Football can sometimes warm even the most calloused hearts—this story from Sunday March 16 is no exception. The picture below (courtesy of Ultra Style’s Facebook page) is worth a thousand words and more:
During a Greek third division match between AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina, AEK’s Ultras—Gate 21—hung a banner commemorating 15 year old Berkin Elvan of Turkey, a boy whose death on March 11th (which resulted from being hit by a tear gas canister in protests last summer: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/turkey-protests_n_4942943.html) sparked a new wave of protests across Turkey. AEK’s black and white banner put two faces together: Berkin’s face is alongside Alexandros Grigoropoulos’—another fifteen year old—who was fatally shot by Greek police in 2008 during riots in Athens.
Despite the macabre nature of the banner it is a unique look at football’s ability to bridge historical and political divides that the politicians have yet to succeed in doing. That the two fifteen year old boys lost their lives in conflicts that they were only spectators to is the sad result of modern governments that are perceived—by those living under them—to have failed to uphold the social contract. When governments act with impunity no one wins. These two preventable deaths attest to it in the darkest way.
AEK Athens are mired in the third division—the amateur ranks—after self relegating themselves to escape debt, an economic crisis on the small scale that mirrors the larger economic picture in Greece. Their crest is the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Byzantium. The “K” in AEK stands for “Konstantinoupolis”; the team was founded by Greek refugees who fled Istanbul during and after the Turkish war of independence (for a similar story please see my writing on PAOK Thessaloniki). Triglia Rafina share AEK’s black and yellow colors—the colors of the Byzantine flag. When taking the history of both AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina in question it is not shocking that a Turk, Berkin Elvan, should be remembered at an obscure third division football match in Greece. It may not be shocking, but it is certainly commendable.
Animosity between Turks and Greeks is long standing, stemming from years of Ottoman occupation and culminating in a brutal population exchange after the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. For years Greeks and Turks lived together under the Ottoman flag until the divisive ideologies of nationalism shattered the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century—indeed, Greek and Turkish cultures are almost indistinguishable (the foods, the coffee, the yoghurts). I myself have written before on the similarities and differences between Greece and Turkey; having grown up seven kilometers from Greece on Turkey’s Aegean coast I know how similar—yet different—these two cultures truly are.
Where the fortunes of both countries began to diverge was during the mid part of the 20th century. While both Greece and Turkey were taken under the West’s security blanket—via NATO—as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Greece (due to the perception of its being the birthplace of Western democracy) became a darling of the West. They were allowed to join the European Community (EC), the precursor to the European Union, in 1981 despite having a mainly agrarian economy. This ushered in unprecedented years of economic growth as European Community funds supported the development of industry and infrastructure throughout the country. In 2001 it culminated in the adoption of the Euro, a disastrous decision that takes us up to where we are today.
Turkey, on the other hand, was continually given small concessions and valued partnerships with both the EC and EU but was never given a truly viable path to membership. Indeed the divided island of Cyprus is one major roadblock—and a thorn in the side of Greco-Turkish relations since the 1960s. It is notable that it was current events that led to Greece’s abandoning their veto on Turkish membership into the EU following two destructive earthquakes that rocked both countries in 1999. It was similarities—this time the fact that both countries share similar geographies—that brought the two back together.
In 2014 it is different earth-shattering events in both countries that are bringing people together, and the AEK ultras are proof of this. It is no longer Greeks and Turks that are divided as nationalities, but Greek and Turkish individuals that are uniting in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and the increasingly reckless hubris of their politicians. Respect to Gate 21 for abandoning the old animosities between Greeks and Turks—if only for 90 minutes—and for bringing to the fore the similarities between these two nations that go beyond their cultures, addressing the real concerns of twenty-first century people on the streets regardless of where they were born or where they live, what passports they hold or what languages they speak.
As protests rage on in Turkey and instability rules in Ukraine it is times like these—more than ever—that humanity needs to unite in the face of chaos and governmental oppression. I commend the football fans for making their voices heard. Fenerbahce fans quoted eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/football-fans-from-turkey-greece-italy-remember-berkin-elvan-.aspx?pageID=517&nID=63703&NewsCatID=362) over the weekend: “Let no children die, let them play”. It is a sentiment I think we can all agree on, no matter what our politics are or which football team we support.