Advertisements
Home

You Bring the Fish We’ll Bring the Raki: Brotherly Love By the Bosphorus

1 Comment

This is certainly not the FA Cup, with its thrilling history of lower league sides upsetting the favorites against all odds. Its not the French cup, where the exploits of Calais (my personal favorite) and Quevilly live on in memory. No, it is just the Ziraat Turkish Cup group stage. The chaos outside the stadium tells me that a big team is in town for a rare fixture and that the small Yusuf Ziya Öniş stadium cannot cope with the excitement. Fans with vodka and beer in hand mix on the streets with the riot policemen trying to organize the crowds. It is nigh on impossible and the fans are milling in the streets, blocking through traffic and my entrance to the ticket booths.

20141204_132203 20141204_132439

I decide to head to a nearby market and grab a beer while I ask for some advice. Turkish giants Beşiktaş have made the trip up the Bosphorus to face third tier Sarıyer for a small Istanbul derby and the home fans are excited at the prospect of seeing their heroes in person. According to the shopkeeper there are no tickets on sale but he urges me to try my luck. Things are flexible, to a point, after all. I finish my Bomonti and head back to the gates. The fans are still mixing vodka with orange juice on park benches and the cops are still engaging in shoving matches with those trying to enter without tickets. I thread my way through the rowdy scene and ask a young cop about tickets. He shakes his head and I can tell that the helmet is too big, it looks like a rented Halloween costume. “No tickets, No tickets”.

“Are you sure? There is a guy getting some at ticket office 1 right behind you!”

“No tickets”. He doesn’t even bother to turn and look, perhaps his visor is equipped with a mirror? Of course it isn’t.

“Where is your chief? I want to speak with your chief.” Asking for a higher authority never fails, it helps the younger cops feel like they’re doing their jobs correctly. I’m sent over to the chief who is struggling to keep up his end of the shoving match with his arms constricted by the tear gas launcher slung across his chest.

“Where can I get tickets?”

“There are no tickets.” Its always the same answer, like they’re speaking from the same script, but I can play that game as well.

“But what about the guy at ticket office 1? He’s getting tickets.” This has the desired affect as the cop spins around and orders a subordinate to ask the ticket office what is happening. The subordinate’s report upon returning is neither what the chief expected to hear nor what he wanted to hear.

“They’re selling tickets.”

“What? First they say they’re sold out, now they’re selling them again?!” Exasperated the chief police officer pushes me through, cursing under his breath.

At last I’m at ticket office 1 grabbing a twenty seven lira ticket to the Beşiktaş section. I’m not used to sitting in away sections, but after London why not join the Beşiktaş faithful on another trip away from home? The entrance to the home section looks like a nightmare anyway.

20141204_133832

Inside the Beşiktaş fans have almost filled all of their section of 4000 fans and are creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the old Inönü Stadium. The Beşiktaş chants are coming with an intensity equal to the player’s play on the field as a squad made up of mainly reserves keep surging forward, threatening the Sarıyer goal. Cenk Tosun and Olcay Şahan score two quick goals in the first ten minutes, a sign of a comfortable victory ahead for the visitors.

With the result looking certain—Beşiktaş win 4-0 after all—I take my time to study the fans around me. To my left a father is teaching his young son what it means to love Beşiktaş as he joins full force in the chanting.

20141204_134816

They are cheering with the Sarıyer fans. It is undoubtedly a rarity in football these days.

“Sarıyer sen bizim Kardeşimizsin!”

“Sarıyer you are our Brother!”

I remember a trip to the bank a couple years ago where I learned first hand about the brotherhood of these two teams. I had been waiting in line with a number twenty spots behind the one being serviced. Just as I was resigning myself to an hour’s wait a man saw my Sarıyer scarf and, walking over, said “Sarıyer are our brothers”. He was wearing a Beşiktaş shirt and gave me his number, two behind the one currently being serviced. I was momentarily shocked, but the relationship between the two teams intrigued me.

 

In European football there are many such relationships, but they are often international friendships. When I went to the PAOK-Aris derby in Salonika, Greece, there were Borussia Dortmund and Botev Plovdiv flags in the stands, a mutual support club of three teams that share the colors of yellow and black. On the walls of PAOK’s Toumba Stadium one can find graffiti for the “Orthodox Brothers” of PAOK and Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade, two teams that share black and white as their colors. On the other side, supporters of Olympiakos Piraeus—PAOK’s bitter rivals from Athens—share a friendly relationship with Partizan’s eternal rivals in Belgrade, Red Star Belgrade (Both teams are red and white).

In Italy there are some domestic friendships that mainly break down along political lines. S.S. Lazio Roma’s fans have a strong fascist identity and maintain a friendship with Hellas Verona, a side whose Ultras share a right wing political stance. Due to on the field play, Lazio are also friendly with Inter Milan and Triestina. Internationally, Lazio have important friendships with Real Madrid (themselves Franco’s team), Espanyol, West Ham United (due to Paolo Di Canio, famous for his fascist salute), and Levski Sofia who flew Lazio flags at the Eternal Derby of Sofia that I attended.

 

On the other end of the political spectrum in Italy is AS Livorno, a team with a strong left wing identity from the city where the Italian communist party was founded. They have good relationships with other left wing supporters, most famously Olympique de Marseille and AEK Athens (whose fan’s political activity I have also written about). Livorno also have a famous friendship with Turkey’s foremost workers team, the team of the railways Adana Demirspor, whom they played a rare friendly with in 2009. After all, it isn’t every day that a Serie A team come to visit a (then) third division Turkish team.

While I do not know the roots of the Beşiktaş-Sarıyer connection, I personally believe that some of it may be rooted in politics. The district of Sarıyer borders Beşiktaş along the Bosphorus and, like Beşiktaş, has been a Republican People’s Party (CHP) stronghold in recent elections. In the 2014 local elections the CHP’s Murat Haznedar won Beşiktaş’s mayoralty with 76.1 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger was the AKP’s Zeynel Abidin Okul who took 16.6 percent of the vote. In the same elections the CHP’s Şükrü Genç won Sarıyer’s mayoralty with 51.1 percent of the vote, besting the AKP’s Mahmut Sedat Özsoy who took 39.2 percent of the vote.

When looking at past elections in both Beşiktaş and Sarıyer the same trend is evident. In the 2011 general elections the CHP won 64.17 percent of the vote to the AKP’s 20.28 percent in Beşiktaş. In the 2010 Constitutional referendum (seen as a referendum on then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule) 77.73 percent of Beşiktaş’s voters rejected the change, and in the 2009 local elections 68.9 percent of Beşiktaş voted for the CHP’s Ismail Ünal as mayor to the 15.8 percent who voted for the AKP candidate Sibel Çarmıklı.

In Sarıyer’s 2011 general election vote the CHP narrowly edged out the AKP 41.79 percent to 40.32 percent. In the 2010 referendum 55.94 voted against the change, while in the 2009 local elections 37.5 percent of Sarıyer voted for the CHP’s Şükrü Genç to 31.8 percent who voted for the AKP’s Mehmet Akif Şişmanoğlu.

In fact the CHP strength in Sarıyer has been so prominent that it even prompted some gerrymandering by officials in 2012 when three neighborhoods with strong AKP support were taken from Şişli district (A CHP stronghold) and tied to Sarıyer in order to lower the CHP advantage. Şişli district saw strong support for the DSP candidate Mustafa Sarıgül, who is now a CHP member, in the 2009 and 2011 elections. However, in three neighborhoods of Şişli, there was a conspicuous AKP advantage in 2011. The vote totals in the 2011 general elections from the three gerrymandered neighborhoods, Maslak, Huzur, and Ayazağa are below:

Maslak Mahallesi

AK Parti: 452

CHP:389

MHP:191

AKP Advantage: 63

 

Huzur Mahallesi

AK Parti: 2.060

CHP:2.621

MHP:636

CHP Advantage: 561

 

Ayazağa Mahallesi

AK Parti: 12.549

CHP: 3.424

MHP: 2.427

AKP Advantage: 9,125

 

Total:

AK Parti: 19.748

CHP: 15.994

MHP: 5.115

 

If these three neighborhoods had been added to Sarıyer in the 2011 elections, when the AKP won 71,301 votes and the CHP won 74,066 votes, the almost 4,000 extra AKP votes would have won the district for the party. By taking pro-AKP neighborhoods out of a district that they have no hope to win and putting them in a district that sees a tighter race the AKP can ensure electoral victory by way of gerrymandering, an unsightly scene for a democracy indeed.

So back to the football. Beşiktaş have won the match 4-0, after much mutual chanting, and the atmosphere is, indeed brotherly. But not to the cops, who seem to want something to happen. They have blocked the exits, saying that the policy is home fans out first, then away fans. But that is in matches where there is tension right? And if there is no tension…why not create it—that seems to be the mentality of the cops. We’re literally locked in, and the Beşiktaş fans give our captors a little piece of their mind.

20141204_154040

A small chant of “Mustafa Kemalin Askerleriyiz” comes up—“We are Mustafa Kemal’s Soldiers” before a less political and more effective chant comes up from the Sarıyer stands.

 

“Hep beraber, kapıya—Hep beraber, rakı’ya!”

“All together to the doors—All together to raki!”

 

The Beşiktaş fans answer them as only they can:

“Balıklar sizden—Rakılar bizden!”

“The fish are on you—The raki is on us!”

 

Indeed, Sarıyer’s badge sports two fish in an oval shape, so why not. The cops don’t know what to do, and it is clear that the only thing on people’s minds is a relaxing meal of fish washed down by Turkey’s famous anise flavored liquor. The cops relent, the doors are opened, and we are all released onto the streets, blue and white shirts mixing with black and white shirts in a march all the way to the shores of the Bosphorus.

20141204_154652

Advertisements

Istanbul Excursions: A Visit to Beylerbeyi–November 9 2014

2 Comments

2014-11-09 16.43.50

The space between the Bosphorus Bridge and Beylerbeyi 75. Yil Stadium may be the only large green area left in Istanbul. I honestly do not think that it is an exaggeration as I take the narrow dilapidated staircase that leads from the highway down into the forest. The cracked concrete steps and leafy trees remind me of an Eastern European park and I feel free, released from Istanbul’s chaos. At the bottom of the staircase I’m greeted by a vacant lot with a run down gecekondu—shanty—and a restaurant parking lot full of Mercedes Benzes. The extremes of Istanbul’s inequality are everywhere.

20141109_130600 20141109_130714

The walls are scrawled with Üsküdarspor graffiti and I follow the winding road, keeping the stadium in view to my left. Outside the stadium gates a few Anadolu Üsküdarspor fans are milling around, identifiable only by their green and white scarves. The cops on duty tell me that although Anadolu Üsküdarspor have been designated as the home team the situation is complicated, and I would be better off as a neutral supporter in the Beylerbeyi section. It is definitely complicated; it is, after all, a derby between two teams from two neighboring neighborhoods of the city that share the same stadium. But this is not the San Siro/Giuseppe Meazza for AC Milan-Inter Milan in the Serie A, this is the Beylerbeyi 75. Yil for Üsküdar Anadoluspor-Beylerbeyispor in the TFF 3rd Division. I head over to the Beylerbeyi entrance to find their fans hanging out in front of a kebab restaurant in green and red shirts and buy a ten Lira ticket.

20141109_131422

2014-11-09 16.43.04

A wall opposite me says “Wake Up Muslims!! Wallahi Wake Up”. Üsküdar is one of Istanbul’s oldest and most pious neighborhoods, like Eyüp on the European side (which also lies outside the old city walls). For the population of 500,000 there are 180 mosques, and walking around one can feel the differences between Üsküdar and the European district of Beşiktaş that lies just across the Bosphorus. Unfortunately, Üsküdar was also a victim of the Istanbul riots of September 1955 and many Greek homes and businesses in the neighborhood were vandalized by looters. Much of the Greek presence can be traced back to the 7th century BC, when ancient Greek colonists settled in the area, then called Chrysopolis. But that is far away today—now it is a bustling Muslim neighborhood, the Green of the team’s jerseys serving as an interesting coincidence.

Üsküdar Anadoluspor was founded in 1908 by lawyer and journalist Burhan Felek (who helped Yusuf Ziya Öniş in founding the precursor to the Turkish Football Federation) and achieved some success as runners up in the Istanbul Football League in 1915 and 1917. But the story gets more complicated with this team, one of the first three clubs to be founded after the big three of Beşiktaş (1903), Galatasaray (1905), and Fenerbahçe (1907). Some of the founders left for Kadiköy and founded Fenerbahçe, others stayed in Üsküdar. After the 1980 military coup many of Üsküdar Anadoluspor’s grounds were confiscated by the junta and the few cups the team had won were stolen by looters—one of the few pieces of memorabilia left is this license from the club’s founding years:

takim2

Image Courtesy Of: http://www.zaman.com.tr/cumaertesi_istanbulun-100-yillik-uc-buyuk-takimi-daha-var_774666.html

 

Author’s Note: This is where it gets weird—feel free to skip this paragraph and move on to the next if you’re not so into football:

After a confusing situation involving the formation—and name change—of a subsequent team, the team carrying the original name of Üsküdar Anadoluspor became Selimiyespor, now in the amateur leagues. The current Anadolu Üsküdarspor is what was once Üsküdar Öz Sahrayı Cedidspor, which changed its name to Anadolu Üsküdarspor in order to stay in the second division (If they kept the name of the original team they would have had to start from the third division) after Üsküdar Anadoluspor was relegated to the amateur leagues. If you are still with me the end result is that the current Anadolu Üsküdar team is not the same team that was founded in 1908. Thank you to Süleyman Bitmez and altligler.blogspot for this information, the two team’s almost identical badges are below:

Ads_z anadolu_sk

Images Courtesy Of: http://altligler.blogspot.com.tr/2012/07/anadolu-uskudar-mi-uskudar-anadolu-mu.html

The history of the team on the other side of the “derby”, Beylerbeyispor, is equally intriguing in a political sense. The team, like Anadolu Üsküdar (or Üsküdar Anadolu) is also one of Turkey’s oldest, formed in 1911. Unlike their counterparts from Üsküdar, however, Beylerbeyispor did not have much success in their early years (the club has never featured in Turkey’s top flight)—instead, their notoriety has come in the last decade. The team served as Galatasaray SK’s feeder team from 2003 to 2009 in order to give playing time to up-and-coming young players, similar to the minor league system in America’s Major League Baseball. I even have a Beylerbeyispor shirt from those years that has the same brand, sponsor, and even design (Adidas quartered pattern) as Galatasaray’s shirts from the period, the only difference is the color scheme.

The relationship between the two clubs was cut in 2009 after Galatasaray reportedly took issue with the way Beylerbeyispor was being run; during the six year relationship not a single player of significance rose from Beylerbeyispor to feature for Galatasaray and the adventure ended up costing the latter 6.5 million dollars. More recently other reports have come up concerning the team, including this one from an admittedly biased leftist news portal.

The news story in question was published immediately following the Gezi Park protests in June of 2013. While the content of the article may be debatable, the picture certainly is not: a large banner reading “Adam Gibi Adam” (A Man’s Man), featuring now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s portrait, had been hung from the top of the Beylerbeyi 75. Yil Stadium’s main stand in true cult of personality fashion.

beylerbeyistadi3453635_0

Image Courtesy Of: http://haber.sol.org.tr/spor/pankartin-ardindan-tff-hesaplari-mi-cikiyor-haberi-76463

According to the story the president of Beylerbeyispor, Mustafa Yazici (himself from the same town as Mr. Erdoğan and a former Turkish Football Federation executive) admitted to hanging the portrait while the stadium manager claimed that it was fans who hung it. Regardless of the conflicting reports, what is clear is that the stadium became something of a political advertisement, no doubt due to its prominent location. (The stadium is clearly visible on the left to eastbound traffic exiting the Bosphorus Bridge).

20141109_133152 20141109_133206

These, however, are mere details. What matters is that it is a balmy November day in Istanbul, one where I can sit in shirt-sleeves on the terraces basking in the sun with a beautiful view of green trees, the Bosphorus bridge, and football. It is almost San Francisco in the spring. Beylerbeyi even hit a free kick a quarter of an hour in, the keeper punching it into the roof of the net and making it 0-1 to the “visitors”. The fans are happy for a few moments…until the inevitable tensions come to the fore. Both teams are battling for promotion to the Turkish Second Division, with Beylerbeyi one point behind their rivals and one point out of the final playoff spot. The fans know this, and take offense at a hard foul by an Üsküdar player who, judging by the reactions, used to play for Beylerbeyi. No one likes Benedict Arnolds, especially not in football, and the fans rocking the fences below me show it. A lone plastic seat flies onto the pitch before the police push the fans back into their seats.

20141109_140759

I decide to keep watching from a safe distance, high in the stands, trying to focus on the sun that has cleared the clouds away instead of on the fans yelling obscenities at their counterparts across the protocol stands that serve as a buffer. I try to block it all out and just focus on the beautiful day. But it isn’t easy. At the half hour mark the fans inside the stadium start chanting together with fans outside the stadium standing on a hilltop overlooking the goal in front of me.

Beleştepe canlandı! Seksenlerin stadyum kültürüne geri döndük! (Freeloader hill has come alive! We’ve returned to the stadium culture of the eighties!),” quips one of the older men in front of me. It is humorous, I can’t lie.

20141109_135713

The halftime show is what really makes the stadium come alive however. The PA system chooses to play an odd Turkish rap song similar to this one—the lyrics “Yeşil-Beyaz Şampiyon Üsküdarspor (Green and White, Champions Üsküdarspor)” are what stick out to me…and to the other fans. Soon a crowd of men attempt to climb the fence separating the press box from the stands. As the crush ensues the police have to resort to their billy-clubs to keep the blood thirty group away. The PA announcer tries to explain that he was paid to play the song but—probably due to a request from the cops—he relents and decides on a more innocuous tune: Faydee—Can’t Let Go.

I decide to change my seat for a third time, the further you are from the crowds the less likely it is that you’ll get caught up in the nonsense, after all.

20141109_143556

The second half starts with a rowdier Beylerbeyi crowd. They’ve been worked into a frenzy and, with not much happening on the pitch, have focused their energy on the opposing fans. It is clear that the tensions will rise like the colors rising into the clear day from the fan’s smoke bombs. Why they chose turquoise and purple—when the team’s colors are red and green—is beyond me. I figure its all they could get their hands on and just laugh, moving for a fourth time so as to not suffocate from the chemicals.

20141109_144638

20141109_144620

When extra riot control police are called in with ten minutes to go I see the writing on the wall and decide to head out with five minutes to go since neither team has shown the potential to change the score.

20141109_145748

I head down to the Bosphorus, a cobble-stoned waterfront promenade lined with Beylerbeyi’s famous fish restaurants, and grab a lunch of stuffed peppers and eggplant moussakka. The excitement and tension of the match day is all gone now, and it feels like another planet. Tourists visitng the Ottoman summer residence—Beylerbeyi Palace—are everywhere, ready to get on their boat for the next stop in a Bosphorus tour. Out on the water front it is calm as the sunset hour nears, young couples take selfies galore and I know that I should get going.

20141109_151926 20141109_153424

As I near the main street I hear a familiar din, the sound of young voices singing in unison backed by drums. Indeed, Beylerbeyispor held on for the win. It is gridlock as the fans have blocked traffic to celebrate their derby victory. The tourists look on, mouths agape at the spectacle.

2014-11-09 16.44.50

I leave them to witness the odd scene and flag down a passing dolmus. Fifteen minutes to Üsküdar via minibus, and fifteen more to Beşiktaş via boat, just trying to outrun the setting sun for a little while longer.

Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 2: The Battle for Plovdiv: Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv 10.28.2014

2 Comments

Before the excitement of the Eternal Derby can wear off I take the two and a half hour train journey from Sofia to Plovdiv for the first leg of a Bulgarian Cup quarterfinal tie and Bulgaria’s second biggest derby, The Battle for Plovdiv. As I watch the snow-covered countryside roll by me from the dirty window of the train’s last wagon, I know this is just the calm before the storm and that keeps me from being lulled to sleep by the beauty.

20141027_140616

In Plovdiv I head to the Old Plovdiv Hostel, a nice building in the old city with a friendly staff (one of whom has a keychain in the shape of a Botev shirt) that give me the run down on how to get a match ticket. Apparently the tickets could be sold out but, as the receptionist says, “If I use charm and looks I can find a ticket. My friend—very good looking—charmed the girl in the ticket office and she liked him so she found him a ticket.”

“Do you think . . . my face will work?” I ask smiling.

“Just comb your hair I think,” she says, returning the smile. I make a mental note of it and hope for the best as I head out, down St. Petersburg street to the Lauta Stadion, but not before catching the Botev faans drinking en masse on a side street under the watchful eyes of riot police.

20141028_162953

Lokomotiv Plovdiv (The Smurfs) were formed in 1926 as Sportclub Plovdiv after the merger of two Plovdiv teams Karadzha and Atletik (For more detailed history please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Lokomotiv_Plovdiv). Sportclub soon fell victim to Sovietization policies and consumed smaller ethnic clubs like Erevan and Shant (Armenian teams) and Parchevich (a Catholic club). This forced assimilation in sport changed Sportclub’s name to Slavia Plovdiv in 1945 when it became bigger as a result of the mergers, and eventually made it a founding member of the Bulgarian top flight in 1948.

Meanwhile, in a parallel history to Sportclub, the union of railway workers got a team in 1935—ZSK Plovdiv—and gradually became a force in Plovdiv’s footballing scene. ZSK soon became Lokomotiv Plovdiv after Sovietization, joining the ranks of other Eastern bloc teams such as Lokomotiv Sofia, Lokomotiv Moscow, and Lokomotiv Leipzig. But they were still mired in the third division.

That changed in 1949, when the Bulgarian Communist Party decreed that sports clubs would serve as fitness departments of important state enterprises such as the police, army, and railways. This was the same time that Levski Sofia became Dinamo Sofia in line with Stalinization. With politics now intertwined with sports, the smallest club in the city—Lokomotiv—were merged with the largest club—Slavia—by virtue of Lokomotiv being a team supporting a state enterprise, in this case the national railways, to become Torpedo Plovdiv. The chaos of the mergers took its toll, and Torpedo was relegated in 1955. It would take until 1961 for the club to return to Bulgaria’s top flight, but when it returned it would be finally known as Lokomotiv; the end of Stalinaztion meant that clubs no longer had to be related to specific state enterprises.

1964-65 saw the team make its best run in Europe, a run to the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the former UEFA cup), which was the beginning of a rise in the club’s fortunes domestically before a second relegation in 1980 While the team has been decidedly average on the field since then (despite a rare championship in 2012), it is notable that their fans were the first to organize in Bulgaria, founding an official fan club in 1988. The political regime at the time was not favorable to independent civil society organizations then, but it is still a good example of a football club being able to challenge a totalitarian state system.

On the other side of the derby is Botev Plovdiv (The Canaries), the oldest continuously functioning football club in Bulgaria, founded by students in 1912. The club takes its name from another Bulgarian national hero, Hristo Botev. Like Vasil Levski, Botev was also a nationalist revolutionary leader in addition to being a famous poet. After Levski’s death he led the 1876 April Uprising against Ottoman forces, returning from exile in Romania before being killed in battle.

Like other teams in Bulgarian football, Botev’s name was changed in 1947 due to Sovietization and endured a nine year period of being known by various acronyms (DNV, DNA, and SKNA) before a return to their original name at the end of Stalinization in 1957. The team again lost their name, which evoked the pre-communist period, from 1968 until the fall of communism when the team was known as Trakia Plovdiv.

The first of their two titles was won in 1929, four years after their first international match against Fenerbahce of Istanbul. They were part of the brand new Bulgarian A PFG in 1951 before suffering relegation in 1953. They returned the next season, and five years later their current Hristo Botev Stadium was completed. This paved the way to their first Bulgarian Cup title (1962), a second championship (1967), a second place finish (1963), and a run to the quarterfinals of the 1962-63 Cup Winners Cup, eliminating Shamrock Rovers and Steaua Bucharest before bowing out to Atletico Madrid.

The 1980s saw the team endure its best decade when they secured six top three finishes—despite not winning any championships—before again falling into mediocrity and ultimately collapsing four years ago. After 47 seasons in the top flight Botev were relegated at the end of the 2000-01 season. Although returning to the top flight the team was never a force, and in February 2010 the team was relegated due to financial problems. Luckliy for this derby, however, the team bounced back. Despite having started the 2010-11 season in the third division, an experienced squad managed 37 wins and one draw out of 38 matches which took them to the second tier before a return to the top flight in 2012-2013 when they finished fourth.

 

Outside the Lauta Stadium I am met with riot police, as is to be expected. This means that beer will not be an option tonight. I buy my ticket from the first ticket booth I see, to the left of the entrance gate. I later learn that tickets sold there are only for the uncovered stand, where the Lokomotiv fan groups such as Lauta Army and Lauta Hooligans congregate. For a more relaxed viewing experience get your tickets in the booth on the right side of the fan shop, along the foot path that leads to the covered stand—that is where tickets for the covered stand are sold.

The sky is a beautiful light grey as the sun sets in Plovdiv above the players preparing to take the field. I’m staring at some comical pictures of Botev coach Velislav Vutsov that are being given out to the fans and I’m left wondering what on earth they mean. Beyond me Lokomotiv’s fans make a choreography that, apparently, is for the club’s 88th anniversary. After the show, its time for football.

20141028_171151 20141028_171722 20141028_171728

20141028_174331

 

The game is a back and forth affair with not a lot of quality. It is clear that Botev are the stronger side, but Lokomotiv are holding their own with their fans behind them. Every five minutes or so the fans in front of me heckle their rival’s coach, hurling insults at him that I wish I could understand—after all, the goat picture is still making me laugh. On the stroke of half time Lokomotiv’s veteran captain and four-time A PFG scoring champion Martin Kamburov takes a free kick beautifully, putting his side up 1-0.

 

The second half starts just as the first half started: beautiful girls in the stands and me eating sunflower seeds, huddling for warmth in the falling temperatures.

“WHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOSHHHHHHH……POT POT POT POT POT POT!!!!!!!!”

I’m immediately taken out of my daze as missiles are fired from behind the goal to my left, sending bright red fireworks into the night sky over the stadium. The Lokomotiv stand opposite me is ablaze, and I can see now why the ultras waited for night to fall to put on their show. Gradually the red dots in the sky begin to fall slowly, almost suspended in the air, like snow drops. Small parachutes open up and the red flares slowly drop onto the field. Even the players are no longer concentrating on the match—they’re all staring into the sky!

20141028_184628 20141028_184656 20141028_184709 IMG-20141028-WA0095 IMG-20141028-WA0096 IMG-20141028-WA0100 20141028_184810 20141028_184817

 

After a short delay while the players pick the parachutes out of the sky play resumes—lucky for me, this derby will not be stopped like others in the past. Now it is Botev’s turn to light their flares. Their end, bathed in black and gold (the colors chosen to symbolize unity between orthadox and catholic students, respectively) now turns to orange.

20141028_184948 20141028_184955

It is their final attempt to push their team on, and as the final whistle nears I decide to stay—I won’t leave early like in Sofia. I feel something—call it intuition—but I just get an odd feeling that something will happen. The minutes are ticking down, and the fourth official raises his sign—five minutes are added on.

 

Attacks go closer and closer for Botev and I think I know what will happen. A corner is sent in, the ball is knocked out for another corner. A great save by the Lokomotiv keeper keeps the narrow lead. Then another corner—and 1-1. Young striker and Bulgarian U21 international Alexander Kolev (http://www.transfermarkt.com/alexander-kolev/profil/spieler/239527) has equalized in 90+3. I knew it had to happen. Silence. Just the Botev players running to their fans—it is almost surreal. I follow the disappointed fans out into the night, the team to advance to the semi-finals of the Bulgarian Cup will be decided in December’s return leg. They are in a daze from the shock goal, I’m in a daze from two derbies in four days.

 

For those who are curious (like me) I have also included a poem by the aforementioned Hristo Botev:

To My First Love

Hristo Botev

Leave behind this song of love,

Don’t fill my heart with poison –

I am young but never knew what youth is.

And even if I knew, I don’t want to remember,

That, which I have hated

And which I have trampled before you.

 

Forget the time I cried

For your gentle glance and sigh:

I was a slave back then – dragging chains,

And for just one smile of yours,

Frenzied, I despised the world

And trampled my feelings in the mud!

 

Forget about the madness,

The warmth of love is now extinguished

And you can’t rekindle it in my chest,

Which is overcome by deep sorrow,

Where everything is covered with wounds,

And my heart of evil is shrouded with loathing.

 

You have a beautiful voice – you’re young,

But do you hear the forest singing?

Do you hear the destitute crying?

That’s the voice my soul craves for,

And there is the place that is calling for my wounded heart,

Where it is always drenched in blood.

 

O, don’t speak those words of poison.

Hear the moan of the forest and foliage,

Hear the wailing of centuries old storms,

How they tell word by word –

Tales of old times,

And songs of tribulations to come!

 

Start singing this song,

Start singing, young love, with sorrow,

Sing about the brother who sold his brother,

And how strength and youth wither,

How a lonesome widow cries,

And how homeless children suffer.

 

Sing, or hush and leave!

My heart is trembling – it will fly away,

It will fly away, my love – wake up!

There, where the land is rumbling and thundering

From shrieks that are chilling and evil,

And songs of epiphany over graves…

 

There… there the storm cracks branches,

And the sword enfolds them in a wreath;

The ghastly valleys are agape

Where grains of lead are screeching,

There death wears a gentle smile,

And the chilled grave offers sweet rest!

 

Ah, these songs and this smile,

whose voice will start singing?

While I am lifting a bloody glass,

Before which even love is silent,

And then, I will start singing myself

About what I love, what I long for and what I hold dear.

 

Translated by:

© Yana Raycheva

 

ДО МОЕТО ПЪРВО ЛИБЕ

Остави таз песен любовна,

не вливай ми в сърце отрова –

млад съм аз, но младост не помня,

пък и да помня, не ровя

туй, що съм ази намразил

и пред тебе с крака погазил.

 

Забрави туй време, га плачех

за поглед мил и за въздишка:

роб бях тогаз – вериги влачех,

та за една твоя усмивка,

безумен аз светът презирах

и чувства си в калта увирах!

 

Забрави ти онез полуди,

в тез гърди веч любов не грее

и не можеш я ти събуди

там, де скръб дълбока владее,

де сичко е с рани покрито

и сърце зло в злоба обвито!

 

Ти имаш глас чуден – млада си,

но чуйш ли как пее гората?

Чуйш ли как плачат сиромаси?

За тоз глас ми копней душата,

и там тегли сърце ранено,

там, де е се с кърви облено!

 

О, махни тез думи отровни!

Чуй как стене гора и шума,

чуй как ечат бури вековни,

как нареждат дума по дума –

приказки за стари времена

и песни за нови теглила!

 

Запей и ти песен такава,

запей ми, девойко, на жалост,

запей как брат брата продава,

как гинат сили и младост,

как плаче сиротна вдовица

и как теглят без дом дечица!

 

Запей, или млъкни, махни се!

Сърце ми веч трепти – ще хвръкне,

ще хвръкне, изгоро, – свести се!

Там, де земя гърми и тътне

от викове страшни и злобни

и предсмъртни песни надгробни…

 

Там… там буря кърши клонове,

а сабля ги свива на венец;

зинали са страшни долове

и пищи в тях зърно от свинец,

и смъртта й там мила усмивка,

а хладен гроб сладка почивка!

 

Ах, тез песни и таз усмивка

кой глас ще ми викне, запее?

Кървава да вдигна напивка,

от коя и любов немее,

пък тогаз и сам ще запея

що любя и за що милея!…

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

5 Comments

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.

20141025_145358

20141025_150815

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.

20141025_160342 20141025_160600 20141025_160350

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.

20141025_160936

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.

20141025_162612

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).

20141025_162742 20141025_164501

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.

20141025_171110 20141025_171436 20141025_171244

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.

20141025_172641 20141025_172655 20141025_172725

 

20141025_172816

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.

20141025_174208

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:

 

London Fall Football Fest 2014 (10.01.2014-10.06.2014): Six Days, Four Matches, One City

5 Comments

Ölümle Yaşamı Ayıran Çizgi, Siyahla Beyazı Ayıramaz Ki . . .

The Line That Separates Life From Death Can’t Separate Black From White . . .

Those poetic lines come from Beşiktaş supporters and they became a bit of a mantra for me during my recent trip to London. It was four matches in six days, punctuated by all sorts of lessons learned on either side of lines that separate so many instances of life—things that are so close yet so far apart. One often thinks of white and black as opposites—symbolizing life and death, respectively. Yet, in the context of one football team, these two opposites are inseparable; separate they may mean two different things but together they symbolize something that is very much alive: love for one football team.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part One: The Line That Separates Football Crazy From Just Plain Crazy

 

Çocukluk aşkımsııııııın!!!!!

Sen ilk göz ağrımsıııııın!!!!

You’re my childhood love!!

You’re the first apple of my eye!!!

 

The tune—if it can even be called that—rises from a single tinny voice somewhere behind me. Imagine the most off-key singer you’ve ever heard . . . then ten times worse. This is something like that. I haven’t turned my head yet, neither has Ekin. We want to make it crystal clear that we are not with this man.

 

Kimseyi, kimseyi sevmedim senin gibiiiiii…

Sevdanın uğruna terkettim herşeyiiiii…

No one, I’ve loved no one like I’ve loved you…

I’ve abandoned everything for the sake of your passion…

 

No, we have certainly never seen this man in our life.

“John, what was our flight number?”

“Let me check . . . 519.”

“519? What kind of a flight number is that?”

“I don’t know man! It’s on the boarding pass!”

 

Hayatın anlamıııııı

GALATASARAY!!!!!!

Hayatın anlamıııııı

GALATASARAY!!!!!!

 

The meaning of life is….

GALATASARAY!!!!!

The meaning of life is….

GALATASARAY!!!!!

 

The off key-tune keeps interrupting us as we try to fill out our immigration cards. Our minds have turned to mush after traveling and now, at 12am, this one-man sideshow is really the last straw. By now others have noticed him and are starting to stare. The UK citizens line is staring, and the non-Turkish contingent in the non-UK citizens line begin to send disapproving looks his way. He seems to be oblivious as I look him over.

He is definitely a strange looking fellow. But, then again, you’ve got to be a little off to be belting out Galatasaray songs in the middle of the night below the UK BORDER sign in the passport control line at London Stansted Airport.

I just hope that his ill-timed display of team pride won’t disrupt our entry; our purpose of visit—to see some football matches—could mean we get painted with the same brush as our wayward friend in line behind us. After all, the UK BORDER sign puts us in our place. We are all guilty until proven innocent here.

 

We inch through the line at a snail’s pace, everyone is being scrutinized down to the last detail. I’m not worried about getting to where we need to go—the busses to central London run 24 hours a day from Stansted. However, I am worried about the exchanges taking place behind me.

“I can see the light! We will get the three points from Arsenal!” He sounds confident, judging by the sound of his voice. Perhaps he hasn’t watched the first five matches of the season.

“What light? Have you seen us play lately? I’m treating this as a sightseeing trip!” Someone gives him the answer I would have given.

“A sight-seeing trip?” He gets in the other man’s face. “If you’re just here to see the sights then you can’t say ‘Galatasaray’!” He is definitely out of his mind and I just turn to Ekin. We share the same grave looks, looks we know all too well from living in the same country some 3,000 Kilometers away.

 

Gözlerime bak! Gözlerime baksana!! (Look into my eyes! Look me in the eyes!)” he has now found another adversary and is staring him down in a zero-sum game. After all, they don’t have anywhere to go—they’re surrounded by velvet ropes on either side. Another man tries to intervene.

Yapma, değmez. Haydi kardeşim, en azından burada yapma (Don’t do it, its not worth it. Come on brother, at least don’t do it here)”. I chuckle at the “don’t do it here”. Its clear that this man will cause some trouble in England—this just isn’t the time or place for it.

 

Ekin and I laugh at this with the people behind us in line. They are at least normal. One is a girl who has lived in London for seven years, another is a middle aged man who has come to see the game, like us. He says he is looking for tickets to the Beşiktaş match as well and Ekin—ever the optimist—assures him that some can be found.

“Well, if not, all I want to do is watch this Galatasaray match safe and sound.” He pauses as if for effect and all four of us look over our shoulders. “I mean, there will be people like that.”

Yes, there will indeed be people like that. I can read Ekin’s mind as we stand, immigration papers in hand, waiting for our turn to be examined beneath the UK BORDER sign. All we can do now is stay away from those who live on the other side of that line separating football crazy and just plain old crazy.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Two: The Line That Separates Turkey From Europe (And England From Europe, For That Matter)—Arsenal FC-Galatasaray SK (4-1) 10.01.2014

 

We’re seated in the Arsenal seats but we may as well be in the Galatasaray section. Only a single police officer separates us from our fellow fans to the right; nothing separates us from the Arsenal fans to our left (who would surely tear us limb from limb if they knew our true allegiance).

20141001_195804 20141001_201522

Before I can get settled and take in the atmosphere of Emirates Stadium it seems as if the game is already over. Danny Welbeck has already netted two goals in the first half hour en route to his eventual hat trick. Not that this surprises me of course, I just thought that Galatasaray would be able to at least hold “the Gunners” off until the second half—such is the hopeless hope of a football fan. “Two nil, to the Arsenal…two NIL, to the Arsenal!” rings out across the Emirates Stadium, and I just hope that those around us don’t notice our conspicuous silence.

20141001_201529

As the match starts to slip away from Galatasaray I can feel the tensions rise and the policeman next to us starts to scan the crowd, the nervous look showing in his young eyes. Like the oppressive humidity before an oncoming rainstorm the air is heavy and the inevitable thunderclap comes in the form of sound bombs. Then comes the downpour. Flares are literally raining down onto the pitch as the Galatasaray section is bathed in an orange glow. Smoke rises into the London night and that old familiar burning scent comes to my nostrils. I can’t help but think that “this is football”.

20141001_202143 20141001_202100 20141001_202320

The grass has caught fire and Galatasaray keeper Fernando Muslera picks up one of the flares as Wesley Sneijder does his best to calm his fans down.

20141001_202158

The Arsenal fans, for their part, are watching with a mix that is equal parts fear and glee. Fear because it is an unpredictable situation, glee because London has not seen such a colorful night in a long time. While pyro shows are common in Eastern European stadia, they are virtually non-existent in Britain. It is that strange sense of being both in and out of Europe that the English love to cultivate.

20141001_202152

The PA announcer is barely audible as bottles begin to fly in the Galatasaray section. Arsenal fans in the upper decks are egging on the visiting supporters below as they return fire, not to be outdone. Extra police are called in to form a ring around the unruly supporters while the riot gear gets distributed among them. The policeman to our right takes off his vest and calmly dons his helmet as the Arsenal fans hold the tune “Who are ya?!” It is definitely going to be a long night, I can read it in the faces of the cops swarming around us.

20141001_202553 20141001_213456

The Arsenal fans are booing the Galatasaray fans with each chair that is thrown into the air. Their reaction is the right one—after all, you don’t go into someone’s house and ransack it. But this is football. The hooliganism that Britain terrorized Europe with in the 1980s has now come back to them. I would have preferred it if my fellow fans could have shown a modicum of self-control but that isn’t always possible. I think back to the man in the line at passport control. No, it isn’t always possible at all, and I’m not surprised. It is the childish glee of the Arsenal supporters that surprises me more. But it too is normal. After all, they can relax. They are the ones on the other side of the line. They are behind their police. They are an island. They are in Europe. And Turkey is not, it is that simple.

 

By halftime it is 3-0, seven minute into the second half it is 4-0 as Danny Welbeck completes his hat trick and I’m bracing for the chant “Five nil, to the Arsenal. FIVE nil! To the Arsenal!” but it never comes. Keeper Wojciech Szczesny is sent off just past the hour mark and Burak Yilmaz sends the substitute keeper the wrong way to grab a consolation goal and make it 4-1. My consolation is that four of the five goals came in the goal directly in front of me. But it is a hollow feeling, scraping what little happiness we can get out of a night where the lines between Turkey and Europe showed themselves as clear as the bright orange flares burning in the smoky air.

As the police dogs come onto the field to prevent a pitch invasion after the final whistle we file out, headed to the Arsenal Tavern down the road to drown our sorrows in a few pints of London Pride.

20141001_213752

 

London Fall Football Fest Interlude #1: The Line That Separates Art from Art

 

I don’t think I’ll ever understand modern art. I’m trying to work off the previous night’s stress before tonight’s Tottenham-Beşiktaş match by taking in some “high culture” to offset my days and nights spent in the “low culture” of football stadiums. The day before it had been the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, today it is Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames. As I stroll through the exhibits I find it difficult to wrap my mind around what constitutes “Art”. The masterpieces I saw at the National Gallery blew me away. On the same level as the pieces of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg they inlcuded, among other things, Monets, Friedrichs, and what was probably the first “Instagram collage”…from 1642, a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu by Pilippe de Champaigne.

20141001_130212 20141001_131721 20141001_142959

Now, I can only laugh when a mirror on canvas is presented to me as art. As if the mirror wasn’t enough, then there is of course a beige octagon on the wall. Or vertical brush strokes, painted until the paint runs out. Those too are art. I was hoping that the beers I drank at the Globe Theater—the absurdity of Shakespeare’s famous venue housing a watering hole aside—would kick in at the Tate but I have no such luck. I look at myself in the mirror, criticizing the lines on my face and decide “No. This is much too ugly to be art”. Or is it?

20141003_134800

20141003_134816

 

20141003_133232

I remember a conversation I once had with a friend, himself an aspiring artist. When I told him that I disliked some of the pieces of modern art on display at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) museum—after all, is a simple black canvas with a red square art?—he told me that was exactly what art is supposed to do. Anger or dislike are still emotions just like love or enjoyment, so—even if it is not positive, if it elicits an emotion in the viewer then it is indeed art. By his definition then yes, I suppose Tate modern is certainly a tour de force of emotionally stirring artwork!

I am left trying to work out the thin line that separates the concepts of “art” in my head as I leave the former power plant that is now a modern art Mecca and head down the walking path along the Thames. Teenagers are skateboarding in front of an urban gallery of spray painted “art” while I peruse the nearby used book market. I choose The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, reasoning that a British author is most fitting. Plus, I think most of us can agree to its merit as “art”.

20141003_163528 20141003_163617

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Three: The Line That Separates The Bad People From The Good People—Tottenham Hotspur FC-Besiktas JK (1-1) 10.02.2014

“Hey! You! Take that Galatasaray shirt off, you can’t wear that here!” I look around with the most innocent “Who, me?” face I can muster as the cop comes up to me. We are buried in the innards of White Hart Lane in the small café area allotted to the Beşiktaş fans–the walls tell me what section I am in.

20141002_205513

“Come on now, put something on over that shirt.” The cop is getting impatient as I attempt to explain. As I tell him that our friend invited me here and explicitly told me to wear my Galatasaray shirt it even seems like he will let me go. That is, until I feel a hand on my collar, trying to get at my throat. It is not the policeman’s hand, and it is not an English voice yelling in my ear. It’s…a Turkish voice.

Cikart o formayı! (Take that jersey off!)”

Sakin ol, polis ile konuşmaya calışıyorum! (Calm down, I’m trying to talk to the cop!)”

Burası siyah beyaz tribünü seni öldürürüm! (This is a black and white crowd I’ll kill you!)”

The cop gives me his best “I told you so” look and all I can do is relent. After all, if these two Beşiktaş men were rational—and could understand from logic—I wouldn’t have a hand around my throat. All I can do is resign myself to falling into the policeman’s clutches. It is undoubtedly the safer option.

“Alright, alright” I acquiesce as he carts me away. I can feel the fifty-pound ticket going out the window, I figure he’s ejecting me.

“Where are your seats?” I’m relieved but he still has his arms around me as I direct him to where we were seated. As soon as I’m released I go for my shirt and begin buttoning it up over my beloved jersey. Ekin does the same as the cop looks on, making sure the job is done correctly.

Ne yaptığıni sanıyorsun? (What do you think you’re doing?)” Asks one of the Beşiktaş fans below us as he watches me button up my shirt.

Formaları çıkart dedi (He told us to take off our jerseys).” I say, nodding to the cop.

Hayır. Çıkartmayacaksın. Forma kalcak. (No, you’re not taking it off. You’re going to keep it on)”.

The cop can only shake his head as they start arguing with him before he wanders off realizing we are in good hands. Sometimes there is no reasoning with football fans.

Aşağıda saldırdılar bize (They attacked us downstairs).” I explain in a bid to clear our names as I slowly take my shirt off, revealing the jersey again.

“Boşver. Burası siyah beyaz tribünü falan değil forma’da ay yıldız yok mu? Burası kırmızı beyaz tribünü! (Forget it. This is not a black and white crowd isn’t there a Turkish flag on your shirt? This is a red and white crowd!).” He’s right—we’re here to support a Turkish team, as if the Englishmen surrounding us—the ones yelling profanities at us from behind the police line—care what team we support. They just know we’re the enemy, football is sometimes simple like that.

 

The men in front of us are definitely the good guys, the great guys. They almost want the people who attacked us to come to our seats so that they can set them straight. As one man says, its better to be in a Galatasaray shirt among the Beşiktaş supporters than be the one in a Fenerbahçe shirt among the Tottenham fans (apparently, there was someone like that in the stadium). One guy gives Ekin a Beşiktaş scarf that he wraps around his neck and I know that here, within five minutes, I have interacted with both spectrums of humanity. Luckily, here good has prevailed over bad in spectacular fashion. It’s one nil to the good guys after all.

Buoyed by the good guys’ support I redouble my singing, belting out Beşiktaş songs at the top of my lungs and sending a few choice words out to the Tottenham supporters to our right, focusing on a particular asshole who is mocking my Galatasaray shirt.

“Keep going in his language,” say the fans around me as I continue in a profanity laced exchange that cannot be printed here.

Luckily Demba Ba equalizes by converting his 88th minute spot kick to save me—and us—the blushes, allowing me to take out my anger at the bad guys by giving it to the Tottenham supporters. They’re not to be out done though, sending bottles and coins our way as a scuffle erupts between the fans following the final whistle. I have half a mind to pick up the coins that were thrown at us—after all, they’re British Pounds Sterling! Before I can do that, however, the cops push us back—there is no separation between good guys and bad guys, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş supporters here. We are all just potential hooligans, and they deal with us accordingly before sending us out into the night.

20141002_215132 20141002_215934 20141002_230038

The author wearing the questionable jersey beneath the Spurs Shop.

 

London Fall Football Fest Interlude #2–The Line That Separates Being Lost in Life and Just Finding Your Way Through Life

Four in the morning and you’re sitting at a roulette table on Leicester Square. Soon the morning will come and make everything clear. Or so you hope. Until then its one more Maker’s Mark, and one more bet on Red. Or should it be evens? The day has been long but it isn’t over yet.

It started sightseeing and walking all over the city before moving to a London club, dancing with those girls who carry themselves with a sense of purpose, in a way that only the residents of a true world city can. Some were pretty in a British sense—something about the way they wear their hair. Others were partiers, on vacation from Berlin and Amsterdam. Staring at those dancing crowds you realize you’ve come a long way from getting foreign objects thrown at you on the terraces of White Hart Lane. But that’s not the purpose of your journey, they are not the objects of your attention. It can all wait, you say, following your friends into the casino.

You tell yourself you’re not lost, you’re just finding your way through life like you find your way through the crowds of the cities, the club, the casino, of the football stadiums. And that is where you find your confidence even though your life is as random as the silver ball spinning around the roulette table, waiting to land somewhere, anywhere at all . . .

20141003_170304

20141005_185207

20141002_133410

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Four: The Line That Separates Dreams From Reality—Southend United-Morecambe (0-1) 10.04.2014

No trip to London would be complete without a little rain, and I get my share of it on a Saturday afternoon. In the drizzle the train pulls out of London’s Liverpool Street station and I settle in for the hour-long ride to Prittlewell in Southend-on-Sea. The train stops at a lonely suburban station and I follow the crowds in what I assume is the direction of the stadium under a rain that is slowly picking up.

20141004_123649

At the central intersection there are a few pubs and the crowds have gotten larger, everyone making their way to Roots Hall Stadium. The mood seems buoyant, which is normal considering that Southend have gone four matches without defeat.

 

I queue for twenty minutes, thankful to be out of the rain, and eventually get my twenty-one pound ticket with…the amazing view of a support column. Thankfully, due to my experiences at Fenway Park I’m not too disappointed. It’s all just a part of the adventure.

20141004_150110

No sooner have I settled in than Morecambe strike, Jack Redshaw hitting a fifth minute shot to put the visitors up 0-1. The home “shrimper” fans are not too disappointed that the visiting “shrimps” have scored—after all, Southend are on a good run of form. I like the idea of the match as a “Shrimp Derby” (both teams have shrimps on their badges) and strain around the column to look at the proceedings. Sitting behind that column and listening to the fans screaming at the top of their lungs I can’t help but realize it is all part of a losing battle. Roots Hall, with a capacity of just over 12,000, can not compete with the big money in London that I saw first hand in Emirates Stadium and White Hart Lane. Yet here these fans are, fighting the good fight of dreams in the face of reality. As football has become more and more about money, it is unlikely that any of these smaller teams will ever be able to truly compete with the teams in the Premier League and Championship any time soon. Sadly there isn’t much to see on the field either and, forty minutes later, its still 0-1 at halftime.

I head down to the bar underneath the stand for a half time pint of Foster’s in order to get the gloomy thoughts out of my head. It’s not surpising that a bar exists in the stadium—after all, the team were formed on May 19 1906 in the Blue Boar Pub! Watching highlights of other League Two matches deep inside Roots Hall I think back to high school. My soccer coach at the time, himself an ex Southend United player, had brought our whole team to London when we were just fifteen. It had been our first real experience in European Football (and European drinking), and for that I am forever indebted. The least I can do is take in a match at Roots Hall in return.

20141004_155420

I decide to watch the second half from the top of the stand—I couldn’t go back to the column, now that Southend were attacking the goal with the obstructed view. Again, there isn’t much action even though Southend go close numerous times. Before the final whistle I get scolded for taking pictures by the steward—apparently it is grounds for dismissal. I told him I wasn’t going to make a live stream of the match via my smart phone’s video camera but he wasn’t amused. I guess, for some reason, I just can’t stop getting in trouble at matches during this London Fall Football Fest.

20141004_162735

I’m not offended, he’s just doing his job. The match ends 0-1 to the visitors, just as the sun begins to break through the clouds. I head to the club shop after the final whistle and grab myself a Southend United shirt. I ask whose name should be on it and after a fierce discussion amongst the workers Jack Payne’s #19 is decided upon. Apparently he has been the best over the past month, shortlisted for the Player of the Month award.

What drove me to the shirt was a charity fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK. The Men United logo to raise prostate cancer awareness in the UK will be displayed on every number of every football shirt in the Football League during the 2014-2015 season. This may not be as famous as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge but it is no less important. Prostate Cancer affects one in every eight men in the UK, and one man will die of it every hour according to the charity. So the next time you pull on a Football League shirt, go the extra mile and get a name and number set to help raise awareness while showing your team pride.

20141004_183234 20141004_183305 20141004_183314

For the match report please see Southend United’s website at http://www.southendunited.co.uk/news/article/041014-morecambe-match-report-1988517.aspx. For some professional quality pictures of the match please visit Southend United’s website for the Match Gallery at http://www.southendunited.co.uk/news/article/060114-morecambe-gallery-2000937.aspx.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Five: The Line That Separates England’s Past from England’s Future—West Ham United-Queens Park Rangers (2-0) 10.05.2014

On my last day in London I find myself on Green Street (of Green Street Hooligans fame) getting tickets for an East London-West London derby clash between West Ham United and Queen’s Park Rangers. After getting my tickets from the Boleyn Ground I head down Green Street alone, just to get a sense of the area, and here it hits me how blurred the lines between England’s future and England’s past truly are.

20141005_130807

It is a sight to see. Subcontinental clothiers line the street, windows full of saris that carry all the colors of the rainbow. The colors remind me a bit about my own closet of football shirts back home, and I feel how far I am from the clothiers of Picadilly Circus. Even the signs in the Underground advertise the same things—either sending money to India or Islamic dating. Britain’s colonial past is alive and well here in East London.

20141005_131402 20141005_131513

Being a child of parents that come from two different cultures I know how valuable biculturalism can be—but only if it is accepted. Otherwise, it falls pray to xenophobia and racism—destroyed before it can show its benefits. Here on Green Street watching the QPR and West Ham United fans walk together beneath signs for the Al-Madinah bookstore, I see just how complicated the relationship between England’s past and England’s future is.

20141005_132331

Once my friends finally make it into the Boleyn Ground I’m confronted with this harsh reality again and—not being one to hold my tongue—I almost pay the price for it. I understand how difficult it is to accept immigrants and I know that those glassy blue eyes and beautiful blonde girls (who could only be British) are slowly being outnumbered by new arrivals either from the ex-colonial territories or Eastern Europe. Therefore, I understand but could never condone the sentiments of a particular West Ham United fan I encountered at the Boleyn Ground.

The friend I was staying with, Berker—himself Turkish but a man of the world having studied in the United States and lived in London for four years—led us to our seats. We thought we were in the correct row, since the writing noting the letters of the rows had worn out on the steps. Berker told the man sitting in what he thought were our seats that he was in the wrong area. Well, it turns out we were mistaken, standing in Row J instead of row I.

We apologized to the man, but—after explaining to us our error—I heard him mumble “learn the language”. And it pushed me off the deep end. I told him that it wasn’t my friend’s lack of linguistic skills (which he has in abundance, I might add) that brought us to the wrong row, it was the fact that the stadium’s infrastructure was out of date and that the paint denoting rows had worn off in this particular row. Before he could give me a response my friends chided me for talking back to him. Perhaps they are more refined than I am, I’m not sure. But the one thing I am sure of—despite not being part of any firm—is that one line from Green Street Hooligans rings true: “Its not about your friends having your back. Its about you having your friend’s backs”.

 

Our conflict settled we sat down and watched. West Ham went one to the good early on, much to the enjoyment of our ‘‘friend’’ behind us and went into halftime with the lead. At the half I went for a snack, as is my custom—Carlsberg and spicy hot dog was the fare on offer.

20141005_173713

In feasting I missed United’s second goal, right at the beginning of the second half, but I didn’t really care. After all, I came for stadium culture and stadium fare. Plus, I’d already heard the faithful sing “Bubbles” upon entering the stadium, which was truly an experience to behold and something we can all relate to. We all have hopes and dreams that—for reasons out of our control—cant always be realized.

20141005_162509

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.

Fortune’s always hiding,

I’ve looked everywhere,

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air.

 

For a clip of a few renditions taken from Green Street Hooligans:

And for a Punk Rock Cover, why not the Cockney Rejects rendition from the 1980s—London Calling eh?

Izmir Derby Part III: Karşıyaka SK Izmir-Altay Izmir

2 Comments

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.

20140924_222109

 

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.

20140924_210330

 

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.

fada9aded57469b0ef5cd33fe024215a_k

(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 . .”

20140924_204844

 

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.

20140924_211958

 

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.

20140924_221750

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.

20140924_205423

 

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

4 Comments

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.

280045

 

(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.

 

20140830_114126

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

 

 

 

20140830_114123

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

 

 

 

20140830_114446 20140830_114932 20140830_115017 20140830_115023

Older Entries