It surprising how Izmir—arguably Turkey’s most Western city—can sometimes look like the provincial backwaters of central Anatolia or south-east Turkey. Maybe it was the darkness that had just settled—that purgatorial hour where the streets are still crowded; not due to economic activity, but rather from the people (men) leaving their jobs to go back home to their loved ones (wives), families, or television screens. Or maybe it was the strange curve of the road, dodging a Fiat Doblo coming at me a little too fast while trying to look away from the blinding lights of the BIM grocery store to my right. I was taken back in time five years, to a night bathed in a similar shade of darkness where I negotiated a similar curve in a similar setting—albeit as a pedestrian—in the center of Şırnak, Turkey, just off the border of an Iraq then simmering on the brink of all-out civil war. There the street urchins had stuck to me like glue, fitting since I certainly stuck out as a “foreigner” on those dark forgotten frontier streets. Here in Buca district of Izmir province and off the coast of Greece I was at least sheltered by the four doors of my green Ford Mondeo, negotiating the dark alleys while glancing at my phone in search of the Buca Arena.
The 13,000 capacity Buca Arena was built in this frontier district of Izmir’s city limits in 2009 when the old Buca Stadium proved itself to be obsolete. Indeed, the Buca Arena is only the second stadium in a city with a population of over four million to have stands on four sides of the field (the other is the Ataturk Stadium, for those who are curious). Tonight I was going to see the Izmir derby between Karşıyaka SK and Altay Izmir SK in the second round of the Ziraat Turkish Cup. I was lost in the maze of Buca’s forlorn back streets because of the closure of the Alsancak Stadium, which I wrote about a few days ago. Otherwise, this match would have certainly taken place there. Alas, it wasn’t to be. But I was still determined to take in my third Izmir derby, and the maze of pitch-black streets would not deter me.
Indeed I followed the bright glow of the stadium’s floodlights to a vacant lot dotted with stones that bordered on boulder size where I parked my car. Following the directions of a well-meaning police officer I headed up hill from the lot to get a 20 Turkish Lira ticket for the closed stand and walked back down hill to the entrance by the lot. I had paid ten Liras extra to walk ten extra minutes; the entrance immediately by the ticket booth was for the 10 Lira seats. The irony didn’t escape me but the pat-down at the entrance (it was cursory at best) proved my decision to pay a little extra to be sound since the cops never suspect the fans who pay more money to create trouble at games. Indeed they were right, there was no trouble during the match, even though the riot police seemed to walk around the perimeter of the field at random intervals, dragging their helmets and shields behind them. My optimistic side preferred to think that they were just getting some exercise.
I watch the first half in a veritable daze, just taking in the feeling of watching a match on a fall evening where the temperatures tell you that summer is giving its last breaths, unable to hold up against the inevitable onset of winter. The gusts from the west tell me that soon my flip-flops and shorts will have to be retired. On the field Karşıyaka wear their traditional red and green kit, while Altay wear a special design that has made headlines in Turkey. It is a turquoise kit with an Izmir themed design that strays from their traditional black and white, the colors their fan section is bathed in. In place of a sponsor it has the silhouette of Izmir’s symbols, the clock tower in Konak Square and the statue of Ataturk on horseback that stands in Izmir’s Republic square, with seagulls flying above them. In short, it’s a shirt that eschews a sponsor in order to tell the story of a city—a shirt I hope to add to my collection soon.
(Image Courtesy of: http://galeri.haberturk.com/spor/galeri/442610-altayin-yeni-formasi-begenildi)
Meanwhile n the field twenty-two men chase the ball beneath an advertisement for the Bucaspor Football Academy:
“Bucaspor Gençliği, Milli Takımların Geleceği . . . İyi Birey, İyi Vatandaş, İyi Futbolcu . .”
“Bucaspor’s Youth, The National Team’s Future . . . A Good Individual, A Good Citizen, A Good Footballer . .”
I find the message a satisfying one. After all, football is not the end all and be all of life. What matters is being a good person and a good citizen, wherever you live. Beneath the advertisement stand the core of Karşıyaka supporters, behind them their classic banner reads “The Red of Turkishness, the Green of Islam”. At least I know where I am I reason as the first half ends with the score knotted at 0-0. Karşıyaka have had many chances but just haven’t managed to capitalize against their city rivals that sit one division below them in the Turkish football pyramid.
At half time I decide to sample the food that is on offer—its always good to sample match-day cuisine in various places. I think back to the sausage stuffed pastry in Tallinn, the popcorn in Kiev, and the Souvlaki in Thessaloniki as I grab myself a sandwich stuffed with shredded sosis and cheese. If I attended a match a day I wouldn’t live past forty eating the stadium fare, but I reason that a few times a year won’t hurt as I dig in. After all, the sosis and cheese sandwich is a common form of fast food in Izmir—and nothing less would do at the Izmir derby.
As I sit on the dirty plastic seats Turkish pop blares from the loudspeakers, giving us some half time entertainment. Eating this grease bomb of a sandwich with Hande Yener’s Alt Dudak (you know you want to listen) blaring in the background and looking at the young couples decked out in red and green that sip tea two rows in front of me I can’t help but wonder what life would have been had I grown up only in Turkey. Before my mind sends me on a tailspin of “what-ifs” I reason that being half and half is a blessing too, and I just sway along to the music in a bid to stay warm in the winds that are blowing in, colder and colder.
I’m still thinking of where I’ve been and where I’ll go when the second half starts—for some reason the Izmir derby has become a reflective one for me. There are no skirmishes between rival fans, just a celebration of a city and its football clubs. Both teams are still playing an even game before the hour mark, when the Karşıyaka goalkeeper gets sent off with a straight red card for an intentional hand ball outside the box. Down to ten men Altay get more chances, but Karşıyaka still hold their own. In fact, it seems like a miracle that they keep throwing away the chances they have at the Altay end. It is indeed a full on display of attacking football at its best.
Just when it seems like that we are destined to see a goalless draw Altay hit off on the counter attack, one long ball grazes the head of Altay’s Tahir Kurt and the ball slips past Karşıyaka’s reserve goalkeeper into the corner of the net. 87th minute and it is 0-1 to the “visitors”. The stadium falls silent except for the Altay corner, and that is where the Altay players rush to.
But there is no booing. Karşıyaka’s fans take it on the chin, and it is refreshing to see such brotherly love between the two teams—it is a rare scene at a derby like this. With three minutes left Karşıyaka waste no time as their two Brazilian stars Juninho and Kahe push forward. Again, they inexplicably muff their chances in front of goal but I get one of those strange feelings that an equalizer is going to come. It just has to, and I stand riveted to the scenes unfolding in front of me.
Indeed as the clock reads 90 and the five minutes of added time wind down the chance comes, and in spectacular fashion. Karşıyaka are pouring men forward and the cross comes in, it is headed out before being hit on the volley from the 18 yard box. The shot gets blocked in front of goal and as the rebound hangs in the air above the six yard box Juninho takes his chance; sizing the ball up he hurls himself in the air and with a deft bicycle kick sends the ball hard into the back of the net. 90th minute and the score is 1-1 as the Buca Arena explodes.
We are going to get another half hour of football tonight—which means Karşıyaka will have played a full hour with ten men. The end-to-end stuff continues through the extra period as the tense Karşıyaka fans around me react to every move of the ball with visceral emotional outbursts but there will be no goal forthcoming. The victor will be decided from the penalty spot in a shootout. The cops to my left begin to put on their riot gear—they definitely do their best to make normal sporting moments tenser then they should be.
It is Karşıyaka who go first in the shootout, Kahe’s strong blast finding the net despite the goalkeeper’s guessing the correct corner. Altay equalize with a simple finish, the keeper diving in the opposite direction. It is now Juninho’s turn to keep it going for the “home side”. He already came up with the biggest goal of the night but his work is not done yet. But football—like life—doesn’t always give you a storybook ending. Juninho skies his kick over the bar and can only hold his head and slowly walk back to the center of the pitch in a now silent stadium; hero becomes villain in one small moment. Indeed it is a sign of things to come. Altay hit their next three penalties while Karşıyaka hit both of theirs, keeping within striking distance, before Karşıyaka’s Nigerian forward Chikeluba Ofoedu puts his spot kick in the same place Juninho put his—into the stands. Altay’s players rush into the field to celebrate, they have taken the match 5-4 on penalties and move on to the third round, another Izmir derby in the books.
The shootout in its entirety: