I’ve seen football played in seven countries: Turkey, the US, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, and Romania. At the Olympiastadion in München, Stadion der Freundschaft in Cottbus. The fabled San Siro in Milano, Sibiu’s Stadionul Municipal, Franz Horr Stadion in Vienna, Stadio Thódoros Vardinoyánnis in Iraklio, Crete, in Istanbul’s BJK Inönü Stadium, and on dozens of fields and stadia in the states collection of fans offered insights into their surrounding national cultures.
The contrasts are stark, especially comparing Istanbul to all the others.
Here’s a thumb-nail: in the US the party in and around the game is as important as the game. Germans make a game a family event with lots of kids, soft pop music, occasional opera from the stands, and murmured disapproval of plays, players and officials; in Greece violent personal epithets were hurled, along with bottles and rocks at opponent players and riot police, Vienna was as relaxed as a day at the beach, fans at the tidy San Siro were more passionate about the game than in the Teutonic venues, with fashion on display with sighs as someone chic walked to her seat, while in post-Communist Romania the crumbling infrastructure and make-do arrangements seemed to sufficed for the all male fan base.
But, Turkish fans came for blood. Seriously. Blood.
First, before describing the unsettling mad-dog-on-steroids atmosphere in Istanbul may I offer a few other comparisons. The presence of police was as varied as the nationalities. Police seemed an after-thought in the States, more for traffic than fan control. But, in Iraklio the police wore thick leather riot gear, helmets with visors, marched in formation with Plexiglas shields, while some tugged at anxious dogs on short tether. I saw no police in Sibiu, none, perhaps because it was unnecessary, or too-expensive in the then dirt-poor country, or a certain antipathy lingered toward the corrupt police after the recent end the Ceau?escu era. The German police seemed neighborly, a bit self-conscious, and so laid back they seemed as if they had come straight to the game from work without time to change. Same in Vienna.
At San Siro in Milano the food trucks were the size of long, sleek Greyhound buses, gaudily painted with long counters and creative lighting. In Cottbus, Bismarck Herring was served to the longest line. Bier from any of the seven local breweries topped the menu in München and came in glass mugs. The beer in Vienna was bland by comparison. I don’t remember the food in Iraklio, so strong and disgusting was the cloud of cigarette smoke in the stands. In Sibiu we bought a paper cone of sunflower seeds from a seller hawking the stands who then poured the full purchase into our jacket pockets. In Istanbul the mix of condiments on what may have been a hot dog was itself was the adventure. No beer, though. Too dangerous. A bottle of water, however, made a potent missile.
I should have mentioned the police in Istanbul. They stood guard on all four sides of the pie shaped sliver of end-zone grandstand where the visiting Bosnian fans sheltered. It was a World Cup Qualifier. About every tenth row an officer stood in his hot, black, riot gear facing the surrounding, jeering, menacing Turks. Nearly 40,000 rapid Stambulis bedecked in the bright red of the Turkish flag surrounded the few hundred Bosnian fans in blue and yellow. Police officers even escorted the Bosnian players on to the pitch and lingered for the two nation anthems, then found their own shelter from the impending storm.
Remember the soft-pop music, the opera in Germany? In Istanbul it was strictly throbbing war music shaking the stands, rousing the rabble, commencing a full hour before kick-off, elevating decibel by decibel until kick-off. Illustrating the sound of the drums was an image of a faceless medieval warrior in a horned helmet played on a big screen at the far end of the stadium, just above the huddled Bosnians. Drums and threatening gestures. Occasionally, trumpets would blare from massive loudspeakers to intensify the crescendo of hate. I thought about the people who lived around the stadium, and then imagined the Ottoman Empire’s army of mercenaries and janissaries revving themselves up before the final assault Vienna where oboes and violins played Mozart. Sobieski came to mind. A huge Turkish flag unfurled from the top of the lower seating section at the center line to the bottom of the section fifty rows below. In another section dozens of red flares were simultaneously lit shrouding the fans-cum-militants in smoke and an eerie glow.
It was war in Istanbul.
The only moment when vocal chords were not oozing blood was when the Bosnian anthem played. As the last chord was sounded by the brightly uniformed Turkish military band the din of boos, cat-calls and epithets again washed over the field lasting unabated until the last minute of the game. Happily for world peace and the few attending Bosnians the final score was 3 to 2 in favor of Türkije.
A chilling moment came toward the end of the game, the score tied 2 to 2, when a ball went deep into the corner near the Ultras’ cheering section. The Ultras, the most rabid of the rabid, had drums, too, many of them, and a plywood 4 by 8 they had laid over the three sided railings over an exit ramp where a maestro splashed with red on his naked torso led the thousand-plus all male mob in rehearsed cheers or threats, depending on the tide of play. It was intimidating just to watch. I remember adjusting my red and white Turkije hat with white crescent and waving the little Turkish flag I had bought both of which seemed to double as insurance against a beating, or two. I wanted the 40,000 to know I was a friend of the mob, not some well-dressed Bosnian from the Westernized Balkans. As the players charged into the corner to fight for the ball the crowd pelted the Bosnians with coins, those handy water bottles, and a fusillade of something long and slender akin to arrows.
There’s a thought. On the way in to the stadium we were required to give up all the coins in our pockets. It made sense. Safety. I had seen the videos of Honduras vs Guatemala where people killed each other after the game, and where a short war followed. Safety, I thought as I dropped the dozen coins into a till. But later, when I bought that hot dog-of-sorts, I was given coins in change for my paper bills. On the way in there were no scanners, only a couple of brutes in uniform taking my coins. Flares got in, arrows seemed acceptable, decaying fruit was fine, but my coins were verboten. Safety?
At the end of the game the charged atmosphere turned to awe when an additional 100 riot police, each accompanied by a Schäferhund, rounded the field in procession, only stopping after they had encircled the pitch. Meanwhile, the drums and the winged warrior resumed the war chant on the big screen. Friend and I decided to take the first cab we could find out of the area back to the calm of our little hotel overlooking the Bosphorus in Sultanahmet.
Raki awaited, enough of war.