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!”
“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.
(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.
The streets that have seen many a pitched battle between football fans in a calmer time.
“Mustafa Kemal’s Soldiers”, graffiti from protesters from more recent times sends a clear message.