I take bus 152 on the Hacıosman-Kısırkaya route and get off in the center of Sariyer; to me it is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful districts. The location is picturesque, on the northwestern shore of the Bosporus where it opens up into the Black Sea. I stand on the pier and look past the green hills where the grey waters flow into a grey horizon, it reminds me of the previous times that I have come to see matches here.
The fans are generally a respectful bunch, and I have taken girlfriends to matches here before. It’s a relatively short trip from the center of Istanbul, and the delicious börek and pide restaurants make for some good pre-match meals. Here I even became friends with a couple of young girls three years ago, their headscarves might have made us different but it didn’t matter when the subject was football. Another time that arbitrary boundaries were bridged by sport. But that was three years ago, and every year the differences within Turkish society seem to become more and more pronounced.
I wander the back streets, lined with historic wooden houses built in the traditional Ottoman style. Some are derelict while others have been restored as I search out a spot for a pre-match drink in the British style. I find my spot just off the main square, Meydan Pub. It looks admittedly dodgy, and the irony of the AKP and MHP offices opposite the entrance doesn’t escape me.
As the waiter pours me a raki I attempt to justify my drinking at 3 in the afternoon by telling him I’m going to the match.
“What match?” he asks with obvious indifference.
He just raises his eyebrows in a look of surprise as he slides the ice bucket over to me. Turkish 2nd division football doesn’t exactly elicit much passion in these parts.
I soon see why—it’s a miracle that I don’t fall asleep during a first half that ends as it began: 0-0 with no real chances to speak of. I stretch my legs during the break, walking below the stands as the last fans are let in, all free of charge. They’re all young kids, just out of school—normal for a rare Wednesday afternoon fixture.
“Does my hair look good? Wait, lets not go in yet. (Saçlarım düzgün mi? Bekle, daha girmeyelim)” She steals a look at the stands. “Lets wait a bit”. Two young girls share an exchange that I can’t help but chuckle at as I overhear it. If she was looking to impress a particular boy I would think the football stadium would be the last place to flirt. Her “Too cute for you” t-shirt only makes it a more ridiculous scene.
“Atilla! Atilla! What are you doing at a match, you’re a married man now?! (Atilla, Atilla! Ulan evlendin bahtlandın ne işin var maçta?!)” The two men embrace and I laugh at myself this time. All the small town lives that have converged at the Yusuf Ziya Öniş Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon make for some good people watching, there can be no denying that. If only the football was as amusing as the conversations.
I decide to dig into a köfte sandwich for my halftime snack, in memory of “Köfte” Hüseyin—a Sariyer fan who passed away in June at a young age from a heart attack. I look at the banner hanging behind the goal that he himself had written as I eat: OLACAKSA SENDEN BİR MENFAATİM BİR BAYRAK OLSUN O DA TABUTUMDA DURSUN (If There Will Be One Profit I Get From You May It Be a Flag That Can Lie On My Coffin). The meat and onions are good even if the bread is a level above rubber; I feel like my teeth are going to snap off as I take a bite but I don’t care. Let it be my one act of remembrance for a man I never knew but who shared the same passions as I do—may he rest in peace.
The second half is a little more lively but it still seems unlikely that any goals will come. As the fans get restless they mouth a tongue in cheek chant—“This isn’t the cinema or theater, fans that don’t yell can fuck off! (Burası sinema tiyatro değil, bağırmayan taraftar siktirsin gitsin)”. I choose not to be offended and continue watching in silence. Two school age boys start fighting over a scarf in front of me before their “Abiler”—older “brothers”—put them in their place. “You little pricks, instead of fighting you bastards should be yelling! (Ulan ibneler, kavga edeceğinizi bağırin piçler!)”. In this way, the smaller teams are definitely a society unto themselves.
With three minutes left Sariyer get their chance but it goes just past the post—Sariyer are left to settle for their sixth draw in seven matches. We all know that this is hardly the stuff of a promotion contender at this early stage of the season as we file out into the grey afternoon under a light drizzle coming in from the north.
I have nowhere to go so I decide to head back to the pub. It is full this time with businessmen sipping beers in their work clothes; it is almost European in a sense. That is, until you raise your head to look at the TV. I follow the news reports. A curfew has been declared in six eastern provinces, including Diyarbakir, where a friend of mine has gone for the Bayram. Those old familiar battles between Kurds and Turks should have long gone out of style but ISIS have reignited them. Far from those bloody battles I sip my raki on the shores of the Bosphorus, watching it all unfold on Show TV. It doesn’t look good, and as I watch I recognize the city. I had been to a match there five years ago and I know those streets well.
All I can do now is hope that cooler heads prevail. As a writer for Hurriyet Daily news said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” Hopefully, all involved can take heed.