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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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Referee’s Resignation Speaks to Deeper Issues Within Turkish Football Culture

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Deniz Çoban, a veteran referee who has worked matches for fifteen years in Turkish football—the last eight in the nation’s highest league, the Spor Toto Superleague—bade a tearful goodbye to his profession on October 1. His resignation came days after he took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the calls he made during a 1-1 Turkish Superleague draw between Kasımpaşaspor and Çaykur Rizespor. Rizespor, who were down to nine men following two red cards, equalized with a stoppage goal from the penalty spot that came, literally, on the last kick of the match (The highlights can be seen here, courtesy of LigTV). Post match, Mr. Çoban interrupted a press interview with Kasımpaşa manager Rıza Çalimbay saying, “I apologise to you [Çalimbay], to the Kasımpaşa team, to the Rizespor team, and to the Turkish Football Federation as well as the refereeing committee and have to consider my future after this”. Apparently, he was referring to the penalty decision in particular.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.todayszaman.com/sports_coban-in-tears-as-he-bids-goodbye-to-refereeing_400305.html

 

The shockwaves from Mr. Çoban’s resignation are still resonating. He is reportedly being considered by the International Fair Play Committee for the 2015 International Fair-Play award. Youth and Sports Minister Akif Çağatay Kılıç also weighed in, noting the difficult job referees do, and the toll the stress takes on them as human beings. Today’s Zaman has posited that this resignation might have bigger consequences, since: “Çoban’s tearful trip of conscience is unprecedented. He may have been experiencing other pressures. If not, then breaking down on national TV and then tearfully resigning seems extreme, especially when neither of the teams even complained about his performance.”

 

I agree that this resignation is not just a run-of-the mill story, and it reveals a few things in Turkish society that are lurking just beneath the surface. The first is, of course, the connection between politics and football. The two teams involved, Çaykur Rizespor and Kasımpaşaspor, are both “teams” of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His family is from Rize, and some of his formative years were spent living in the city on the shores of the Black Sea. He has visited the team before, and even invited them (like Galatasaray) to his sprawling presidential palace at the end of last season. On the other side is Kasımpaşaspor, the team the Turkish leader played for in his youth. The match in question took place in Kasımpaşaspor’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium, and the president has expressed his fondness for the team before. Back in 2012, while congratulating the team for achieving promotion to Turkish football’s top league, Mr. Erdoğan wished them well and hoped that he would have a chance to watch them in person competing in European football since “it is not possible [to watch in person] locally. There are those that may be uncomfortable with this.” His wariness is understandable, since history is full of leaders who chose a team as their own for one reason or another (Franco and Real Madrid come to mind, as does Berlusconi and Milan). Given the Turkish leader’s personal relationship with these two teams it is possible that this match could have only ended in a draw; and maybe that is why we saw such an odd penalty call at the dying moments of a match that allowed a team with nine men to equalize against a full strength squad. Perhaps Mr. Çoban could not handle such a blatant manipulation of the sport. But this is all just conjecture, in a country that enjoys its conspiracy theories.

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When in Rize. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.denizhaber.com.tr/erdogan-caykur-rizesporu-ziyaret-etti-haber-50690.htm

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When in Kasimpasa: Image Courtesy Of: http://spor.milliyet.com.tr/erdogan-kasimpasa-yonetimini-kabul-etti/spor/spordetay/28.05.2012/1546214/default.htm

 

Personally, I think that Mr. Çoban’s resignation speaks to deeper issues within Turkish football. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Turks support the “Üç Büyükler”—“Three Giants”—consisting of the Istanbul sides Beşiktaş, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahçe is no surprise. A 2011 poll showed that an amazing 88 percent of Turks supported one of these three teams. These three teams have also won 52 of the 59 national championships contested since 1959 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Süper_Lig#Champions). Their hegemony over fan culture and sporting success is unquestioned and, in Europe, unprecedented. These teams are, therefore, expected to win. But with that expectation comes a lot of pressure on referees. Every one of their decisions is scrutinized to the smallest detail week in and week out.

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Image Courtesy of: http://spor.internethaber.com/spor/diger-haberler/iste-turkiyenin-taraftar-haritasi-117117.html

As Today’s Zaman notes, complaining about referring is common in Turkey and referee errors happen often, as they do in other leagues. But the difference in Turkey is that fans in other leagues support other teams, often their local teams. There is not a disproportionate national focus on the games of just three teams; there is not an expectation that those three teams are going to win every game they play. But in Turkey, that is precisely what the situation looks like. Since few people choose their local team as their “main” team, the referees live a very stressful life knowing that, when they are refereeing any match involving one of the “three giants”, they have almost a third of the country scrutinizing their every move. They cannot relax, and they cannot look at things objectively. In fact, it is well known that many of these referees themselves support one of the “three giants” since they were brought up in the same football culture. As Eric Cantona famously said, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favourite football team.”

For referees, since they are human beings after all, it is no different. Even though the match that drove Mr. Çoban out of refereeing did not include one of the “three giants” it is altogether possible that the years of stress finally got to him, as Mr. Çağatay alluded to. Unfortunately, there are probably many other referees in Turkey who feel the same way but will not speak about it. Until the culture of fan support changes in Turkey, I am afraid that the quality of football—and refereeing—will struggle to improve.