In search of the real Turkish football
It is easy to be cynical about football in Turkey. Last month during an Istanbul derby Beşiktaş coach Şenol Güneş needed stitches in his head after being pelted with projectiles thrown from the terraces by Fenerbahçe fans. Far from leading to introspection and an apology, the incident prompted Fenerbahçe’s fans and directors to denounce a dark conspiracy plotted against the club. The incident seemed to confirm all the worst stereotypes about football in Turkey: Prone to violence and fanaticism.
“Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football” by John McManus, an anthropologist and fellow at the British Institute at Ankara, peers under the surface. The books takes us on a tour of the beautiful game in Turkey, a window through which to examine society, history, and contemporary politics. McManus is a sensitive and astute guide with an eye for the telling detail. He first came to the country in 2008 as part of an EU-sponsored English teaching scheme. In subsequent years he picked up the language and traveled the length and breadth of Turkey, looking for threads that bound it all together. Passion for football stood out. “[Football] remains one of the most interesting domains in which to test the temperature of the nation,” he writes.
The title of the book comes from a home-made banner that greeted Manchester United during a notorious visit to Istanbul for a European Cup match against Galatasaray in 1993. The trip was marred by violence, with visiting players’ bus bombarded with stones and fans corralled in a hotel before being deported. Levels of animosity in the stadium were intense, with defender Gary Neville describing it as “the most hostile atmosphere I’ve ever seen.” The fixture defined Turkey as a Wild West of the football world, confirmed seven years later when two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death in Taksim Square.
McManus says his aim in writing the book was to escape such clichés. “My own experiences had been anything but hellish,” he writes. “When I thought about Turkish football, I pictured warm-heartedness, camaraderie and ardor in amounts I had never before witnessed … In Turkey, I was never made to feel unwelcome.” He thus set out to “balance the scales and correct the lopsided image,” penning a “love letter to the Turkish game.”
But the book is actually a far more ambivalent affair. As McManus digs, he comes “to appreciate the darker reality pushing at the seams,” admitting he had been “naïve to think I could tell the real story of Turkish football in shades of color and vim.” As he learns more, he finds football’s unsavory elements “spreading and infecting, like an ink blot on a sheet of paper.” In showing the negative, warts-and-all side of the game in Turkey, McManus even acknowledges a growing sense of “cynicism and anger” building within him.
His voyage takes him high and low. The book presents brief histories of the three major Istanbul clubs – Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe – and mini biographies of two of the modern game’s most prominent (and controversial) figures: Manager Fatih Terim and player Arda Turan. But McManus also takes us further afield, with chapters on women’s football in Turkey, controversy around Amedspor in the Kurdish-majority Diyarbakır, and a Syrian refugee team struggling to piece together enough players.
As an anthropologist McManus has plenty to say about football fandom and broader social tendencies. But this rarely feels like forced intellectualism; the book is full of humor as well as insight. Inevitably, the story also intersects with political and economic currents. Like other sectors, Turkey’s football industry has been motored by the construction sector in recent years, with the government pushing the building of state-of-the-art stadiums across the country. Between 2007 and 2015, 18 new grounds were built across Anatolia, the top rate of development in UEFA.
Also embroiled in politics is the controversial Passolig ticket card system. Introduced in 2014, Passolig was one element of a wider law on violence in football, handing more authority to police and stadium officials to control fans, installing deeper security systems and increasing punishments for bad behavior. The tender went to a bank with links to Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Erdoğan, prompting accusations of favoritism. The system makes it much more cumbersome and unpleasant to purchase match tickets, while apparently failing to stamp out stadium violence. But McManus suggests it is part of a broader gentrification of football, similar to processes that have taken place in most other countries.
Due to deadlines, one thing missing from the book is the spectacular rise of Başakşehir, perhaps the most important and symbolic contemporary Turkish football story. The tiny former Istanbul Municipality club was bought in 2014 by businessmen close to President Erdoğan, who pumped in funds and turned the club - which has barely any fans - into a lab rat experiment aiming to win the Super League title. It is all rather unsavory, but journalist Patrick Keddie - who coincidentally has also just released a book on football in Turkey - has described how Başakşehir is investing more in youth training facilities and infrastructure than the traditional giant clubs.
Still, Turkish football continues to revolve almost entirely around “the big three” in Istanbul. “Submit to one of them, faults and all, and you are hot-wired into life in Turkey,” writes McManus. On these clubs and much else “Welcome to Hell?” is a terrific read. A lot of what it reveals is unflattering, but the book is likely to reignite enthusiasm even among those feeling jaded about football in Turkey – and about the state of the country itself.