-1 in the 85th minute, some of the Kurdish team’s executives celebrated, prompting a vicious attack by Ankaragücü’s executives that was caught on video. In the end injuries ranged from broken noses to concussions and several people–including the chairman of the Ankara team—were taken in for questioning by police. The Ankaragücü team, in their second response to the violence, note that when their team played in Diyarbakir their fans were stoned and had to witness the whistling down of the Turkish national anthem; they further note that the Amedspor executives broke an unspoken rule. Celebrating like a fan in the executive seats is unacceptable.

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Image Courtesy of: http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/amedspor-yoneticilerine-saldiri-kamerada

While we will never know the full details of either of these incidents because we can only hear versions of the events from either side, it shows that the divisions within society are being replicated—and amplified—in the stadium.

On Tuesday, 26 April 2016, the issue of religion again came to the fore as Turkey’s Speaker of Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, said Turkey needed a religious constitution. This provoked small scale protests from many who fear the country’s long-standing secularism is under threat. The response, once again, came from the stands. On 30 April, 2016, Besiktas fans in the brand new Vodafone Arena chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” during their match with Kayserispor, while fans of Fenerbahçe echoed the same sentiments during their match that weekend.

As one local commentator noted, this kind of tension—often culminating in violence—has been present in Turkish football for the past thirty-five years. Just in the last month there have been incidents at major matches in Karabük and Trabzon, where a fan assaulted the referee. Smaller matches have also been affected; Police had to fire warning shots to disperse fans at an amateur match.

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In Karabuk. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.ntv.com.tr/galeri/spor/karabukte-saha-karisti,_E7O2BsgHk-PTv6L-r6EQg/w9WVT_8XlUKmpWg6YKDHkA?_sgm_campaign=scn_b80478c001c4e000&_sgm_source=d8ce4efc-201b-4f1e-8f4e-fe8bfabe8442&_sgm_action=click

What is different in the present, however, is that there is also violence—as we saw in Erzurum and Ankara—that is not just wanton aggression precipitated by fan anger at referees or at one another. Instead, we see violence with political undertones, based instead on religious and ethnic identities. More importantly, we see that two of the groups that have become victims of this violence—those perceived to be secular and those who are Kurdish—have for many years been on opposite sides of the Turkish political world; the divide between western and eastern Turkey manifested itself with secular Turks from “modern” western Turkey disdaining Kurds from “backward” eastern Turkey. The current marginalization of both groups within Turkish society, however, also offers a unique opportunity for them to come together in ways that were not possible in the past.

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Izmir Derby Part III: Karşıyaka SK Izmir-Altay Izmir

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It surprising how Izmir—arguably Turkey’s most Western city—can sometimes look like the provincial backwaters of central Anatolia or south-east Turkey. Maybe it was the darkness that had just settled—that purgatorial hour where the streets are still crowded; not due to economic activity, but rather from the people (men) leaving their jobs to go back home to their loved ones (wives), families, or television screens. Or maybe it was the strange curve of the road, dodging a Fiat Doblo coming at me a little too fast while trying to look away from the blinding lights of the BIM grocery store to my right. I was taken back in time five years, to a night bathed in a similar shade of darkness where I negotiated a similar curve in a similar setting—albeit as a pedestrian—in the center of Şırnak, Turkey, just off the border of an Iraq then simmering on the brink of all-out civil war. There the street urchins had stuck to me like glue, fitting since I certainly stuck out as a “foreigner” on those dark forgotten frontier streets. Here in Buca district of Izmir province and off the coast of Greece I was at least sheltered by the four doors of my green Ford Mondeo, negotiating the dark alleys while glancing at my phone in search of the Buca Arena.

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The 13,000 capacity Buca Arena was built in this frontier district of Izmir’s city limits in 2009 when the old Buca Stadium proved itself to be obsolete. Indeed, the Buca Arena is only the second stadium in a city with a population of over four million to have stands on four sides of the field (the other is the Ataturk Stadium, for those who are curious). Tonight I was going to see the Izmir derby between Karşıyaka SK and Altay Izmir SK in the second round of the Ziraat Turkish Cup. I was lost in the maze of Buca’s forlorn back streets because of the closure of the Alsancak Stadium, which I wrote about a few days ago. Otherwise, this match would have certainly taken place there. Alas, it wasn’t to be. But I was still determined to take in my third Izmir derby, and the maze of pitch-black streets would not deter me.

 

Indeed I followed the bright glow of the stadium’s floodlights to a vacant lot dotted with stones that bordered on boulder size where I parked my car. Following the directions of a well-meaning police officer I headed up hill from the lot to get a 20 Turkish Lira ticket for the closed stand and walked back down hill to the entrance by the lot. I had paid ten Liras extra to walk ten extra minutes; the entrance immediately by the ticket booth was for the 10 Lira seats. The irony didn’t escape me but the pat-down at the entrance (it was cursory at best) proved my decision to pay a little extra to be sound since the cops never suspect the fans who pay more money to create trouble at games. Indeed they were right, there was no trouble during the match, even though the riot police seemed to walk around the perimeter of the field at random intervals, dragging their helmets and shields behind them. My optimistic side preferred to think that they were just getting some exercise.

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I watch the first half in a veritable daze, just taking in the feeling of watching a match on a fall evening where the temperatures tell you that summer is giving its last breaths, unable to hold up against the inevitable onset of winter. The gusts from the west tell me that soon my flip-flops and shorts will have to be retired. On the field Karşıyaka wear their traditional red and green kit, while Altay wear a special design that has made headlines in Turkey. It is a turquoise kit with an Izmir themed design that strays from their traditional black and white, the colors their fan section is bathed in. In place of a sponsor it has the silhouette of Izmir’s symbols, the clock tower in Konak Square and the statue of Ataturk on horseback that stands in Izmir’s Republic square, with seagulls flying above them. In short, it’s a shirt that eschews a sponsor in order to tell the story of a city—a shirt I hope to add to my collection soon.

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(Image Courtesy of: http://galeri.haberturk.com/spor/galeri/442610-altayin-yeni-formasi-begenildi)

Meanwhile n the field twenty-two men chase the ball beneath an advertisement for the Bucaspor Football Academy:

 

“Bucaspor Gençliği, Milli Takımların Geleceği . . . İyi Birey, İyi Vatandaş, İyi Futbolcu . .” 

“Bucaspor’s Youth, The National Team’s Future . . . A Good Individual, A Good Citizen, A Good Footballer . .”

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I find the message a satisfying one. After all, football is not the end all and be all of life. What matters is being a good person and a good citizen, wherever you live. Beneath the advertisement stand the core of Karşıyaka supporters, behind them their classic banner reads “The Red of Turkishness, the Green of Islam”. At least I know where I am I reason as the first half ends with the score knotted at 0-0. Karşıyaka have had many chances but just haven’t managed to capitalize against their city rivals that sit one division below them in the Turkish football pyramid.

 

At half time I decide to sample the food that is on offer—its always good to sample match-day cuisine in various places. I think back to the sausage stuffed pastry in Tallinn, the popcorn in Kiev, and the Souvlaki in Thessaloniki as I grab myself a sandwich stuffed with shredded sosis and cheese. If I attended a match a day I wouldn’t live past forty eating the stadium fare, but I reason that a few times a year won’t hurt as I dig in. After all, the sosis and cheese sandwich is a common form of fast food in Izmir—and nothing less would do at the Izmir derby.

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As I sit on the dirty plastic seats Turkish pop blares from the loudspeakers, giving us some half time entertainment. Eating this grease bomb of a sandwich with Hande Yener’s Alt Dudak (you know you want to listen) blaring in the background and looking at the young couples decked out in red and green that sip tea two rows in front of me I can’t help but wonder what life would have been had I grown up only in Turkey. Before my mind sends me on a tailspin of “what-ifs” I reason that being half and half is a blessing too, and I just sway along to the music in a bid to stay warm in the winds that are blowing in, colder and colder.

 

I’m still thinking of where I’ve been and where I’ll go when the second half starts—for some reason the Izmir derby has become a reflective one for me. There are no skirmishes between rival fans, just a celebration of a city and its football clubs. Both teams are still playing an even game before the hour mark, when the Karşıyaka goalkeeper gets sent off with a straight red card for an intentional hand ball outside the box. Down to ten men Altay get more chances, but Karşıyaka still hold their own. In fact, it seems like a miracle that they keep throwing away the chances they have at the Altay end. It is indeed a full on display of attacking football at its best.

 

Just when it seems like that we are destined to see a goalless draw Altay hit off on the counter attack, one long ball grazes the head of Altay’s Tahir Kurt and the ball slips past Karşıyaka’s reserve goalkeeper into the corner of the net. 87th minute and it is 0-1 to the “visitors”. The stadium falls silent except for the Altay corner, and that is where the Altay players rush to.

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But there is no booing. Karşıyaka’s fans take it on the chin, and it is refreshing to see such brotherly love between the two teams—it is a rare scene at a derby like this. With three minutes left Karşıyaka waste no time as their two Brazilian stars Juninho and Kahe push forward. Again, they inexplicably muff their chances in front of goal but I get one of those strange feelings that an equalizer is going to come. It just has to, and I stand riveted to the scenes unfolding in front of me.

 

Indeed as the clock reads 90 and the five minutes of added time wind down the chance comes, and in spectacular fashion. Karşıyaka are pouring men forward and the cross comes in, it is headed out before being hit on the volley from the 18 yard box. The shot gets blocked in front of goal and as the rebound hangs in the air above the six yard box Juninho takes his chance; sizing the ball up he hurls himself in the air and with a deft bicycle kick sends the ball hard into the back of the net. 90th minute and the score is 1-1 as the Buca Arena explodes.

 

We are going to get another half hour of football tonight—which means Karşıyaka will have played a full hour with ten men. The end-to-end stuff continues through the extra period as the tense Karşıyaka fans around me react to every move of the ball with visceral emotional outbursts but there will be no goal forthcoming. The victor will be decided from the penalty spot in a shootout. The cops to my left begin to put on their riot gear—they definitely do their best to make normal sporting moments tenser then they should be.

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It is Karşıyaka who go first in the shootout, Kahe’s strong blast finding the net despite the goalkeeper’s guessing the correct corner. Altay equalize with a simple finish, the keeper diving in the opposite direction. It is now Juninho’s turn to keep it going for the “home side”. He already came up with the biggest goal of the night but his work is not done yet. But football—like life—doesn’t always give you a storybook ending. Juninho skies his kick over the bar and can only hold his head and slowly walk back to the center of the pitch in a now silent stadium; hero becomes villain in one small moment. Indeed it is a sign of things to come. Altay hit their next three penalties while Karşıyaka hit both of theirs, keeping within striking distance, before Karşıyaka’s Nigerian forward Chikeluba Ofoedu puts his spot kick in the same place Juninho put his—into the stands. Altay’s players rush into the field to celebrate, they have taken the match 5-4 on penalties and move on to the third round, another Izmir derby in the books.

 

The shootout in its entirety:

 

 

 

Requiem For a Theater of Dreams: Izmir Alsancak Stadium

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One month ago on August 20, 2014 Izmir football was dealt an unexpected blow. The famed Alsancak stadium, located near the center of the city’s trendy shopping district of the same name, was condemned. The Provincial Sports Directorate claimed that following tests made on August 6th the stadium was found to be in danger of collapse in the event of an earthquake. Apparently, both stands—as well as the office building which is home to the Altay Izmir football club and Provincial Sports Directorate—do not have foundations. As such, the order was given to evacuate all offices immediately and to close down the stadium.

Such a decision sent shockwaves through the collective heart of Izmir football, since it was made just days before the start of the season. Four of Izmir’s teams—Karşıyaka SK and Altinordu, both from the second division, and Göztepe SK and Altay Izmir, both from the third division—share the Alsancak Stadium. In fact, all four teams spent 700,000 Turkish Liras each for pitch improvements. Altay Izmir, the stadium’s owner, make most of their money by renting out the stadium to the other three teams. As tenants, Altay president Aslan Savasan said that his team spent 300,000 Turkish Liras on new gates and 325,000 Turkish Liras on new seats in preparation for the new season. This is not to mention a monthly bill of 7,000 Turkish Liras for watering costs. Without rent money, Altay—one of Turkey’s oldest, formed during the war of independence in 1914—is in danger of collapsing.

Of course, underneath this decision—as with so many in Turkey—lies the specter of political maneuvering. The stadium was originally owned by the Greek side Paninios, which moved to Athens after the Turkish war of independence (for more on this you may read the first chapters of my thesis) and the stadium was taken over by Altay. The first stands—those same stands that supposedly have no foundation—were built in 1929, six years after the founding of the Turkish Republic. This makes the Alsancak Stadium one of Turkey’s oldest. But old doesn’t necessarily mean it is worth saving, as one of the Altay officials I met August 30 told me when we chatted beneath the team’s offices. He claimed it was a completely political decision, due to the fact that Izmir always votes for the CHP. They say the plan is to build a mall in place of the old stadium, otherwise why can’t they restore it? I had to agree with him as I looked out to the old Cypresses that stand behind one of the goals, baking in the sun. He told me he had worked for the team for 50 years, since those tall Cypresses—a symbol of the stadium—had been knee high.

I had gone on this day to pay my respects to the stadium where my stadium adventures began. It was a hot August day not unlike this one, a day where—ultimately—my innocence would be lost forever. But I hadn’t known that at the time. Otherwise, I might not have even gone.

 

We were in high school then, back in August of 2003. Berker and Ekin, two of my childhood friends, and I had made a decision to attend the Izmir derby between Karşıyaka and Göztepe. It was one of those foolhardy decisions that youth is made of—one of those days you throw caution to the wind and just wave your parents away when they make comments like “Don’t go” or “Its too dangerous, just watch it on TV”.

It was my first game, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. A row of riot policemen where standing behind their shields, blocking the road that curves in front of the stadium. A few ticket stands were set up, small prefabricated plastic cubicles. There we got tickets to the Göztepe side. I personally am a Karşıyaka fan but—even at that young age—my friends knew better than to allow us to be separated and my protests fell on deaf ears. Ekin and I got our tickets as well as one for Berker, who would be meeting us. With nothing better to do than wait, Ekin and I took a seat on the sidewalk, taking advantage of the shade provided by the wall of the Alsancak train station. The sun was high in the clear summer sky, it was a beautiful day that was soon to be marred by some of the worst scenes I have—to this day—ever seen at a match.

It all happened in a blur. One moment we heard a commotion on the main road, in front of the line of riot police, and we moved off the sidewalk into the middle of the street. Göztepe fans were streaming towards us in their red and yellow shirts, fear shown in their eyes. The municipality busses from Karşıyaka had arrived under a hail of stones, thrown by Göztepe fans protected by the line of riot police. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like they could hold those lines. Bottles, lighters, rocks, flares. Everything was flying through the air as the Karşıyaka fans rushed the cops. Ekin and I took cover behind one of the plastic ticket booths. I still remember the hollow sounds of stones bouncing off the plastic as we hunched over. Then came the sound of a bottle shattering, falling into pieces just like the calm of this lazy summer day on the Aegean coast that had been shattered. I don’t remember why but for some reason I left Ekin. I knew Berker would be arriving right in the middle of that chaos. We had arranged to meet in the courtyard of the train station. Looking back on it, I blame it on the foolish courage of youth. I didn’t want to be a hero—what is a hero even? I just wanted to meet my friend. I was also more than a little wary of being a sitting duck in the event that the police line was broken.

I reasoned that my black t-shirt—conspicuously chosen as a neutral color—would protect me. Ekin wasn’t having any of it. He would stay there, crouched down behind the ticket box. I assured him I would return with Berker and took a deep breath before stepping out, hugging the grey concrete wall of the train station as I walked. In the chaos no one even noticed me. I guess I didn’t look like I was looking for a fight. Bodies were running all around me as I turned the corner, into the courtyard of the train station. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I took out my phone, frantically calling Berker. I could barely hear him on the other end, his voice was drowned out by the screams of fans engaged in pitched battles in front of the station.

“Im in front of Alsancak Station!”

“What??”

“In front of the stati—oh shit. Shit. Shit!!”

“What? What happened?”

“Come, come just come as fast as you can, we need to find Ekin!” I was staring in front of me. Staring at a man who was doubled over, his shoulder length hair had fallen in disarray all over his face. “WHY???” A blood curdling scream flew out of his lungs.

I was frozen, stuck to the ground as fresh blood dripped onto the concrete no more than ten feet in front of me. Amazing how quickly a white t-shirt becomes soaked with blood.

He had been stabbed with a doner knife then and there. His assailants mixed back into the crowd as onlookers more seasoned than I ran to his side. Somewhere would be an ambulance. But where? I could no longer make out sounds, just the frantic voices of people trying to stop the bleeding. I shook myself out of it and got to the doors of the station, the safest place in sight since the fighting hadn’t yet spread into the building. And I waited for Berker, trying to shake the things I’d seen from my mind. It wasn’t easy, my heart was beating with adolescent excitement and fear mixed together in equal parts. When he showed up his eyes had a worried look as I gave him a look back that said “I couldn’t even begin to explain it to you”.

When we found Ekin he was surrounded by a pack of riot police, they had retreated to the immediate front of the stadium. The street was a mess of stones and shattered bottles, empty cans of soft drinks and water bottles. Ekin’s hands were trembling as he tried to light a Winston. In high school you choose your cigarettes by price—cheapest is best, since you’re going to look cool no matter what. He couldn’t light it, an older man behind him took care of it before Ekin puffed frantically, words mixing with the grey smoke into the air.

“This guy broke through the police lines…he came face to face with me. Behind…behind the ticket booth. He had a…crazed look on his face. He was carrying a rock so large he was stumbling along the road with it. And he threw it at us!” We took comfort in being together again, three seventeen-year old boys in a savage world.

Inside the stadium we were packed like sardines chanting profanity in unison at the other side (even though…I supported the other side!). Berker went to light a cigarette—he had a superstition that it would bring a goal—as a sound bomb exploded on his neck.

“I can’t hear! I can’t hear! My ear!” He bent over as Ekin and I inspected his neck. It seemed fine enough, I tried to sound confident but what did I know? He went back to the cigarette, rubbing his ear as if to make it better between drags. By halftime his hearing was restored but I could understand his fear. It seemed as if anything could happen. And indeed, it did on that night.

After the match we learned the truth—a twenty three year old Karşıyaka fan had been stabbed to death in the open stands across from us during the match. They say it wasn’t related to football—something about a girl, apparently. But whatever it was, even I knew at that age that no one should die because of football or because of a girl. They said that there hadn’t been enough cops—just 800. Looking back on it all, it wasn’t the cops fault completely. It is society’s fault, and sadly eleven years later it seems that not much has changed. There is still violence at stadiums and—as we see with Alsancak stadium’s imminent destruction—it is still political games and money rather than respect for human life or historical value that govern people’s actions on so many levels, both politically and culturally.

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(Image Courtesy of: http://www.goal.com/tr/slideshow/3420/3/title/futbolun-aldığı-canlar. For more on this match in Turkish please see these two stories archived on Hurriyet.com: http://webarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/2003/08/06/326527.asp And http://webarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/2003/08/07/327015.asp)

Below are a few pictures of the stadium I took on the day I visited. I also was able to get an Altay shirt from last season, which was their centenary, which can be viewed here.

 

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The streets that have seen many a pitched battle between football fans in a calmer time.

 

 

 

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“Mustafa Kemal’s Soldiers”, graffiti from protesters from more recent times sends a clear message.

 

 

 

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