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From Baltimore to Belgrade (and Back)

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Baltimore and Belgrade. They couldn’t be farther apart. Perhaps the only thing that brings them together is the fact that both city’s names begin with the letter “B” and end with the letter “E”. Yet despite their differences, the two have been brought together, at least for the purposes of this post, due to . . .rioting. As many may know Baltimore was affected by two days of violent rioting following the death of Freddie Gray which gave way to calm on the night of Tuesday, April 28—no doubt due in most part to the presence of 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,000 additional police officers enforcing a 10:00pm-5:00am (22:00-05:00) curfew. It may seem harsh, but the widespread riots—shown on the map below—left authorities no choice.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/28/us/baltimore-riots/

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/here-are-the-most-powerful-photos-from-the-baltimore-riots#.sjbzL58DO

Sports, like many representations of “normal” life were not unaffected. Due to the curfew baseball’s Baltimore Orioles announced via Twitter that their Tuesday, April 28 game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards Stadium would be postponed and that Wednesday’s game would be played behind closed doors. While football fans may be used to games being closed to the public and played without fans, U.S. baseball fans are certainly not. This kind of thing is unprecedented in U.S. sports, but will most certainly happen in Belgrade next weekend. Now, lets look at Belgrade for a moment before returning to Baltimore.

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The Baltimore Orioles’ Announcement. Image Courtesy of: https://twitter.com/orioles/status/593124360963031040

 

On Saturday April 25 the “Eternal Derby” in Serbia between Belgrade rivals Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade lived up to its billing as one of the world’s most dangerous derbys—at least 50 people were injured and there were 40 arrests in the chaos. Graphic pictures and videos of the riot show supporters launching flares and hurling seats at police while many are left bloodied and stunned in the stands. One could look for a political motive in all of this; after all, many derbies in European football are characterized by deep-seated animosities between fan bases stemming from, among other things, ethnic differences, class differences, and political differences. In this case, however, there is not much of that.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3055654/Violent-scenes-derby-Red-Star-Belgrade-Partizan-Belgrade-delays-game-leaves-35-police-officers-injured.html#ixzz3YQqGcIgA

 

Red Star Belgrade were formed by members of the Serbian United Antifascist Youth League during World War Two. Although they inherited the stadium, offices, players, and colors of a team—SK Jugoslavija (disbanded after being labelled collaborators by communist leader Josip Broz Tito for playing matches in German occupied Serbia during the war)—the continuity between clubs is disputed.

Their rivals, Partizan Belgrade (whose stadium I learned upon visiting the city is just 1 kilometer away from Red Star’s, were founded as the club of the Yugoslav army and were initially managed by officers in the Yugoslav People’s Army. Indeed, the club was named in honor of the Yugoslav Partisans who fought against the communists in World War Two. The club’s initial crest even sported a five pointed red star as a symbol of communism—not too different from Red Star Belgrade’s emblem that features…a five pointed red star with a background of red, white, and blue, the national colors of Serbia.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FK_Partizan#Crest_and_colours AND http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Star_Belgrade#Crest_and_colors Respectively

The animosity stems mainly from the fact that both teams are the most supported in Serbia and are located in close proximity to one another in the capital city. It is bragging rights that are on the line, and one is born with an identity that is characterized by the support of one of the teams. In some ways, it is a feeling of a familial bond that connects the team to its supporters. In a Wall Street Journal article one Red Star fan was quoted describing the love he has for his team: “It’s the kind of love one feels for a country or a woman or a child.” On the flip side a fan of Partizan Belgrade was also quoted, explaining that he married a Red Star fan only on condition that they raise their children Partizan fans: “It was one of the things I insisted on when we got married. I said I could cope with anything except them being Red Star fans.” This sentiment isn’t too hard to understand. I encountered it while talking with fans at derbys in Stockholm and Thessaloniki and I have heard the almost romantic love football fans sing with while supporting their teams in Turkey. My own childhood friend in Turkey—herself a Besiktas fan—had to accept her husband’s request that their child be raised a Fenerbahce fan when she married. Even one of my childhood friends in America who recently got married remembers one of the first things he asked his now wife on their first date: “You’re not a Yankees fan, are you?” As a Boston Red Sox fan he had to clear all the deal-breakers out of the way first. Sports are something that can make seemingly rational people become irrational regardless of where they live. Sure, they are more passionate in Europe and South America but even then ugly incidents are, for the most part, confined to the stadium. The threat of possible bodily harm is kind of something you accept as collateral damage when entering the gates for a football match. But it isn’t something that consumes a city.

 

Now back to Baltimore. The reason that I bring up Belgrade is that I came across an article written by Derrick Clifton about the Baltimore riots. According to his byline he is “a Staff Writer at Mic covering identity, culture and social justice […and] master’s candidate at the Medill School of Journalism.” He says, rightly, “Usually, if a riot involves black people, it’s connected to intense episodes of where systemic racism is undoubtedly at work.” But what he goes on to explain is troubling, in my mind, and loses the point of what he wants to say:

“But when a mob of mostly white people take to the streets, vandalizing cars, storefronts and street signs in the process it usually means someone either won or lost a game. As Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice noted in January, these rioters are usually called ‘revelers,’ ‘celebrants’ and ‘fans.’ They’re not even called ‘rioters’ in many cases. They’re not derided as ‘criminals,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘pigs’ or even ‘violent.’ Those descriptors, as events in Baltimore Monday night reveals yet again, are only reserved for black people. They’re the ones who need to be quelled by militarized police forces. They’re the ones who need to be off the streets, immediately. They’re diminishing the validity of their cause. Yet somehow, reckless behavior over a sports team, not a systemic matter of life and death, is viewed as a costly nuisance.”

Unfortunately it is the issue of “race” in the United States that reduces what should be important social discussion to its lowest common denominator, with the implication that somehow someone is being wronged due to his or her skin color and that is what is to blame. The events cited by Mr. Clifton include “riots” in the aftermath of sporting events as diverse as the San Francisco Giants 2014 baseball World Series win, the Vancouver Canucks 2011 hockey Stanley Cup Finals loss, and the 2015 Ohio State Buckeye’s college football championship in 2015. I would say that the common factor in all of these instances of violence and destruction was sports and alcohol…resulting in a “costly nuisance”, if you will. None of these instances involved plans on Twitter or the targeting of police officers: The Baltimore Police Department/Criminal Intelligence Unit announced that it “received credible information that members of various gangs including the Black Guerilla Family, Bloods, and Crips [had] entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.” None of the aforementioned events involved the widespread looting of stores either. And certainly none of them involved pathetic attempts to link Israeli intelligence to a domestic disturbance in the United States of America. Therefore, to me, Mr. Clifton’s comparison between “white riots” and the events in Baltimore, in order to find a racist motive, is moot.

 

I think that if we are to find a parallel between the rioting in Baltimore and sports-induced rioting it is helpful to get beyond the issue of race and look at the systemic problems in world society. For that, we can slowly move from Baltimore to Belgrade. Another article from the American left ran the headline “Councilman schools Fox News reporter on how to cover Baltimore uprisings”. If we ignore for a moment the needlessly hyperbolic anti-Fox News language used in the headline and listen to councilman Nick Mosby’s words we may get closer to the truth:

“What it is is [the] young folks of this community showing decades old anger, frustration, for a system that’s failed them. I mean, this is bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the socio-economics of poor, urban America. These young guys are frustrated, they’re upset and unfortunately, their [sic] displaying it in a very destructive manner. When folks are under-educated, unfortunately, they don’t have the same intellectual voice to explain it the way other people are doing it and that’s what we see through the violence today.”

It is true, the roots of the problems in Baltimore stem from poverty and a lack of opportunity for many. What is important to note, however, is that this lack of opportunity is not only confined to minorities. There are plenty of white Americans facing the same unemployment problems and the same struggles with poverty and rising costs of living. To lower everything to the simple level of racial inequality cheapens the debate and only provides excuses and an easy way out. It is similar to that old (and hugely incorrect) mantra with which the West viewed (again) Belgrade during the Bosnia crisis: “The Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims have been fighting since the beginning of time. They could never live together, so what can we do?”—“White American cops are racist so this is what happens”. When we make broad statements with little or no thought to back them up nothing is gained. The problems in Baltimore are not very different from the problems affecting many other metropolises the world over: There is a growing wage gap which is drawing more and more urban people—black, white, purple, and green—into a feeling of hopelessness that can also manifest itself in violence. That is why many have posted articles that “explain” why riots occur in order to justify the actions of some (its kind of a no-brainer, but you can make your own analyses by sifting through the leftist rhetoric). Now we come full circle to Belgrade.

 

The Wall Street Journal article cited earlier in this post was titled “Soccer Violence Escalates in Europe”. The reason, according to the article, is that fans have been “driven by Europe’s economic struggles and what’s seen as an accompanying rise in nationalism and racism”. It isn’t a shocking conclusion and the figures don’t lie, at least those cited in the article: “The U.K.-based group Kick It Out counted 71 discriminatory incidents in Britain this season compared with 43 at this point last year,” and “In Germany, officials reported 7,863 soccer-related offenses last season, up from 4,576 in 2005-06. Italy saw 1,515 last year, up from 1,161.” Meanwhile in Spain, “penalties for sports-related offenses jumped by 22% last season from the previous year”.

The article’s author Naftali Bendavid notes that in the years following the Balkan wars of the 1990s “Serbian paramilitaries recruited from fan groups for the Balkan wars, as soccer hooligans became warriors and vice versa”. Indeed, some of this may be true. An article detailing the Grobari group, Partizan Belgrade’s Ultras, explains that:

“A defiance of authority since the tormented 1990s has intoxicated political and social spheres and reared its ugly head in football too. Many ultras took part in the armed conflicts and carry their scars today, translating the tribal nature of the Yugoslav wars to their clubs and ultras groups.”

Certainly Serbia’s continued exclusion from mainstream European society (the European Union)—and ongoing economic stagnation—is sure to have an effect on its young, male, job seeking population (incidentally, the core demographic of most football supporters). It is normal. That said I am not here to make an inquest into any Ultra group or football supporters in general, since I am first and foremost a football fan. I’ll leave that to the media; it seems that they are the champions at demonizing groups. What I am here to say is that economic disparities are becoming more and more pronounced, whether in Baltimore or Belgrade or anywhere else. And to paint over those real economic problems with the label of “White vs. Black racism” and other ideological (or political) slogans really does nothing to solve human problems that are very real. People feel forgotten by the systems they live in, making less and less money, while gentrification pushes up rents in low income neighborhoods. This frustration then drives some to extremes that can become violent. That is the challenge for governments all over the world at the beginning of the 21st century: To win back the citizens they are losing every day as a result of a world society unable to produce stable and ongoing economic benefits for all citizens.

Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 1: The Eternal Derby: Levski Sofia-CSKA Sofia 10.25.2014

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I am freezing. I can feel my feet swimming in the water that has collected in my shoes, I can feel them wrinkling with each passing minute in the dampness. The snow is falling harder now and the grounds crew seem to be losing the fight against mother nature. A group of Levski ultras stream onto the field directing obscene gestures at their rivals, the CSKA Sofia fans gathered together behind the opposite goal. I grip my plastic glass of tea—the color of urine—a little tighter and take a sip, curious as to what will unfold. It’s like a raindrop in the ocean, a small bit of warmth in the freezing air—it is two degrees Celsius.

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On the overnight bus to Sofia I had read an article by a British journalist for the Guardian entitled “Never been in a riot? Get yourself out to a Sofia derby”. I’ve been in a few riots, but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless. Piqued enough, indeed, to be sopping wet in the middle of a snowstorm on the terraces of the Vasil Levski National Stadium on grey day in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. So, as I wait for the fans to slowly file in and take their places behind the goals, how about a little history?

 

The eternal derby is Bulgaria’s biggest football match without a doubt, pitting the two most successful Bulgarian clubs and local rivals Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia against one another in a battle for territorial and political bragging rights. The two clubs have won 26 and 31 Bulgarian titles and 25 and 19 Bulgarian cup titles, respectively. The start of it all goes back to 1948, when CSKA were founded and won the title in their first season. The rivalry was cemented when both teams met in successive seasons—1949 and 1950—in the finals of the Soviet Army Cup, the Bulgarian Cup during the years of communist rule from 1945 to 1990.

Levski Sofia (The Blues or The Team of the People) were founded 100 years ago on May 24 1914 (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Levski_Sofia), named after Bulgarian national hero and freedom fighter Vasil Levski. During the years after their foundation Levski became Bulgaria’s most popular team, winning many national titles as well as becoming the first semi-professional team in Bulgaria in 1929. After winning 5 national titles between 1946 and 1953 the team went into decline and were re-named “Dinamo” in line with Stalinization in 1949 (they reverted to Levski in 1957 which coincided with a return to success). In 1969 politics again intervened, when the team was put under the control of the Interior Ministry and re-named “Levski-Spartak”. During these years the team made three quarterfinal appearances in European cup competitions, and still stands as the only team to have scored five goals against Barcelona in European competition (A UEFA Cup Quarterfinal match in 1976 that ended 5-4 to Nevski).

The roots of CSKA Sofia (The Reds or The Armymen) date back to 1923 and an Army Officer’s Club, when the club was named AS-23 (Officer’s Sports Club Athletic Slava 1923) (For a more detailed history please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_CSKA_Sofia). After undergoing many mergers the team was officially formed on May 5 1948 when (then named Chavdar) it became the departmental club of the Central House of the Troops. CSKA were officially an “Army team”, like CSKA Moscow and Steaua Bucharest among others. This patronage from the Army paid off and the team won 9 successive titles between 1954 and 1962, before taking the present name of “CSKA” in 1962. Like Levski, the 1970s saw much success for CSKA in Europe—including eliminating three time champions Ajax Amsterdam from the European Cup in the 1973-74 competition. CSKA also saw success in the 1980s, making it to the semi finals of the European cup in 1981-82 after eliminating Liverpool before losing out to Bayern Munich. It is still the deepest run by a Bulgarian side in Europe.

But the sunny days in Europe that both sides saw in the 1970s and early 1980s would end abruptly in 1985, when the histories of both clubs changed after an infamous installation of the Eternal Derby. On June 18 1985 the two teams met in the Bulgarian Cup Final in the same Vasil Levski Stadium that am currently freezing in. CSKA won that match 2-1, but several fights—on and off the pitch—marred the match including a full on brawl. Afterwards the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party disbanded both teams and reformed them with new names and new management. Levski’s 1985 title was suspended and the team renamed Vitosha; CSKA became Sredets. Many players—including the famous Hristo Stoitchkov—were banned for life. But, like so much in Bulgaria and in life, nothing lasts forever. The suspensions were rescinded and both teams eventually returned in 1989/90; Levski regained their name and CSKA became independent of the Army following the fall of communism in 1992.

 

As I freeze, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better if both teams had disappeared into history and spared me the need to see them play. But then the choreographies by both sets of fans as the opening whistle nears reminds me why I watch football. It’s the pageantry, the politics, and the history that brings me out to odd grounds in odder places, and the sight of the ultras who huddle together in the snow for warmth seems to warm me by osmosis. The CSKA end turns red as they lift red flags above themselves, unfolding a banner of a football made into a heart. The Levski ultras, not to be out done, lift blue, white, and yellow flags above themselves and reveal a banner with the chilling image of the grim reaper, eyes blazing orange by way of two well-placed flares.

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With the snow cleared the teams finally take the field under a barrage of snowballs thrown by the fans below me (they had perfected their aim by taking pot-shots at the police as the field was being cleared). In fact, their aim was so good that one snowball apparently knocked out CSKA coach Stoycho Mladenov a few minutes into the match. It’s so ridiculous that I understand if you don’t believe me, just check out the Reuters story and NBC Sports’ piece–the aftermath is below.

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Levski have the upper hand in the first fifteen minutes bolstered by their fans and CSKA’s distraction following their coach’s “injury”, and even go close with a few chances on the icy pitch but it soon becomes clear that CSKA is just weathering the initial storm. CSKA begin to string some attacks together that test the Levski backs and on the 22nd minute they finally find their goal, courtesy of Guinea-Bissau born winger (and former Chelsea and Liverpool youth team member) Toni Brito Silva. His celebration, running directly to the Levski fans below me, does exactly what it was intended to do—goad the home fans into embarrassing themselves and their club. Immediately monkey howls come down from all around me in an unfortunate racist response. But I’m not surprised, given the latest antics of Levski’s fans.

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In their last match they mocked UEFA’s famous “Say No to Racism” campaign by unfurling a banner that said . . . “Say Yes to Racism”. The punishment was, predictably, a mere slap on the wrist as the Bulgarian FA fined the club 19,000 Levs—about 13,000 dollars. For me, beyond the conventional outrage, it is the pure hypocrisy of some Levski ultras in partaking in the overtly racist displays that offends me.

As discussed earlier, Levski Sofia take their name from national hero Vasil Levski. While he was fighting against Ottoman Turkish rule, he took his theories from the ideas of the French Revolution. Even a cursory look at his Wikipedia page (I don’t have my Bulgarian history literature handy at the moment) will show you his thoughts on Balkan ethnicities living together:

“We will be free in complete liberty where the Bulgarian lives: in Bulgaria, Thrace, Macedonia; people of whatever ethnicity live in this heaven of ours, they will be equal in rights to the Bulgarian in everything. We will have a flag that says, ‘Pure and sacred republic’… It is time, by a single deed, to achieve what our French brothers have been seeking…”

“We’re not driving away the Turkish people nor their faith, but the emperor and his laws (in a word, the Turkish government), which has been ruling not only us, but the Turk himself in a barbarian way.”

When a team takes the name from a thinker like this it only makes their fan’s racist behavior—in a stadium bearing that same thinker’s name—more disappointing . . .

 

I’m back among the monkey chants and anti-Israel flags (along with Lazio Roma flags, interestingly), freezing still, realizing that Levski have an uphill battle in front of them. On the stroke of half time CSKA add their second courtesy of young Romanian striker Sergiu Bus to make it 0-2, sending Levski to the locker room reeling and me into the cover of the stadium “café” for another cup of urine colored tea (this time a double portion in a beer cup).

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The second half starts with a Pyro show from the visitors, along with message to their team to not let up: EAT SLEEP CSKA REPEAT. Even I can understand that one, and play pauses for a few minutes and I wait in the cold, waiting for the smoke to settle.

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As play resumes, it is the Levski Ultras’ turn—they send out an array of flares, in their team’s colors, which the wind blows back in their faces. But it is a beautiful show nonetheless, complete with a Confederate flag.

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With the fans distracted and the match heading south the police take the chance to line up in front of the stands, sensing that things could get rough. I have the same feeling and resign myself to leaving with ten minutes to play. I want to see the end, but the result—on and off the field—seems certain and I don’t want to be caught up in post match excitement like in Stockholm.

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My prescience pays off—a pitch invasion was prevented following CSKA’s third goal in the 85th minute when I was safely walking back to my hotel, far from the police, stadium crowds, 55 arrests, and confiscated weapons. In the end, CSKA take the three points with a 0-3 victory and go seven points clear at the top of the Bulgarian A PFG after thirteen rounds. Levski are left in sixth place, eleven points off the pace—karma, no doubt.

 

For a look at my Levski and CSKA shirts please see the Bulgaria section under Football Shirts.

For video of the match and some interesting interviews from Ultras from both sides please see Ultras World on Youtube:

 

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: