Whether one likes it or not, no one can deny that football (soccer) has always been at the core of Turkish society. A platform to wage war on opponents or merely to let off steam from the angst of everyday life, hardships, frustrations it has often played a role of distraction from the heavy burden of being a citizen of Turkey, and made life bearable for most, at the expense of making it unbearable for the rest. Whether you liked or you despised, if you lived in Turkey, you spoke football. Bordering hooliganism, the fans of football clubs often staged wars, showing not only verbal but often physical animosity. One can hardly count the number of football commentators and the number of broadcast hours dedicated to their endless criticisms and analysis dissecting every minute detail of a game, as if it were sacrosanct not to do so. And the lines between sports and politics have never been so blurred.
Two days ago a major game was scheduled between two major teams from Istanbul. What defines Istanbul teams of late, is their stance on the Gezi Park protests from June of this year. Besiktas, although the club management – the business side of things- would differ, through its fan base, Carsi (meaning “the market”, depicting the old market in the Besiktas neighbourhood of Istanbul, with its old residents and market owners, ready to help each other through hard times) has given ample support to the nationwide protests. Their slogan, coarsely translated: Carsi against injustice, earned them a permanent place in the hearts of Gezi supporters, even among the fans of the rival teams of Galatasaray and Fenerbahce. Carsi, through Gezi, re-established itself as the symbol of everything the Turkish society held dear and was on the brink of losing. Its philosophy was based on camaraderie. And the more unrelenting their stance got, the more they became a target for numerous individual law suits filed against them by the AKP government, being prosecuted with accusations of illegality and terrorism. However this has not stopped Carsi to be there, with the people, when civilian protesters were killed, permanently injured, or merely harassed by police violence.
Galatasaray on the other hand, a UEFA cup holder, kept its distance with Gezi from the onstart, its main fan base split into two camps, one for the ptotests, the other deadly against.
For supporters of the idea that football and politics should be kept apart, a reality hovers above and from behind the scenes. In Turkey although seemingly separate, politics often do play a part in how teams are managed, get their funding, and even why they receive fines and how much. Afterall each major team in Turkey is also a significant player in BIST100, or the stock exchange. And at the end of the day, with stadium constructions, ticket sales, transfer of players, it has been long established that football is not merely sports. It is a big and prolific industry. And where there is so much money, politics is hardly too far behind.
In Turkish stadiums the audience rows are called tribunes, reminiscent of early Roman courts. The stadiums themselves are often called arenas which, as you presume, would make the players gladiators and each game played, a show of survival of the fittest. However most recently, the “tribunes” are less interested in the score and more intent on the 34th minute.
34, the plate number of Istanbul, has become another symbol for Gezi, bridging football and politics. Even the disinterested population is now intent to hear the fans in stadiums scream “everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance” (her yer Taksim, her yer direnis), a slogan the paid private channels are mortified to broadcast. Such being the case, two days ago, on the 34th minute of the big derby between Galatasaray and Besiktas, LigTV, a paid channel only broadcasting major games of the soccer league, censored the crowds’ cheers by overlaying pre-recorded “neutral” sounds on the 34th minute. Sounds quiet paranoid no? Well, wait until you hear the 4 football prosecutors specially designated to prosecute “football crimes”, and the hundreds of riot police present at the game. Coupled with allegations from the audience that the entry to the game was breached, and that a sizeable crowd entered the stadium through broken tourniquets, with the police standing by and not attempting to stop any, rumors were soon running loose that a newly emerged pro-Erdogan group calling themselves 1453 and claiming to be Besiktas supporters were going to muddy the waters. Copies of their tweets to that effect were widely shared on social media, from photos of stacks of tickets allegedly “handed to them for free,” to their threats that in this game everyone would see who 1453 was and that they were here to stay.
The rest is a summary of witness testimony gathered from long time friends and hardcore Besiktas supporters: that Carsi was on the West wing of the arena but those that invaded the field came from the East-wing, and that the invaders were chanting “Allah, Allah”, often associated with jihad, yet in Turkish protests closely associated with Erdogan; that the police stood by and did nothing and, in conclusion, that it was obvious that this was pre-planned and staged to discredit Carsi. There is ample evidence to support their claims, yet as seen in most recent court cases and investigations of anything Gezi, whether or not these claims will be transparently and accurately investigated by the government officials is doubtful.
The disrupted game of Saturday night is an early call to what each major game in this year’s league may bear witness to, and what politicizing the football tribunes may bring the politicians: tribunals, in the Ancient Roman sense.
Afterall this is Istanbul, and yes, it is all about Gezi, and all about a “bunch of trees”.