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Goodbye Izmir Alsancak Stadium: The Past and Present of a Country as Seen Through the Eyes of a Football Stadium

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Last year I wrote about the impending destruction of the stadium where I watched my first ever football match: the Alsancak Stadium in Izmir, Turkey. On August 3, 2015, the demolition started. The stadium that hosted the first game in Turkey’s highest professional league in 1959—between Izmirspor and Beykoz 1908—has now been consigned to history. All that remains are the memories, the songs of fans that still echo in our minds and radio broadcasts from a simpler time. One year ago Turkish sportswriter Bagis Erten compared the lovable venue to London’s Craven Cottage; sadly for the Alsancak Stadium—one of Turkey’s oldest, with football having been played on the grounds since 1910—it has ceased to exist while Craven Cottage is into its third century and going strong. As Mr. Erten notes, the Turkish government, in the AKP years, has enjoyed destroying the old to make way for new at the expense of history. While it is still unclear if a mall will be actually be built in the space vacated by the stadium, the story of the Alsancak Stadium also tells the story of the Turkish republic from 1923 up to today.

These days the AKP government—which has made no secret of its disdain for “heathen” (gavur) Izmir—has had it out for Turkey’s third largest (and most liberal) city. And the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) has followed suit, adding insult to injury by penalizing four of the city’s teams—Karsiyaka SK, Goztepe SK, Altay Izmir, and Altinordu Izmir—in the wake of the Alsancak Stadium’s demolition. Three of the teams have been fined 30 thousand Turkish Liras—Altay got away with a fine of just half that, maybe they were pitied because the official name of the stadium was the Altay Alsancak Stadium?—while all four teams had their applications for licenses to play rejected by the TFF. The reason? The teams don’t have a stadium in which to play their games. Obviously, this is bizarre. Some club officials noted that “It wasn’t us who destroyed the Alsancak Stadium one month before the start of the season”. But this is Turkey. The teams from Turkey’s oldest footballing city are being penalized for a governmental decision to destroy their stadium. But the absurdity doesn’t stop there.

Back in 1870 football came to Izmir. As one of the Ottoman Empire’s largest ports the city was open to foreign influence, and British sailors brought football with them. With the Sultan suspicious of organized sport it was mainly Italians, British, and local Greeks and Armenians who played the game. In 1910 the grounds that would become the Alsancak Stadium first hosted football. But it wasn’t Altay that owned the stadium then—it was the Greek team Panionios that owned the land. After the population exchange of 1922 Panionios relocated to the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni. The club that was founded in 1890 in Izmir continue to play today across the Aegean in the Nea Smyrni stadium while their old land has been taken away from Izmir’s teams in 2015 like it was taken away from the Greek side in 1922. History is brutal like that, the wrongs only repeat themselves.

In 2012 Daghan Irak wrote an informative piece regarding the Alsancak stadium in which he uses history to help explain the present:

 

Tarihi bir kere köklerinden söktüğünde, yerine koyduğun her şey de köksüz oluyor. Mirası bir kez reddettikten sonra hiçbir şeye sahip çıkmak zorunda kalmıyorsun. Bugün Alsancak’ı yıkıp AVM dikebiliyorsun, çünkü Panionios Stadı’nın üstüne de Alsancak’ı yapabilmiştin. Aynı şekilde mesela İstiklal Caddesi’ndeki Circle D’Orient ya da Saray Sineması da AVM olabiliyor, çünkü onların gerçek sahiplerini 1955’te elinde çivili sopalarla kovalarken zihinlere de formatı çekmiştin. 1915’ten itibaren sistematik olarak müsadere edilen azınlık mallarını dağıttığın sonradan görmeleri “muteber insanlar” olarak takdim edebildiğin için artık her şeye saldırı serbest.

“When you uproot history, everything you plant in its place becomes rootless. When you reject your heritage once, then you no longer have to own up to anything. Today you can build a mall in the place of the Alsancak Stadium because you once made the Alsancak Stadium in the place of the Panionios Stadium. Just like Istiklal Street’s [Istanbul’s main pedestrian street off of Taksim Square] Circle D’orient and Saray Cinema can become malls because you chased away their real owners in 1955 with sticks, reformatting everyone’s minds. Because you have systematically confiscated the possessions of minorities since 1915, and called their new owners “legal owners”, now every kind of attack is allowed.”

 

If a country doesn’t respect its past—in this case the close relationship between Turks and non-Muslim minorities during the Ottoman years—in the present, then how could you expect any historical structure to have meaning? How can you stop the rampant thirst for money through construction projects—in the name of the AKP’s extreme capitalism—if you don’t care about history? The stadium wasn’t even owned by Turks before the population exchange of 1923, so now it can be taken from its new “owners” and who knows what will be built in its place.

A Turkish businessman living in France has claimed that he can make it ready for matches in 45 days, but that seems unlikely given the legal hurdles that will have to be jumped through. Meanwhile, the TFF explained the fines it gave Izmir’s teams. Apparently, they didn’t present a “Security Certificate” for the stadiums they will be playing in. That’s all well and good but how could a team present a “Security Certificate” for a non-existent stadium? It’s the same story just in different words: If you won’t vote for us, then you won’t have football.

 

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All Images Courtesy of: http://fotogaleri.hurriyet.com.tr/galeridetay/97592/2/1/izmir-alsancak-stad-y-k-l-yor

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:

 

 

 

Floodlights and Football in Late Summer: SK Altay Izmir-Kartalspor

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Spur of the moment, we decided to go to opening day of the Turkish second division. It was the end of summer, September first, as well as the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. My friend Ekin and I walked down “transvestite alley”, not because of curiosity but because of practicality—it was, after all, the shortest route to the stadium. As we walked, cat-calls rained down from the Ottoman-era overhanging balconies above us in this old district of Izmir, remnants from the days when this city was known as Smyrna, one of the proposed birthplaces of the great poet Homer.

“Come on handsome, what are you doing tonight?”, We made sure not to look up, lest they mistake our shock for interest. We quickened our pace and emerged out of the alley, leaving the half men, half women to find their one-night stands.

On the square were throngs of fans, young and old, clad in the team’s black and white all carrying and air of anticipation for a good winter of football on their faces, sunburned from the summer that had moved on.

Moving towards a ticket booth we saw the pricing plan and couldn’t help but laugh. Fifteen Liras for the covered stand where the hardcore support gathered, five Liras for the open stand and a paltry one Lira for women—no matter where they chose to sit. We assumed it was a half-hearted attempt at creating a family-friendly atmosphere. It didn’t seem to have worked. To my mind came a conversation we had with a friend as we decided to go to the game. He joked that they wouldn’t let us into the stadium without any girls-a joke referring to the policy of most clubs in Turkey, where they require female companion to cut down on conflicts inside when there is too much testosterone. I had replied dryly that it was quite the contrary—they wont let you into the stadium with a girl. The few women who had been successfully lured into the traditionally male-dominated sphere of the stadium were on their partner’s arms, each carrying a, “He better not forget this sacrifice, and never complain again when I tell him we’re going shopping,” look on their faces.

After purchasing one fifteen Lira ticket each (We couldn’t resist the lure of the hardcore supporters), we filed inside. The lights of the stadium were beautifully reflecting off the pristine unspoiled playing surface of the new season in twilight. Opening day truly is different, a virgin moment without the concerns of keeping a winning streak going, or breaking a run of bad form. Behind us, and old man exclaimed to his friend, “Can’t you smell the grass? I’ve missed this!” All over the stands were police officers breaking the Ramadan fast at sundown with packets they had brought from home, while fans (with more disposable income than the poorly-paid police) swarmed the concession stands grilling kofte—succulent greasy meatballs in bread to satiate the hunger most had suppressed all day.

We admired the black and white banners representing Altay’s colors, which were neatly hung from the top of the covered stand down to the protective fence which heralded the start of a new season, The mood was electric, as the fans displayed carefully prepared posters and signs, while boisterously singing songs to urge their players on during pre-game warm-ups.

The Turkish national anthem started, and I stood silent, hand over heart. Behind me was a banner emblazoned with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of modern Turkey—and one of his quotes about sportsmen. As the national anthem culminated into a wave of applause we took our seats behind two plainclothes police officers and most of the older crowd, men who knew the entire roster by heart and whom—from what I assumed—had been coming to support this team from their childhood. Altay are, after all, Izmir’s team. One of their songs boasts that they are the first team of Izmir, founded as they are in 1914, a full nine years before Mustafa Kemal’s war of independence succeeded in founding the Turkish Republic in 1923. Indeed, Altay were one of the first representatives of Turkish nationalism, soundly defeating an Italian team, Garibaldi, 10-0 during the allied occupation of the city after World War One. Later, Mustafa Kemal visited the club and commended their heroism.

No sooner had the first whistle blown when the referee made a call—judged to be erroneous of course—against the home time. In football, any call against your team is in error though, no matter what! One of the old men exploded, “Come on, its only the beginning of the season! What a pimp!” In Turkish, unlike in our bastardized English, to be called a pimp is one of the gravest of insults. Even without knowing the intricacies of the Turkish language I could have figured this out; it was hard to imagine the referee with any number of female companions in his neatly tailored flesh-hugging light blue referee jersey, complete with mid-thigh length shorts.  The referee was forgotten however ten minutes later; a round of applause supported his demonstrating the yellow card to the opposition for an over-zealous tackle.

At half-time, with the score even at ones, I overheard a fan discussing seating arrangements for the second half with his friend. “Why does it matter whether we sit here or on the other side? We’ll get the same cancer on either side from watching this team! Its as if you’ve never seen this team play like a foosball team!”

The image was hilarious in my mind, but the analogy was fitting. I imagined the eleven players tethered together across four lines—the two forwards, four midfielders, four defenders and one goalkeeper—each moving only left to right with no forward movement, slamming the ball up-field with no creativity. I completed the image in my mind’s eye imagining all eleven men on the field with the same smiling expression. It was too much.

After the second half began, Altay were soon up, only to be pegged back by a Kartalspor goal, gifted by a defensive gaffe when a central defender failed to clear a ball at his feet. A time wore on, and the game neared its death, the fans grew increasingly restless with boos and whistles raining down on the players. Even during Ramadan, “God damn you” was the favored insult from the crowd. The policemen in front of us were not oblivious to this, their faces a portent of things to come if Altay were to draw, or god forbid, lose on opening day.

Luckily for everyone (save the few traveling supporters who braved the trip to Izmir from the suburbs of Istanbul’s Asian coast), the police were spared any adventures, as a goal set up from an Altay corner six minutes from time sent the stadium into raptures. It was 3-2, and we could all go home happy.

At the end of the match, the fans called their heroes to the sidelines, and broke into song-one line sung by the fans, the response coming from the players in an improvised duet to make Sinatra’s eyes water:

FANS: O Büyük Gece

Ne zaman gelecek o büyük gece

PLAYERS: Turlar atacağız sahilimizde

FANS: Bir elde biramız

PLAYERS: Bir elde rakımız

FANS: Kıyak olacak o gece kafamız

PLAYERS: Şampiyon olunca kırk gün kırk gece

FANS: İnleyecek İzmir Altay diye

Altay’sin sen bizim canımız

Siyahla Beyaz akar kanımız

Seviyoruz seni canı gönülden

Sampiyonluk bekliyoruz sizlerden

 

FANS: That great night,

When will that great night come,

PLAYERS: We’ll march across our waterfront,

FANS: In one hand our beer,

PLAYERS: In one hand our Raki,

FANS: That night our heads will be spinning, spinning carefree,

PLAYERS: When we’re the champions Izmir will sing Altay, Altay,

For forty days and forty nights,

FANS: Altay you’re our soul,

Black and white the blood that flows,

Our love for you is deep within our hearts,

And we wait for a championship from you

 

The mention of Raki (Turkey’s Anise flavored national drink) and beer showed where Izmir’s loyalties lay. It was this secular love of alcohol, among other things, that has characterized Izmir’s European, and overall Western, identity. After the Islamist Justice and Development party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) lost the province of Izmir (one of only four provinces they lost out of 81) in their landslide election victory in the summer of 2007, it prompted prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deem Izmir “Gevour Izmir”, or heathen Izmir, a dubious nickname, especially during the turbulent times in Turkey as the nation struggles in its tug-of-war between West and East.

We filed out, singing songs and heading towards the bars of the trendy Alsancak district. As we walked a couple blocks away from the stadium, a worried policeman in riot gear leaning on his shield asked us the score.

“We won, 3-2,” we said proudly. The lines on his forehead quickly gave way to a smile which broke out across his face, erasing his serious expression as he relayed the good news to his colleagues. There would be no violence tonight! Everyone was going home happy on the first night of the season, and the first night of Ramadan. Everyone, of course, except the Kartalspor supporters who had a long lonely journey back to Istanbul.