“Beşiktaş! Beşiktaş! Beşiktaş!” A group of fans are lighting flares in front of the eagle statue that marks the center of Beşiktaş’s Çarşı, or market, which is also the center of the Istanbul district the team take their name from. It’s a beautiful fall day in Istanbul and the fans are getting ready for the first derby of the season against Galatasaray. I make my way through the smoky haze, maneuvering through table lined alley-ways where fans are enjoying lunches of fish washed down by endless glasses of beer and rakı. The derby atmosphere is so pervasive that one would be forgiven for thinking that they are in a European city, and not in the heart of Istanbul.
“They’re drinking rakı at this hour, can you believe it?” My friend is incredulous, as we sit down for a pre-match hookah.
“I can believe it—I’m going to go for some J&B instead,” I laugh, pulling a small bottle of scotch out of my jacket pocket.
“Let me take care of this,” my friend says, asking the table next to us to discreetly fill up my can of Coca-Cola, away from the waiter’s eyes. They oblige. It’s a derby, and one of those odd times where a total stranger can be at once your closest friend or your most bitter enemy. Right now, in the heart of Beşiktaş, even those of us who may not be Beşiktaş fans must hide our true colors. I a Galatasaray fan, and my friend—himself a Fenerbahçe fan—know this all too well. In return, we have made four friends from the neighboring table all in the name of football.
With the kick-off approaching I begin the trip by walking along the Bosphorus between the construction site of the new Beşiktaş stadium and the famous Dolmabahçe Palace, the clichéd synthesis of old and new makes itself ever-present in Istanbul. It’s a relaxing day in the fall sunlight, and before long I’ve reached the first leg of my journey, the tramline from Kabataş to Yusufpaşa.
One of the most interesting things about public transportation in Istanbul is that it allows one to see people from all walks of life; its a welcome feeling of unity in days that division seems to be the only thing on people’s minds. In front of me is a family with two children, the headscarved mother has eyes as blue as the golden horn we pass over, one of the daughters has freckles that would be more suited for Dublin. I look at the father, who gives me a tired smile in return. He is only at the start of his journey as well, no doubt destined for an outer suburb where so many struggle to make ends meet in this metropolis. Around us are others; the western tourists with guidebooks in hand disembarking at the Blue Mosque, and of course the football fans, conspicuous in their black and white jerseys. When I switch at Yusufpaşa I follow the crowd of fans to the next station, where we meet a second train.
A young couple is packed in the crowd in front of me, the girl pretty in a Turkish sense with eyes as dark as Turkish Coffee. You can tell that she might not have the money of the girls in the trendy districts of Nişantaşı or Etiler, but she certainly looks beautiful in a white Adidas Beşiktaş shirt. Yes, all walks of metropolitan life indeed come together on derby day.
Outside the stadium it is almost sunset and the celebrations of DerbyFest, organized by Beşiktaş’s fans, are dying down. All over are trucks with grills in front of them, selling everything from meatball and sausage sandwiches to sweet lokma, like donuts. I grab some lokma and a cold Efes beer (sold out of the trunk of a car in a bucket of ice). The Turkish business mind knows no bounds. As I lean against a chain link fence I watch it all unfold, everyone mingling in the parking lot in perfect harmony. In Beşiktaş’s Çarşı it could have been Europe but here it is like a tailgate party in the United States, and when a group of girls ask me to take their picture with the stadium as their backdrop I am back in college, partying outside Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado. Before entering I grab a second beer and a sausage sandwich, which proves to be a bad choice—no sooner does it enter my stomach does it exit. After the match I realize that I had broken a golden rule of Turkish football matches: always choose the meatballs, never the sausage.
Inside the stadium the Beşiktaş fans are keeping their promise of unfurling a banner of record-breaking proportions—two huge pieces of fabric fall over the two levels of supporters across the field from me. One is black and white with an eagle reading “Our return will be amazing”, the other an image of a modern football stadium with “Vodafone Arena” written beneath it—a reference to the new Beşiktaş stadium whose construction I had passed earlier in the day. Above the banners flares are being lit, doing justice to this night that the Turkish Super League attendance record will be broken.
When play gets underway, Galatasaray’s players are subject to the jeers that are de rigeur in any derby. I am conscious of hiding my own fan identity when, fifteen minutes in, a Galatasaray attack fizzles beneath a sea of boos. Just three minutes later the tables turn and a cross is headed in by Portugal’s Hugo Almeida, it is 1-0 to Beşiktaş and the stands behind me become a sea of color as the fans light their smuggled flares, smoke trailing into the suburban Istanbul air.
Galatasaray struggle to be effective in the first half, with striker Burak Yimaz squandering what few chances he gets. The man in front of me says it best, “Even Galatasaray fans hate him.” For what its worth, he’s right—even if I refrain from telling him on the spot for fear of my own physical well-being.
Beşiktaş go into halftime up 1-0, while their fans provide the halftime entertainment. Dots of white lights fill the opposite stand as the stadium becomes bathed in an iPhone glow. Where there were once lighters, there are now iPhones. Indeed, between this light show and the Vodafone sponsored banner to begin the match, it is clear that industrial football is alive and well in the Turkish Super League. I try to convince myself that technology will not subsume every human activity—including football—as the second half begins.
Ten minutes in the referee begins taking abuse, as (in the eyes of Beşiktaş fans, at least) the calls begin to go against the home team. The Beşiktaş fans are not ones to give up that easily, however, and they break into a verse of my favorite chant:
Laylalaaay, laylalaylalaylalaylalay . . .
It doesn’t matter,
It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t love you,
Your brothers will never ever leave you.
On some level it reminds me of Liverpool’s “you’ll never walk alone”, just in the context of a country where love from the opposite sex is harder to come by. Beşiktaş’s joy is short lived though, as Galatasaray grab two goals in the span of eleven minutes—both courtesy of a man accustomed to such big occasions, none other than Didier Drogba. With 18 minutes to go Galatasaray are up 2-1 and the referee is hearing it from the record-breaking 76,127 in attendance. There is a commotion in the lower portion of the stand opposite me with fans swinging flagpoles like lances at one another. Yet, for some strange reason, the police don’t intervene. Meanwhile, on the field, Beşiktaş are still pushing for an equalizer as the clock continues to tick down to the inevitable end.
Then it happens—Beşiktaş’s star Manuel Fernandes is just outside the box, setting the play, when Galatasaray’s “pitbull” Felipe Melo slides in with an ill-timed and vicious two-footed tackle. The players start pushing on the field, and I think ‘This is how it starts”. And indeed it does. I am among over 76 thousand people already incensed at their team’s giving up a one goal halftime advantage, counting down the seconds until a historic Galatasaray victory. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . .” I’m counting as the red card is hoisted into the air in Melo’s face and, as the players continue their shoving match, I’m looking at the stand. Then back to the field, then to the stand again and back to the field. ‘The shit is really going to hit the fan!’ It’s the only thing I can think. And, lo and behold, it is hitting the fan. Its times like these that I wonder why I can’t say “she is going to fall in love with me” and have her fall into my arms, just like that. But no one is falling into my arms. Instead, fans are falling on to the field.
They are streaming over the knee-high wall on the edge of the athletics track and, from where I stand on the second level, it is like watching a tide stream across a wind-swept beach from a cliffside. Orange clad security guards turn and run for their lives, an unlucky member of the crew trips and falls in the chaos, his reward is a swift kick to the jaw. I wince. The fans keep coming, the unstoppable tidal-wave of human flesh streaming across the grass. I can feel my right leg shaking, uncontrollable, like an orgasm.
Where players had been chasing a ball minutes ago, fans wielding plastic chairs are now chasing police officers across the grass, like a scene out of a pro-wrestling broadcast. But this is real. A police officer shields his head in his hands as a chair is broken across his back. He tries to recover as two fellow officers help him hobble away. The fans all around me start yelling that familiar refrain, “Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance”, followed by the traditional “You’re all sons of whores”. Broken chairs litter the pitch, and the fans don’t know what to do. It shouldn’t have been this easy. Where are the police? Some people on the field are taking pictures on their iphones, a macabre souvenir of this dark night.
Eventually the police regroup, forming a barricade in front of the player’s tunnel. It is an eerie parallel to the barricades erected by protesters throughout central Istanbul back in June. Yes, there is blood lust. Yes, the fans like seeing the police beaten back. But why did this happen here? Why now? Why tonight? The police are moving forward in a human chain, and the fans are returning to the stands, leavıng the field of play to the security forces. They know this wont go anywhere, not tonight. The police, for their part, have strangely not resorted to brute force—something they have not shied away from in the past. But why not? The police, by this point, have reached the middle of the field where they mill around like baseball players at the end of a bench-clearing brawl. The worst of it lasted just five minutes. In front of me, a plastic chair is thrown off the balcony. There are at least fifteen thousand people below us. As I cringe at the thought of a plastic chair landing on my head from forty feet above, a kid pushes me aside as he waves a full plastic water bottle.
“Don’t do it!” I yell.
“There are people down there, you’ll never reach the field. Stop!” urges an old man.
“Who cares?” is his response to both of us, as the bottle flies into this darkest of nights. But why?
That is the question that Turkey has grappled with since this ugly pitch invasion marred the final minutes of the Istanbul derby. Why on earth would the fans of a team that has one four out of four matches to start the season, and who could still snatch a point or more with their opponents down to ten men, storm the field before the final whistle?
It is definitely odd, and it does not seem right. Beşiktaş are known for their passionate fans, of which the biggest group is Çarşı, the same fan group that played a large role in supporting the Gezi Park protesters in June. Why would these same fans want to sully their reputation, after warming the hearts of so many? This is where to start looking for an answer and—like so much in football—it involves a little bit of politics and a little bit of human nature. But first, there is some history. The Çarşı group have been Beşiktaş’s main supporter group (or ultra group in European parlance) since their inception in 1982, a time when most social organization was illegal in Turkey due to the laws put into effect after the 1980 military coup.
Most recently it was in June, during the Gezi protests, that these football fans rose to international prominence for their stance “against injustice, wherever it may be.” But nationally, Çarşı has been a social force both in and outside of the stadium for a long time. They are the fan group that has given the most blood to Kızılay, the Turkish version of the Red Cross, who give blood to wounded Turkish soldiers. The Mehmetcik Vakfı, a foundation for wounded and deceased soldiers, even provided the shirt sponsor for Beşiktaş’s jerseys one season. Çarşı also made their voice clear in opposition to the government’s plans to build a nuclear reactor on the Black Sea coast, due to environmental concerns, a few years back.
To truly understand the social effect of Çarşı in Turkey one need only look back at this same fixture—the Beşiktaş-Galatasaray derby—of two years ago in November of 2011. The game was played in the wake of a devasating 7.1 degree earthquake in the eastern Turkish city of Van. 604 people died, while the estimated number of homeless ranged to 40,000. Çarşı’s response to this natural disaster was simple: “If Van is freezing, then we will freeze too”. It was with that chant raising from the stands that thousands of Beşiktaş fans—led by the Çarşı group—stripped off their jerseys, scarves, sweatshirts, and winter coats and threw them onto the sidelines of the pitch in a mass public donation of clothing to those that had lost everything. This heartwarming gesture was in stark contrast to the thousands of fans who stood half naked on a winter night, braving the chill that comes off the Bosphorus with only their consciences to warm them. Now think. Are these the kinds of fans who would want to sully their name, who would want to embarrass their team and their country by way of a savage pitch invasion? I don’t think so.
And that is where politics and human nature come into this, something that many—including even the English paper Daily Mirror (http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/besiktas-v-galatasaray-violence-mans-2296118)—conspicuously ignore. After the Gezi protests, and in response to Çarşı’s role, a new Beşiktaş supporter group was formed. They named themselves the 1453 Kartallar (Eagles), the date referring to the year Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s Ottoman army captured Istanbul and the “Eagles” referring to Beşiktaş’s nickname, “the black eagles.” The group are known to be supporters of the current AKP government even if they won’t say so directly; many members of the supporter group are openly members of the AKP’s youth wing.
After the match, founding member Aşkın Aydoğmuş did his group no favors during an appearance on a CNN Turk political talk show, where the waters were muddied further. When asked why the group spontaneously appeared on the scene—so notably in the wake of the Gezi protests—he claimed that it was a response to Çarşi’s hegemony, and that his group wants politics out of the stadiums. This was the same goal of the ruling party, I might add, when they announced that those who yell political slogans at games would be punished to the fullest extent of the law. In the eyes of Mr. Aydoğmuş, flags bearing the images of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and leftist hero Che Guevara have no place in the stadium. In a reply to these views, a sports journalist on the panel asked if the 1453 in the group’s name was, in itself, not a political statement? Mr. Aydoğmuş’s defense was that it is merely a date commemorating “the conquering of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmet and the armies of the Prophet Muhammad (!), when Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Turks all came together in harmony.” The sports writer’s response was telling: That is just one view of the Ottoman conquest, and a fairly optimistic one at that. Others might say something very different.
Now with the backgrounds of these two fan groups established, it is helpful to look at what actually happened. Officially, the record-breaking crowd is numbered at 76,120, but reports have claimed that at least 5000 people entered without tickets. However, for some odd reason, the government can’t get their stories straight on this matter. The head of Istanbul’s security bureau Hüseyin Çapkın insists that no un-ticketed fans entered, yet Youth and Sports minister Suat Kılıç says that ten gates were broken and that six iron doors were also broken, allowing un-ticketed fans to stream in. Indeed, video from the stadium confirms the damage. Normally, at any match at this level, all tickets are scanned electronically—meaning that they can’t be used again—and everyone is subject to a security pat-down upon the scanning of their tickets. Videos clearly show masses of people streaming through the gates unchecked, while others climb over metal fences. My own ticket was not scanned, and neither was the name on the ticket checked against my identification card. To me, this means that it is very likely that many ticketless fans—among them perhaps also a few known hooligans—were in attendance.
In the wake of this ticket scandal breaking, many remembered the pre-match tweets by the 1453 Kartallar group that pictured hundreds of tickets without names attached to them (convenient when no one checked up on that detail at the stadium). What we do know is that there were likely many ticketless fans at the stadium who were not subject to any security checks, and that starting about fifteen minutes from the end of the match there were a few scuffles in the lower end of the East stand. Television cameras confirmed eye-witness accounts of skirmishes between Besiktas fans—I saw the flagpoles being wielded like lightsabres myself. I also saw, around the 88th minute, some fans attempt to storm the field before the security guards pushed them back. The match observers sent by the Turkish Football Federation confirmed these incidents.
So why didn’t the police intervene? I’ve been to many games, and every time such small-scale violence is nipped in the bud. But on this night it seems a blind eye was turned. And that leads to everyone’s question: Why was security so laughably lax for this, a high tension Istanbul derby, which had been announced as a sell out days before?
And this is where we come to the meat and potatoes, the breaking point. I sensed the tension rising all around me, t was like being in a pot of water coming to a boil as choice words rained down on referee Firat Aydinus, whose decision indeed sparked the chaos. But his decision was one that went in favor of the home side, a crucial detail. It was then that fans seated in the area that 1453 Kartallar had set as their own began leaving their seats for the field. Contrary to what the Daily Mirror would have you believe, this was not Çarşı’s doing. They have always sat in the upper decks, away from the sidelines, and this night was no different. Like the Roma Ultras have the Curva Sud, so too do Çarşı have their own geographical location in the stadium, and one that is decidedly far from the pitch.
Some other eyewitness accounts claim that those storming the pitch did so with “Tekbir”, “Bismillah”, and “Allahu Ekber”, Islamic terms that have entered our common lexicon and need no explanation here. Others say that those in the group of pitch invaders had earlier in the match attempted to drown out with whistles the “Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance” chant that Çarşı start at the 34th minute mark of every home game. We may never definitively know who these savages were, but one thing—at least to me—is certain. These people were not members of Çarşı. Even Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said that these people were “provocateurs”.
As chaos reigned on the pitch, fans started yelling “direniş”, “resistance”, which The Mirror correctly pointed out. And this is where we segue into human nature. In order to spear-head such a pitch invasion in Turkey, only a small group—maybe 50-100 people at most—need run onto the pitch. Unfortunately, this can encourage others—who may not have been so inclined previously—to participate, such as the boy next to me who let his water bottle fly. This is unfortunately a fact of life in Turkey.
The international media chose to focus on the flying chairs, and the fighting between fans and security forces. It is normal, it makes for a flashier headline. But it does not—and cannot—tell the whole story. In the Turkish media there were similar pictures of the violence, but also more mundane ones. Friends taking pictures on their smartphones, the day they got onto the field in Turkey’s biggest stadium. No, not everyone ran onto the pitch that night with the aim of fomenting chaos, not by a long shot. But a few most certainly did. Many fans in my section, the Western stand, fell for this ruse as the dark thoughts began forming in my mind. As the chairs were breaking over the heads of cops, the anti government chants rose with deafening proportions into the Istanbul night. Perhaps those who goaded on their colleagues down on the pitch with such chants didn’t fully realize what was going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those clashing with police hadn’t just been sucked into the moment and were merely taking advantage of a chance to live out that familiar Ultra code of A.C.A.B—“All Cops Are Bastards”. In any case the plan worked; it was a well-played provocation.
The fallout has already had some of the desired outcome. If this was an attempt to sully the name of Çarşı, then the ill-informed Daily Mirror article is a sad example of this in the international media, even if those in Turkey have not bought it. If this was a way to silence Çarşı and other political minded football fans in Turkey, then it has succeeded as well. The government, in the near future, will no longer need to censor the live telecasts of Beşiktaş home games by dubbing in crowd sounds from old matches at the 34th minute—Beşiktaş will not have fans for their next four home games. Citing this match as proof, the government has also approved the presence of police within the stadium as a deterrent to violence (as well as to prevent any anti-government chants). The European Union and UEFA are not pleased, but that is of no concern to those running the show. In the end, what should have gone down as one of the brightest days in Turkish football history has instead been sullied by the acts of a few that may have had tacit backing. The bright days may still be quite a ways off, but at least—as Beşiktaş have taught me—I can know that those fighting agaınst injustice will never stop, since “My brothers will never ever leave me”…