Turkish football has a certain reputation amongst English football fans. If your team is fortunate enough to be playing in European football, there’s always a certain frisson when you hear that your team has been drawn against the three legendary names of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaş.
Legend tells of Graham Souness, a Scottish football manager once in charge of Galatasaray. After a cup match against deadly rivals Fenerbahçe, he picked up a Galatasaray standard and planted it firmly in the centre circle of the Fenerbahçe ground. Riots erupted, police were called in, questions were asked. It was an act of aggression equivalent to having gay sex in the Vatican, admitting to a fondness for Justin Bieber at a baroque concert or possibly setting up a sausage sandwiches stall at a fashion shoot. At derby matches police are now stationed specifically to stop that ever happening again.
The Galatasaray fans are proud of their fearsome reputation. Welcome to Hell, they proudly tell you of their new ground, the Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi – Türk Telekom Arena. That little bit of product placement costs Türk Telecom just under £7 million a year over the next 10 years (that’s the placement in the stadium title, not the placement in my blog. That comes free. For now).
Being a football fan is a curious occupation, and can’t really be explained in any rational sense. The tribal nature of the devotion, the one-eyed view of all incidents, the incredulity at the inability of the officials to be omniscient and telepathic, are all signs of an irrational obsession. It is not unfair to compare it to religious devotion.
One morning I happened to mention my interest in going to a football match to my studio owner, Gülden. Gülden is one of those people around whom things happen. The next day she told me that she could get me a ticket, for ₺200 (Turkish lira – about £80). (My computer seems to be having trouble producing the Turkish Lira sign; it should look like a curvy ‘t’ with two crossed lines. Apologies if you get a P with two cross strokes) Was I interested? I certainly was. Thus began my descent into Hell.
Gülden told me to come to examine that day with spare clothes. A suit did not suit, and the temperature in hell would be freezing. Wrap up warm. I got changed, and she announced my jacket to be unsuitable. Her son had a puffa jacket I could wear. No, that’s fine. No, you will. I did. No-one disobeys Gülden.
We assembled, my fellow hellions and I, for the last supper. The Galatasaray social club in Levent was, aptly enough, thick with a pungent acrid fug. Here was a venue that coughed in the face of a smoking ban. A large room was full of men in red and gold football shirts. I, in my blue jumper, and Gülden, with her gender, stood out like angels in a Bosch painting. We each ordered whisky and joined a table. I was introduced to Giray, Osman and Bulent, all of whom, fortunately, spoke good English. They were drinking rakı (pronounced rakuh) and eating schnitzel. Readers of past posts will recognise the tittle-free letter.
When Gülden and I had finished our whiskies, rather than ordering another, the glasses were passed to the far end of the table. Osman opened a bag that Gülden had brought, and hiding the contents beneath the table, brought out a bottle of whisky (Johnny Walker Red Label, since you ask). Our glasses were topped up and returned. This was not the last appearance of this bottle.
Suitably fortified, we set off to find the coach. Whilst walking there, I found out two important things; firstly that I would be allowed to take no coins into the ground, and secondly that my penknife (that I carry everywhere) would also – unsurprisingly – be confiscated. Coins are taken from you to prevent you throwing them at the officials, and they’re also very conscious that Fifth Columnists from one of the rival teams might take the opportunity to throw coins under the guise of being Galatasaray fans, in order to earn the team a fine or a ban.
Giray would look after my penknife, promising to smuggle it in in the sole of his shoe. Even in hell, it appears, there is little honesty. My coins, however, were sacrificed to buy pistachios for the journey. What, I asked, of the whisky bottle? Surely we weren’t going to be allowed to take that in? Oh, the naïveté of my little suggestion. The whisky would be long gone before we reached the ground, apparently.
In the bus someone produced half a dozen plastic cups, and we drank whisky and talked football. My four lira’s worth of nuts were passed around, and sure enough, by the time we pulled up at the Ali Sami Yen stadium, the whisky had somehow evaporated. There were still pistachios left.
Traffic being what it was, we were a little late to reach our seats. The portal of hell was guarded by three-headed Cerberus, in the shape of stewards who frisked everyone on entering the ground. To suggest that the frisking was token is generous. The metal detectors were not on, and there are several hiding places about my person in which I could have safely stuck my penknife without bringing tears to my eyes.
We were too late for the national anthem. In truth, I might just have caught the end, but at the first strains of İstiklâl Marşı, Gülden stopped in her tracks, stood perfectly upright and joined in. No matter, we arrived at our seats just as the match kicked off.
Our seats were half a ground away from Osman, Giray and Bulent. It was if a romantic little tête-à-tête had been arranged for us. Just we two little imps and 42,000 diablos to share our tender moment in hell.
After watching so much football on television, it’s always salutary actually to visit a football ground. You are reminded of how big, and how small it is. Didier Drogba was within easy coin throwing distance, had I been possessed of any coins. I wasn’t close enough to smell his aftershave, but I could certainly advise his tailor as to which side he dressed. The football happens at incredible speed and physical intensity; unless you’ve tried it, you have no idea how hard it is to kick a ball 50 yards, let alone accurately to within a yard or so, having bent its flight round three other moving men.
The match itself I shall gloss over; there are better football writers than I, and you can look up the match online should you wish. The first goal was scored by Galatasaray after 3 minutes, at which point the company of hell erupted into wild jubilation, the demons on the playing field thronged in a homoerotic frenzy, and the stadium public address system blared an instrumental cover of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’ by Dutch pop group Hermes House Band. No, I’m not making that up. It’s this track, from 2’08” and has been played following every Galatasaray goal at home since 1998. Hell is the campest place on earth.
Within 20 minutes it was 2-0. Gloria Gaynor was again pressed into action, but within a minute the unthinkable happened. Elaziğspor, some 12 places below Galatasaray in the league, equalised. A deathly silence befell 42,000 evil spirits; the cheers of just 200 Orphean souls who had braved the journey into hell troubled the trembling hush.
By half time it was effectively over. Gloria had survived once more, and it was 3-1. Gülden and I went to the bar. There was no alcohol of any description, so we both had tea. It came to ₺4, and I passed over a ₺5 note. The bartender handed me a bar of chocolate. Before I had a chance to query this strange exchange, Gülden intervened to point out that as they were not allowed coins, they could not give change. That chocolate bar was my lira.
It was time for the second half. Still to come: whistling, Drogba, and 204 people who were there but never watched the match.