When it comes to football/soccer, there are three major players on the Istanbul scene. Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş, and Galatasaray. Obviously, people have their favorites, and I’m sure it gets heated what with multiple teams in the same league all in one city. But how does an outsider go about picking a football team?
People overwhelmingly pick their teams based on simple geography, or they cheer for the teams their parents have cheered for. I stuck with the Twins through several states, so I’ve done the same thing. But from a complete outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see the truth in the old Seinfeld bit: “we’re cheering for clothes.”
Here in Turkey, however, there’s an added element of politics. Galatasaray seems very much in the mainstream, Fenerbahçe is known for its fans’ opposition to Erdoğan which immediately endears me to them, and Beşiktaş, according to a Beşiktaş fan is “against everything.” I’ve taken that to mean that they are very anti-authoritarian, which I appreciate, but it also seems like that would be quick to devolve into some kind of anarchism-for-dummies. The choice is clearly pretty difficult.
We wanted the Turkish soccer experience, however, and I got as close as looking for tickets to a game. But noticing that secondary-market tickets seemed impossible to come by for any team, I did some digging and learned about Passolig, the creepy, corruption-riddled government tracking system that’s killing Turkish soccer. I can’t support a system designed to allow the government to spy on normal citizens over something as innocuous as soccer. I certainly won’t support it when it isn’t fairly applied to the well-connected. And I smell a rat in the fact that Erdoğan’s son-in-law “fairly” “won” the contract to administer the system. In short, I couldn’t do it.
Thankfully, the team at the top of the table in the Turkish Süper Lig can qualify for the UEFA Europa League. UEFA games are outside the scope of
George Orwell’s 1984 Passolig. As Ari Gold would say: “Boom. Done.” So off we went to a UEFA game with a purchasing assist from our lovely landlady, Zeynep.
The game we saw was the second leg of the Beşiktaş-Club Brugge series. Beşiktaş was already down by a game, and so any loss or tie would be fatal to their chances to advance to the round of 8. It was do or die for the Black Eagles, and Michelle and I were all-in for Beşiktaş (and the anti-authoritarianism). The only problem was getting there.
The game time was at 10:00 PM, and after Michelle’s very nice birthday dinner (she shares a birthday with Beşiktaş!) we left at around 7:45, mainly because we got a call from the guy who was meeting us at the stadium with our tickets saying that we were late. Granted, it was at the opposite end of the metro, which would take the better part of an hour under normal conditions, but what at what kind of place is an hour and a half early considered to be late?
We were in for a bit of a surprise when we got off the train. Walking up to the stadium was like walking through “Escape from Istanbul.” Michelle was Snake Plissken. Duh.
There were vendors everywhere, yelling in Turkish at all passers-by. Most of the vendors were just normal guys who bought beer or water or snacks in bulk and sold them out of their store packaging. But they were everywhere. There were also the pop-up köfte stands, the makeshift barbecues, and sellers of midye dolma, or rice-stuffed mussels, which are delicious but which always make me at least a little scared of food poisoning. There were open fires aplenty, mainly for warmth I think, but some were unattended, which makes me wonder.
Garbage cans were nonexistent. Well actually, the “garbage can” was more or less everywhere. Getting to the correct gate involved crunching through tons of plastic water bottles, crushed beer cans, empty bags of chips and nuts, and all sorts of things whose provenance I prefer not to consider. I’m assuming that they bring in an industrial cleaning crew after the games. I’m actually more hoping than assuming.
We finally got our tickets, but getting into the stadium was an ordeal. This is not sauntering up to Target Plaza, handing your ticket to one of the hundreds of friendly ticket-takers, exchanging some pleasantries, and leisurely heading to your seat to watch the Twins. This was more like entering the rugby scrum that Turks call a “queue,” crushing your way through the lines of riot police standing next to the armored troop transport toward the five small doors used to admit thousands of fans, going through the first cattle chute, getting frisked, heading to the second cattle chute, getting frisked again, and finally giving your ticket to the ticket taker. Allow me an understatement. This was quite unpleasant.
What was quite pleasant was the game. It was mercifully free of the piped-in noise, cheesy halftime shows, cartoonish mascots, t-shirt cannons, and kids’ shows that you see at other sporting events. I think the closest comparison is probably the student section at a college football game. All 78,000 in the stadium stood on their seats to watch, the chants were constant, and every time Club Brugge controlled the ball the fans whistled constantly and sharply. Everyone was engaged, and all without the gimmicks designed to engage fans.
Now, no one would call me a soccer expert, and I would be the first to admit that I know very little, so here are my decidedly amateur impressions of the game. Beşiktaş was very, very interested in ball control, even to a fault. If you tracked time of possession, Beşiktaş would have had a massive lead. However, that didn’t translate into goal scoring, and it was actually very frustrating when the teams were tied late in the game, knowing that Beşiktaş was in do-or-die mode. Their clock was winding down, and they were still incredibly methodical.
Club Brugge seemed content to play defense with most of its personnel, sending a striker up the middle at opportune times. I know literally zero names on Club Brugge, but number 9, the tall and surprisingly fast forward, was dangerous throughout the game. Beşiktaş could hang on to the ball for 88 minutes, but you give that guy the ball a few times up the middle and it won’t matter.
It turns out, that’s what happened. Number 9 got himself the equalizer to put Brugge at an advantage, and they put the game away shortly thereafter on a boneheaded play by Beşiktaş on defense. (Play defense! Don’t play for the offsides call! If it’s there, it’ll be called, for chrissakes!) Michelle was constantly frustrated by the same sort of thing – Beşiktaş showed an irritating willingness to pass the ball to the goalie or across the middle of the defensive zone despite dangerous forwards lurking everywhere. They made at least a few of these kinds of mistakes that Brugge wasn’t able to capitalize on, but by all means should have.
So our adopted team lost the game. That’s too bad, but we were happy to support the Black Eagles for a day, happy to get the Turkish soccer experience complete with flares, chants, and intensity, and very happy to finally experience an east-stand/west-stand chant-off. It was pretty amazing, and while Turkish soccer still has a soul, I am grateful that we were able to experience it.