“Hey John! How’s it going?” comes a voice from my right.
“It’s going—just another match, as you can see!” I reply, cheerful in the sunlight.
He nods his approval, it’s the local sandwich maker soaking up the final days of his vacation. We are both in attendance for a provincial amateur soccer match between Çeşmespor and Urla Gençlik, both on seventh level of the Turkish football pyramid. Despite the obvious lack of quality on the field, there are still about one hundred and fifty people present. Perhaps they are out since it is one of the last warm days of fall after a rainy stretch, or perhaps they are out because it is also the last days of the six-day Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice, Kurban Bayramı. Either way, there is a palpable sense of community in the air. The people of this small seaside town have come out to watch their boys of fall—they know the names of all the players—face a team from the neighboring town.
My friend Engin and I sit watching the players—some sporting bellies more befitting of sumo wrestlers, as some of the crowd note—chase the ball across the battered pitch. There are still patches of mud, a reminder of the recent rain storms. The play is hard, as is typical of lower-division Turkish football. Çeşmespor’s first goal comes from a penalty, putting them up 1-0, before an Urla player is forced to limp off with a shoulder injury after a hard fall. The rest of the first half continues with the ball bouncing around midfield like on a billiards table.
The second half begins with a flurry of Çeşmespor attacks, and a headed goal puts the home side up 2-0. With Urla down by two the play gets even harder, and the referee whistles a second penalty, this time the call going against the home team. The penalty is dually dispatched, setting the score at 2-1. Urla are pushing for an equalizer, and in so doing they are also increasing the physicality. The fans—who know so many of the players—are quick to get behind their friends. With time winding down the Cesme striker, number nine, comes off. His white jersey and shorts, his pale face, all are covered in mud. He looks more like a patient getting a facial treatment at a spa than a footballer. As he claps to the fans, my friend recognizes him. “He’s from our village, Dalyan.” This is grassroots football.
A through-ball sparks the Urla strikers into action and the Çeşme keeper is quick off his line; he dives down receiving both the ball and a nasty boot to the face.
“Fuck you!” comes a yell from behind me, and the two policemen on duty quickly spin around, conscious of the tensions that are always simmering right below the surface of any given situation in Turkey. Any spark could set it off. They know it all too well. The goalie is writhing in pain, and the fans have more than a few choice words for the referee.
“ENOUGH! ENOUGH LEAVE HIS MOTHER OUT OF THIS, STOP SWEARING AT HIS MOTHER!” A shrill female voice breaks the relative calm of this crystal clear fall day. To my ears, her straining yell feels uncomfortably out of place.
“If you can’t handle it, don’t come to away games! Stay in Urla!” comes a reply from behind me, a few rows up (there are only five rows). A pretty girl to my right, holding a sleeping child, looks nervously towards the commotion. She holds the child tighter. I watch as the two policemen head into the lion’s den of arguing fans. Everyone starts moving towards the crowd, it’s like a whirlpool sucking people in. The police try to separate people as sweaters fly through the air. It is an odd sight indeed. There is pushing and shoving, I see my barber—who is also the president of Çeşmespor—trying to separate the would-be combatants. At this point even the players on the field have stopped to take a look, wondering what all the fuss is all about. Some of the younger fans are being held back by their friends, it is they who want a fight most of all, anything to liven up their own boring provincial lives.
The referee finally ends the game, blowing the final whistle as the police attempt to push the away team’s fans outside the stadium gates. The woman is still yelling at the top of her lungs, and I hear what must be her husband giving her a lesson in football etiquette.
“Look, if you are an away fan you can’t yell like this. You have to bite your tongue, this isn’t our stadium! Stop provoking people!” No one wants a fight, but everyone knows that there are some unwritten rules in football that, when broken, can lead to unfortunate situations. In a small town in Turkey, where jobs and money are at a premium, these tensions are magnified and can easily spill over in that one space where people can let go of their emotions for ninety minutes at a time and scream the profanities that are taboo in any other social milieu: That space is, unquestionably, the soccer stadium.
My friend and I file past the nervous policemen, and outside another police car has just arrived, sirens wailing.
“I guess we got what we wanted. We saw some goals, saw the home team win, and saw some turbulence. What more could we have asked for?” says my friend laughing. He’s right—it was all a match could be. It was grass-roots football.
A Calm Fall Day
The players take the pitch:
The locals meet at the stadium:
The Cesmespor stands
And things get a little dicey
Ultras Are Everywhere