Spur of the moment, we decided to go to opening day of the Turkish second division. It was the end of summer, September first, as well as the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. My friend Ekin and I walked down “transvestite alley”, not because of curiosity but because of practicality—it was, after all, the shortest route to the stadium. As we walked, cat-calls rained down from the Ottoman-era overhanging balconies above us in this old district of Izmir, remnants from the days when this city was known as Smyrna, one of the proposed birthplaces of the great poet Homer.
“Come on handsome, what are you doing tonight?”, We made sure not to look up, lest they mistake our shock for interest. We quickened our pace and emerged out of the alley, leaving the half men, half women to find their one-night stands.
On the square were throngs of fans, young and old, clad in the team’s black and white all carrying and air of anticipation for a good winter of football on their faces, sunburned from the summer that had moved on.
Moving towards a ticket booth we saw the pricing plan and couldn’t help but laugh. Fifteen Liras for the covered stand where the hardcore support gathered, five Liras for the open stand and a paltry one Lira for women—no matter where they chose to sit. We assumed it was a half-hearted attempt at creating a family-friendly atmosphere. It didn’t seem to have worked. To my mind came a conversation we had with a friend as we decided to go to the game. He joked that they wouldn’t let us into the stadium without any girls-a joke referring to the policy of most clubs in Turkey, where they require female companion to cut down on conflicts inside when there is too much testosterone. I had replied dryly that it was quite the contrary—they wont let you into the stadium with a girl. The few women who had been successfully lured into the traditionally male-dominated sphere of the stadium were on their partner’s arms, each carrying a, “He better not forget this sacrifice, and never complain again when I tell him we’re going shopping,” look on their faces.
After purchasing one fifteen Lira ticket each (We couldn’t resist the lure of the hardcore supporters), we filed inside. The lights of the stadium were beautifully reflecting off the pristine unspoiled playing surface of the new season in twilight. Opening day truly is different, a virgin moment without the concerns of keeping a winning streak going, or breaking a run of bad form. Behind us, and old man exclaimed to his friend, “Can’t you smell the grass? I’ve missed this!” All over the stands were police officers breaking the Ramadan fast at sundown with packets they had brought from home, while fans (with more disposable income than the poorly-paid police) swarmed the concession stands grilling kofte—succulent greasy meatballs in bread to satiate the hunger most had suppressed all day.
We admired the black and white banners representing Altay’s colors, which were neatly hung from the top of the covered stand down to the protective fence which heralded the start of a new season, The mood was electric, as the fans displayed carefully prepared posters and signs, while boisterously singing songs to urge their players on during pre-game warm-ups.
The Turkish national anthem started, and I stood silent, hand over heart. Behind me was a banner emblazoned with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of modern Turkey—and one of his quotes about sportsmen. As the national anthem culminated into a wave of applause we took our seats behind two plainclothes police officers and most of the older crowd, men who knew the entire roster by heart and whom—from what I assumed—had been coming to support this team from their childhood. Altay are, after all, Izmir’s team. One of their songs boasts that they are the first team of Izmir, founded as they are in 1914, a full nine years before Mustafa Kemal’s war of independence succeeded in founding the Turkish Republic in 1923. Indeed, Altay were one of the first representatives of Turkish nationalism, soundly defeating an Italian team, Garibaldi, 10-0 during the allied occupation of the city after World War One. Later, Mustafa Kemal visited the club and commended their heroism.
No sooner had the first whistle blown when the referee made a call—judged to be erroneous of course—against the home time. In football, any call against your team is in error though, no matter what! One of the old men exploded, “Come on, its only the beginning of the season! What a pimp!” In Turkish, unlike in our bastardized English, to be called a pimp is one of the gravest of insults. Even without knowing the intricacies of the Turkish language I could have figured this out; it was hard to imagine the referee with any number of female companions in his neatly tailored flesh-hugging light blue referee jersey, complete with mid-thigh length shorts. The referee was forgotten however ten minutes later; a round of applause supported his demonstrating the yellow card to the opposition for an over-zealous tackle.
At half-time, with the score even at ones, I overheard a fan discussing seating arrangements for the second half with his friend. “Why does it matter whether we sit here or on the other side? We’ll get the same cancer on either side from watching this team! Its as if you’ve never seen this team play like a foosball team!”
The image was hilarious in my mind, but the analogy was fitting. I imagined the eleven players tethered together across four lines—the two forwards, four midfielders, four defenders and one goalkeeper—each moving only left to right with no forward movement, slamming the ball up-field with no creativity. I completed the image in my mind’s eye imagining all eleven men on the field with the same smiling expression. It was too much.
After the second half began, Altay were soon up, only to be pegged back by a Kartalspor goal, gifted by a defensive gaffe when a central defender failed to clear a ball at his feet. A time wore on, and the game neared its death, the fans grew increasingly restless with boos and whistles raining down on the players. Even during Ramadan, “God damn you” was the favored insult from the crowd. The policemen in front of us were not oblivious to this, their faces a portent of things to come if Altay were to draw, or god forbid, lose on opening day.
Luckily for everyone (save the few traveling supporters who braved the trip to Izmir from the suburbs of Istanbul’s Asian coast), the police were spared any adventures, as a goal set up from an Altay corner six minutes from time sent the stadium into raptures. It was 3-2, and we could all go home happy.
At the end of the match, the fans called their heroes to the sidelines, and broke into song-one line sung by the fans, the response coming from the players in an improvised duet to make Sinatra’s eyes water:
FANS: O Büyük Gece
Ne zaman gelecek o büyük gece
PLAYERS: Turlar atacağız sahilimizde
FANS: Bir elde biramız
PLAYERS: Bir elde rakımız
FANS: Kıyak olacak o gece kafamız
PLAYERS: Şampiyon olunca kırk gün kırk gece
FANS: İnleyecek İzmir Altay diye
Altay’sin sen bizim canımız
Siyahla Beyaz akar kanımız
Seviyoruz seni canı gönülden
Sampiyonluk bekliyoruz sizlerden
FANS: That great night,
When will that great night come,
PLAYERS: We’ll march across our waterfront,
FANS: In one hand our beer,
PLAYERS: In one hand our Raki,
FANS: That night our heads will be spinning, spinning carefree,
PLAYERS: When we’re the champions Izmir will sing Altay, Altay,
For forty days and forty nights,
FANS: Altay you’re our soul,
Black and white the blood that flows,
Our love for you is deep within our hearts,
And we wait for a championship from you
The mention of Raki (Turkey’s Anise flavored national drink) and beer showed where Izmir’s loyalties lay. It was this secular love of alcohol, among other things, that has characterized Izmir’s European, and overall Western, identity. After the Islamist Justice and Development party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) lost the province of Izmir (one of only four provinces they lost out of 81) in their landslide election victory in the summer of 2007, it prompted prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deem Izmir “Gevour Izmir”, or heathen Izmir, a dubious nickname, especially during the turbulent times in Turkey as the nation struggles in its tug-of-war between West and East.
We filed out, singing songs and heading towards the bars of the trendy Alsancak district. As we walked a couple blocks away from the stadium, a worried policeman in riot gear leaning on his shield asked us the score.
“We won, 3-2,” we said proudly. The lines on his forehead quickly gave way to a smile which broke out across his face, erasing his serious expression as he relayed the good news to his colleagues. There would be no violence tonight! Everyone was going home happy on the first night of the season, and the first night of Ramadan. Everyone, of course, except the Kartalspor supporters who had a long lonely journey back to Istanbul.