Outside the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium in central Istanbul, crowds are gathering. Fenerbahce, one of Turkey’s football giants, are set to line out against Kasimpasa, a lesser-known city team in a Monday night kick-off.
On a side street outside the designated Fenerbahce entrance, members of Fenerbahce’s hardcore supporters’ club are busily talking on mobile phones and discreetly handing match tickets to fans. Tonight, tickets sell for a whopping 100 Turkish lira (Dh183).
And then, with riot police looking on, the unmistakable sound of fist meeting face rings out.
If Turkish football is known for anything, it is for fanaticism, violence and unquestionable loyalty. Its keenest fans are known as ultras. Their rivalry in Istanbul is unparalleled in the world of football.
But a strange thing happened in early June as Istanbul erupted in protest: Thousands of football fans from the rival clubs – including their hardline ultras leadership – came together to stand behind the Gezi Park movement, itself an expression of popular anger at the ruling AK Party government not seen in Turkey for a decade.
What followed was unprecedented in the long and often wretched history of Turkish football. Instead of launching stones at each other, ultras from Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas – all sworn enemies – united on the same side of street battle lines and stood up to the riot police. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly denounced the protesters as “terrorists” and “looters”.
Backed by elements within the football ultras, Gezi Park protesters felt they had robust and experienced allies to back them up in their battle for control of the streets. The latter duly complied, commandeering an excavation machine renamed “the people’s bulldozer” on June 3. In those heady days of protest, Fenerbahce’s Vamos Bien, Galatasaray’s UltrAslan and Besiktas’ notorious Carsi fans moved as one.
“The first nights [of protest at Gezi Park] meant something to the ultras because it was against the police and for citizens,” said Turkish sports journalist Bener Onar. “When the police fights against citizens, the ultras always back the citizens because fighting against the police is the main thing for ultras.”
But the football fanatics soon felt the full weight of government power. Twenty Carsi members were detained three days after Gezi Park was cleared by riot police on June 15; two were arrested and accused of carrying guns. Today, Istanbul’s football ultras are caught between playing nice with an increasingly hardline government and the bellicose fans they represent.
Istanbul’s football stands, or tribunes, are the stuff of legend. When chants of undying support for a team ring out, entire neighbourhoods shake. The top ultra figures inside the grounds on match day scarcely watch any of the action – with drum and mallet in hand, they direct thousands of supporters in chants, songs and flare-lighting.
Foreign teams dread playing Istanbul’s football titans more than any other in European competition because of the hostile atmosphere created by fans. In 2011, the Guinness Book of Records awarded Galatasaray the “loudest crowd roar at a sport stadium”. Sir Alex Ferguson remarked that his Manchester United team was exposed to “as much hostility and harassment as I have ever known on a football expedition” when playing Galatasaray in 1993.
Located in the middle-class Kadikoy district on Istanbul’s Asian side, Fenerbahce, Erdogan’s team, represents sections of the city’s better-off football community. But they are no less fanatical: “Fenerbahce live long, I will give up my life for you; you can’t be changed for anything in this world,” goes a popular stadium chant.
After a game against rivals Galatasaray in May, a Fenerbahce supporter was stabbed to death, setting off renewed tensions between Turkey’s two biggest teams. The clubs’ top ultra leaders, however, have since worked hard to defuse tensions.
Fenerbahce fans have been angered by the corruption permeating the club’s higher echelons that saw their team ignominiously banned from all European competitions for two years in August. They found a shared voice in the Gezi movement, and during a Champions League qualifying game with London team Arsenal in August, chanted risqué political slogans from the stands. Turkish television stations broadcasting live games have resorted to lowering audio when these chants ring out.
Their ire with the government over the perceived politicisation of the club’s internal workings has since seen Fenerbahce ultras heavily involved in ongoing violence in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district. If Fenerbahce represents the city’s neat suburbanites, across the Bosphorus Strait in European Istanbul, Besiktas JK is the unadorned soul of the working-class football fan.
Meeting Besiktas Carsi’s leader, Alen Markaryan, is a daunting prospect. The scene at his kebab restaurant in Besiktas on a recent September evening could be a set from The Sopranos: a dozen men sit around a table deep in heated conversation about football. No one else sits within earshot. They are the elite of the Besitkas Carsi leadership; dangerous men with violent pasts. Markaryan, dressed all in black, has a stare to match and is clearly someone not to be messed with. He is a revered figure among many Besiktas supporters, but crucially, hasn’t attended a game in months.
Markaryan has been criticised by some Carsi members for an article he wrote perceived as supportive of Erdogan’s government. For him, politics and football shouldn’t mix.
“The idea that Carsi was part of the Gezi protests was overdone. If you went to the park during the protests, you would have seen no Carsi group, no flags,” he said.
“All messages in our stadium are social messages – there is no place for politics in the stands.”
Further probing about the link between football and politics elicits only anger.
He takes my pen and draws a line across a page in my notebook. “I thought you came here to ask me about football? No more politics!” He gets up and returns to the table of dons.
Yet in Istanbul, football and politics are impossible to separate.
Besiktas finds itself in an unenviable position: the complete rebuilding of its Inonu Stadium means it is a tenant at Kasimpasa’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium this season, with the larger Ataturk Olympic Stadium reserved for derby games.
Rumours abound that part of this deal saw supporters and leading figures in Carsi pressured to ensure that political chants would not be heard at the stadium during games. Fans looking to buy season tickets were forced to present their ID numbers upon purchase. In June, Muammer Güler, Turkey’s interior minister, announced a renewed crackdown on violence in sports, warning that: “The controls will be more effective in the future”, a shot across the bow at the ultra groups involved in Gezi protests.
Cameras and plainclothes police are to be deployed inside stadiums this season to identify those chanting anti-government slogans. The government says these are important efforts directed only at kicking violence out of Turkish sport.
Attaching political allegiance to members of Istanbul’s diverse and numerous ultras is no straightforward business: Besiktas Carsi represent a variety of ideologies from Kemalists to Islamists to anarchists. Galatasary’s UltrAslan membership is broadly made up of conservatives and secularists elements.
Increasingly, internal disputes are creating tension in the stands.
Control over tickets has seen Fenerbahce’s broad constellation of ultra groups more divided now than ever before, as was evident at the Kasimpasa game, where members of certain supporter groups were left without tickets while others enjoyed the game inside. Sezgin Sahin of Fenerbahce’s feared Vamos Bien said disagreements with other supporter groups mean they have refused to attend any Fenerbahce games this season. “There are too many unnecessary conflicts in the stadium this year between the fan groups and the club management,” he said.
“Ultras, almost irrespective of where they are, see security forces as the enemy … Once you get into broader issues, you run the risk of having splits,” said James Dorsey, author of the book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, due for release next year.
“Fenerbahce feel they’ve been made a scapegoat in the match-fixing issue.”
Gezi Park activists, who have been pushed to the edge of public consciousness since June, hoped the return of university students to class and fans to stadiums last month would relight the flame of anti-government protest in Istanbul – and their wishes have been granted. Simmering anger with police heavy-handedness has led to violence in Istanbul, Ankara and Hatay in the south this month, costing two lives and resulting in dozens more injured. Fenerbahce ultras have recently become an important force in protests now centred under the shadow of Fenerbahce’s Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Kadikoy.
The first major Istanbul derby saw Besiktas play Galatasaray on September 22 and true to form, fighting in the stands erupted, forcing the game to be abandoned.
However, the fact that the Besiktas fans were involved in violence against riot police at the end of the game that night and not the rival Galatasaray fans is an important sign of where the ultras stand these days. Typically, the fans would be fighting each other, but Gezi has altered that somewhat.
The chant “everywhere is Gezi, everywhere is resistance” also rung around the stadium during the game.
Sixty-seven people were arrested following the pitch invasion and five days after the game police conducted early morning raids and detained 70 top ultras members, including Markaryan, who was later released. On October 1, authorities arrested three other leading Istanbul ultras suspected of involvement in criminal syndicates.
Tellingly, the authorities are more concerned by the possibility of anti-government chanting breaking out on live television than with fan violence at the stadium.
What happened after that punch was thrown outside the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium at kick-off in the Kasimpasa-Fenerbache game? An all-out riot?
No – just as soon as it happened, the incident was forgotten – the Fenerbahce ultras were quickly kissing and hugging their counterparts. Within five seconds, an understanding had been reached.
Such is football in Istanbul.
But only seven weeks into the new season, the fate of Turkish football in the shadow of a summer of popular protest has yet to play out. For the ultras, their team players, managers and hierarchy come and go, but their struggle with an increasingly authoritarian government – and themselves – seems set to go on.
Stephen Starr is a regular contributor to The National.