The Big Man
What football can tell us about the reign of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is notorious as Turkey’s mercurial, irascible and increasingly authoritarian president. What is less well known is that the man who dominates his nation’s politics used to be a semi-professional footballer.
Erdoğan’s sporting career has become part of his personal mythology – it is used to reinforce his image as a salt-of-the-earth, masculine leader in tune with the masses. But his relationship with the game goes beyond his fondness for a footballing metaphor. In the 10 years that I have been attending games in Turkey I have witnessed huge changes, many of which carry his imprimatur. Turkey’s favourite game, like the country as a whole, has become bigger and louder over the course of his decade and a half at the helm; it’s more commercialised and polarised, entwined ever more in the tendrils of business and politics that increasingly comes to define how things work. So central has Erdoğan become to Turkish football that any account of the state of the game today would be bereft without a study of his role. And yet the game – and its obsessive, devoted fans – also show the limits of his power.
The man known by his supporters as Reis – the Chief – was born in 1954 in Kasımpaşa, a working-class district on the shores of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The family were poor. After school, the young Erdoğan would work selling stale simit, the circular sesame bread that is Turkey’s most popular snack.But what he really wanted to do with his free time was kick a ball around. “I loved football. It was my passion. It entered my dreams at night,” Erdoğan said years later. “But my father never gave permission for me to play.”
According to the officially sanctioned narrative, Ahmet Erdoğan – nicknamed ‘captain’ because of his work on the Istanbul ferries – was fiercely against his son’s obsession. “Football won’t feed the belly,” he used to growl. The young Tayyip (as he is known) defied his father, sneaking out to play, hiding his football boots in the coal bunker upon his return.
Aged 11, Erdoğan won a place at an İmam Hatip college, one of Turkey’s religious high schools founded to train imams for the nation’s mosques. He was not particularly hard working but excelled in religious studies and sport. While still at school, he began playing for the amateur side Camialtıspor. In 1974, a year after graduating from high school, he moved to a team linked to the Istanbul transport authority, IETT, on the recommendation of the team’s captain, who was one of Erdoğan’s neighbours in Kasımpaşa.
In 1994, when he was on the verge of being elected mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan gave an interview about his footballing career to the newspaper Milliyet. As an up-and-coming Islamist politician, he went to great lengths to weave a strong thread of religiosity into his years as a footballer, explaining that when he played for IETT he used to lay out his prayer rug and pray in the changing rooms. His teammates already jokingly called him hoca, religious teacher. Erdoğan explained how, before matches, he and the coach would take the side to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, where Erdoğan apparently led them in prayer. “We won all our matches in Eyüp,“ he stated as proof of its effectiveness. “Belief is 50% of success. Even Maradona used to kiss a cross when heading out onto the pitch.“
The same interview also sees Erdoğan discuss the most fiercely disputed claim about his footballing career: that he was almost signed by Fenerbahçe — which, along with Galatasaray and Beşiktaş, is one of the ‘Big Three’ teams from Istanbul that dominate the national game. He reports that he was on Fenerbahçe’s transfer list in 1977 but that his hopes evaporated with the departure of the team’s manager, the Serbian Tomislav Kaloperović. Erdoğan is a Fenerbahçe fan and some writers believe there is some burnishing of the historical record. But the claim that he could have played for the Canaries would be repeated again and again throughout the course of his political career.
Even by today’s alarming global standards, Turkey is a deeply polarised nation. The country divides roughly in half between those who are filled with adoration for Erdoğan and those who harbour deep loathing for him and everything he stands for. As is so often the case in Turkey, if you want to find out the truth of the president’s footballing career, it depends on whom you ask.
Erdoğan’s supporters line up to trumpet his footballing experience. A book called Please Don’t Let My Father See was published in 2005 by Hacı Hasdemir, a journalist from Zaman, at that time a pro-government newspaper. It begins with an introduction from Hayri Beşer, a fellow Zaman writer, which sets the tone for what follows: “When reading, some might arrive at the conclusion that it is ‘the anatomy of an angel’,“ warns Beşer. “Because in Tayyip Erdoğan’s 15-year footballing adventure, there’s barely a blemish.” A 2017 biopic of the president shows him as a child coming on to score the winner in the closing minutes of a 9-9 game with a stunning overhead kick.
A series of sceptics have lined up to cast doubt on some or all of the central assertions of Erdoğan’s footballing career, part of a wider mistrust of his story that also includes a disputed university degree. Mustafa Hoş, a journalist, who mockingly describes the Hasdemir account as “the Holy Book”, compares Erdoğan’s footballing days to trying to uncover evidence about events that took place almost 100 years ago. “Everything is ambiguous and contradictory.” Soner Yalçın, a journalist who has written a 400-page take down of Erdoğan, makes no effort to conceal his contempt. He believes that the entire Fenerbahçe story is fabricated. Yalçın also claims Erdoğan spent his first two years at Camıaltıspor as assistant to the kit man, and maintains that he only got on the pitch because of “Kasımpaşa pressure” exerted on the coach by a neighbourhood friend.
At the age of 27, when most footballers are hitting their stride, Erdoğan left IETT. He carried on playing football for Erokspor, a neighbourhood team, but by this time other aspects of his life were starting to take precedent. From an early age Erdoğan had been involved in politics. He was part of the shifting landscape of religious-inspired parties that had their roots in conservative neighbourhoods like Erdoğan’s Kasımpaşa. In 1976, aged 22, he had become chairman of the local youth branch of the Islamist Millî Selâmet Partisi (National Salvation Party). It was shut down after a military coup in 1980, but in 1985 he became the chair of the Istanbul district of its successor, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi).
When Turkey was founded as an independent nation in 1923, its leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established a secular state similar to the model in France. A directorate of religious affairs was established and imams were brought under government control. Islam was deemed a private matter, not a public identity. Civil servants could not grow a beard and girls in headscarves could not sit university exams. These policies highlighted two distinct groupings: an urban, secular elite in charge of the levers of the state and a larger, poorer mass of ‘religious’ citizens.
A common misconception is that this fault line is solely about religion. It isn’t. Among secular elites, religion was a shorthand way of signifying a distaste of provincialism and perceived cultural backwardness of the rural working class. From the 1920s, these people were cut out of the state-building process, spoken to rather than engaged. For politicians or organisations that could cast their appeal in language that resonated with them, there was a growing constituency to be tapped.
Erdoğan is a politician who grasped this intuitively. “Your brother Tayyip is a black Turk,” he declared, casting himself as a member of an oppressed underclass in opposition to the old ‘white Turk’ elite. In 1994, he won the Istanbul mayor’s office for the Welfare Party – part of a wave of victories across the country that marked a watershed moment for Islamist politics in Turkey. Seven years later, after a spell in prison on political charges, he led a breakaway movement and founded a new party: the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP. Erdoğan had learnt from previous battles. He and his party downplayed the importance of religion, including unveiled women in its election posters and emphasising an economic platform built around deregulation and free trade.
In the general election of November 2002, the party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament, sweeping away the status quo. In March 2003, Erdoğan became prime minister. A year after his ascension to the top job, Fenerbahçe had a home match against Akçaabat Sebatspor, a team from Trabzon. In the home end, a banner was draped across the advertising hoarding: “A manly man: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” The footballer from Kasımpaşa had become the most powerful man in the land.
I have never known a Turkey without Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When I first arrived to teach English at a Turkish high school in 2008, the AKP project was already six years old. A major part of the party’s success was built on its social and political empowerment of those who had been sidelined by the old elites. Many benefited from its reforms to education, healthcare and social security, and a relaxation of Turkey’s strict secularism that placed restrictions on women who wore headscarves. The party presided over a period of strong GDP growth, fuelled by booming construction. Rising wealth and a surge in spending on the back of consumer lending meant millions were buying their first car and home. The spending spree was being fuelled by foreign capital that flooded into Turkish markets, attracted by the high returns.
Football rode the wave of these economic developments. After 10 years I have been able to notice the difference. The game in Turkey increasingly has the corporate bells and whistles that are familiar to a modern-day British fan: the electronic advertising boards, the stadiums named after corporations and the club merchandise that ranges from beer holders to baby-grows. But Turkish football also has additional features that even the hyper-commercialised English Premier League has yet to implement. On team shirts, the players’ names are relegated to below the squad numbers. The more visible spot across the shoulder blades is given over to adverts. I am certain that my player recognition is much lower in Turkey because any close-ups give the appearance that they are all called ‘Halley’ (a chocolate brand), ‘Garenta’ (a car rental company) or ‘Beko’ (a manufacturer of home appliances)1. When watching a game on television, the screen suddenly shrinks to allow a banner advertising a petrol brand to flash across the bottom. Such commercialism has contributed to the Turkish Super League becoming the seventh wealthiest football league in Europe by revenue. Many people are grateful to Erdoğan personally for these developments. “In the last 15 years we’ve started to gather the fruits of your leadership. Our football has started to rise,” Yıldırım Demirören, the president of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) said in 2017.
Erdoğan is of course not solely responsible for all of this. From economic performance to the reforms leading to the commencement of EU accession talks, he and his party often implemented or continued processes set in motion earlier. Perceptions matter, however. And it is salient that across Turkey many people view the transformation of the country as not simply presided over by Erdoğan but stemming directly from his words and actions.
Such personification of government speaks to what the anthropologist Jenny White calls the ‘Big Man’ conception of politics. The Big Man is “both a father figure and a hero”, sitting at the top of a strict hierarchy, where relations are cast in terms of personal patronage in exchange for political support: you do something for me, I do something for you. The Big Man does not inherit his position of leadership but acquires it through securing and protecting his flock, be that positions in the cabinet for close confidants or new roads and health insurance schemes for supporters at the grassroots.
“Despite the trappings of elections and the appearance of a stable, modern state,” writes White, Turkey’s political culture has long been characterised by the idea of the ‘Big Man’. The trope stretches back to the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal, the archetypal hero and father figure whose presence suffuses all of Turkey, from pictures and statues in government buildings to aphorisms printed inside textbooks. All the same, Turkey did not have a Big Man of comparative stature until the former footballer from Kasımpaşa rose to prominence.
Football remains a central part of Erdoğan’s Big Man persona. In a country in which the game is entwined with notions of virile masculinity and hero-worship, it is the ideal tool with which to bolster a reputation2. He was still taking part in games well into his sixties; at a charity match in 2014, he scored a hat-trick with some surprisingly decent finishing.
Erdoğan’s displays of sporting prowess are reminiscent of those of Russian president Vladimir Putin – also in his sixties – who regularly takes part in ice hockey matches in which he scores upwards of eight goals. Erdoğan frequently descends to the dressing room after matches to congratulate players. In August 2017 he joked with Martin Škrtel, who missed a good chance to score: “If you curled the ball a bit more, it would have gone in. Clearly you haven’t seen my goals when I played for the Istanbul municipality.” Erdoğan is forever taking penalties at the opening of new stadiums or football conferences, which are always widely documented. “The first goal from Erdoğan,” the sports newspaper Fotomaç reported at the opening of the new Trabzonspor stadium in December 2016. Next to the picture, the newspaper placed a star that read “a master stroke”.
“When I was a youth, in all of Istanbul you could count the number of acceptable pitches on the fingers of one hand,” said Erdoğan in March 2017. “In the entire history of the republic up until 2002, the number of sports facilities stood at 1575. In just 14 years we added another 1924.”
Perhaps the largest change to sports in Turkey under the AKP has been the surge in sports construction. From neighbourhood AstroTurf pitches to world-class stadiums, every level of the sports pyramid has seen huge investment in infrastructure. Many thousands now have affordable and accessible sports amenities close to their homes and schools. But there are also plenty of white elephants.
New sports facilities are part of a wider construction boom that has swept across the cities of Turkey. It is impossible to escape the sound of jackhammers and drills as buildings are pulled down and thrown up at dizzying speed. The restless movement is not a consequence but a cause – in a country in which construction and its affiliated industries make up about 20 per cent of the economy, permanent building keeps the economy afloat. To achieve this end, there has been deregulation of state entities, changes to planning laws and the loosening of credit. The boom has helped power the country to greater wealth and prosperity, but it has also had a darker side, with environmental damage, poor workers’ safety and allegations of corruption and cronyism. And, by 2018, there were mounting concerns about the sustainability of the country’s debt-fuelled boom and growing fears of a crash.
Pride of place in the building spree has been given to Erdoğan’s beloved mega-projects. They include a third bridge across the Bosphorus and a road tunnel and metro line that run under it. In 2015, construction began on a third airport, due to be the world’s busiest with six runways. Football stadiums, too, are an important example of the policy in action.
Turkey has become Uefa’s leading builder of new stadiums. Between 2007 and 2015, 18 new grounds were built. The rate of development eclipsed even Russia, which was preparing for the 2018 World Cup. The cities of Bursa, Eskişehir, Trabzon, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Samsun, Antalya, İzmit, Adana, Adapazarı, Antakya and Konya all have – or in 2018 were soon to get – a new stadium. Nearly all follow the same pattern: an old stadium, built in the 1940s or 50s, is knocked down. It will have been part of the republican project, located in a central area alongside a park or some other recreational space and named either after Atatürk himself (Bursa, Eskişehir, Konya, Sakarya, Antalya) or key dates from the Turkish war of independence (Ankara, Samsun).
By contrast, the new stadiums are named after sponsors (the Türk Telekom Stadium, the Medical Park Stadium) or the municipality. They often stand on the outskirts of the city, accessible only by car or laborious journeys on public transport. Most Turkish stadiums are owned by the government and leased to the clubs. Consequently, the old city-centre plots can be sold off by TOKI, the government housing agency, to developers for a lucrative price. “Let the stadiums be a thousand witnesses,” Erdoğan said on the campaign trail in March 2017. “Most were in a dilapidated state. We brought – we are bringing – new stadiums that are the envy of most cities in the world.”
In many ways Turkey is going through a process that the UK underwent in the 1990s, when the governance and infrastructure of the game was rapidly overhauled. In England the process was prompted by the Hillsborough disaster. Turkey, thankfully, has never experienced a stadium disaster on that scale, although it has suffered major tragedies. In August 1967, 40 died at a match between Sivas and Kayseri when rock throwing between the fans prompted a stampede.
But safety and comfort were not the only motivations. Stadiums are seen as a vital source of revenue for heavily indebted clubs. Ceyhun Kazancı, who was in charge of selling boxes and VIP seats for the new Galatasaray stadium, explained the flaws with the old ground. “The capacity was 25,000 and there were no boxes. But there are a lot of rich and important people at Galatasaray … and they want to show off.” According to Kazancı, the sale of boxes at the new stadium, plus 2500 VIP seats on a three-year contract, earned the club US$80 million.
Some go as far as to say that the stadium’s existence is solely due to the opportunity to award a construction project and enrich friends, a process captured in Turkish by the wonderfully onomatopoeic word ‘rant’. Turkey isn’t Russia. There is no culture of everyday mini-bribes to traffic police or civil servants. But business is riddled with conflicts of interest and corruption. In Turkey many construction companies are part of a wider portfolio of business interests. It has been alleged that in return for contracts, they have been asked to acquire newspapers and TV channels and ensure that they turn out obsequious coverage.
Local politicians jostle to have the ‘best’ projects built in their patch as a way of showing their power and influence. Stadiums are constructed less as community facilities and more money makers and status symbols, packaged as a reward from on high. Bestowing a new stadium on a town is one of the gifts that the Big Man can dole out in exchange for support. But there is also a flip-side. Erdoğan was subjected to his first ever large-scale public booing at the opening of the new Galatasaray ground in January 2011. The team’s fans are convinced that this act has had repercussions. I have heard many insist that the horrendous traffic bottlenecks that precede and follow every match are caused because a second access road was denied planning permission – supposedly an act of punishment for the fans’ behaviour.
The changing physical landscape of Turkish football has been accompanied by a parallel development: a remodelling of the profile of those who watch the game. On 14 April 2011, the Turkish parliament passed the ‘Law to Prevent Violence and Disorder in Sport’, better known in Turkey by its numerical code in the Turkish statute: 6222. The 6222 law was aimed at stamping out problems at sports events (read: football matches) by establishing a brand-new framework of regulations.
Taking inspiration from similar legislation in Europe – chief among them the 1990 Taylor Report that followed the Hillsborough disaster – the law involved almost 50 lawyers and took five and a half years to design. It gave wider powers to authorities policing stadiums and their vicinities, required the federation and police to gather and hold greater information on fans, and increased the punishments for misbehaviour.
“There was a need to devise something against the unruliness and hooliganism in stadiums,” said Yunus Egemenoğlu, a lawyer and former board member at the TFF. “It was clear that there were no administrative measures being taken and that club administrators always walked away without reprimands.”
Yet the way officials talked about the law suggested it was introduced with wider objectives in mind. “As stadiums modernise, as they get more luxurious and as ticket systems change, the çapulcu [looter, vandal] won’t be able to afford going to matches,” one official told the academic Yağmur Nuhrat in 2011. The law seemed to be less about keeping fans safe and more about transforming football fan culture from an occupation of the poor and working class into a more bourgeois pursuit.
The language used by the government was very telling. The word çapulcu re-emerged in 2013 when Erdoğan used the term to attack those taking part in a wave of huge anti-government protests that swept across Turkey’s big cities. “We won’t do what a handful of çapulcu have done,” said Erdoğan to his supporters. “They destroy the shops of civilians. They destroy the cars of civilians … They are low enough to insult the prime minister of this country.” The real import of his speech, however, came in the next sentence: “As long as you walk with us, the Justice and Development Party administration will stand strong. As long as there is life in my body, your prime minister … will not be deterred by anything.” His language was designed to drive a wedge between protesters and AKP supporters. They, he was telling them, are not like you.
Football fans played a key role in that summer’s demonstrations, which came to be known as the Gezi Park protests. At the vanguard was a supporters group for Beşiktaş which goes by the name Çarşı. While dodging tear gas canisters and water cannon was new for many of the mainly middle-class protestors, Çarşı had spent decades on the receiving end of the heavy-handed policing of football. They waded into the fray, at one point even ‘borrowing’ a JCB digger from a local construction site and using it to go after the police. So successful was their involvement that fans of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, their bitter rivals, joined in. Such impertinence did not go unpunished. In September 2014, 35 fans were arrested and charged with “attempting to overthrow the government”. All fans were acquitted in December 2015, but not without the case taking its toll. “The group is just a name now, nothing more,” one fan close to them told me.
Erdoğan’s çapulcu jibe was far from a one-off. The labelling of opposition as undesirables and hooligans has grown in frequency as the splits in the nation increase. Speaking in March 2017, ahead of a highly contentious referendum on a plan to enhance his own powers, Erdoğan accused the opposition of behaving like “hooligans in football” and deploying “hooligan politics”. He said, “God willing we will get rid of them. They have the nerve still to be match-fixing and cheating.” Not content with leaving the metaphor there, Erdoğan then shifted to comparing the opposition CHP to over-the-hill footballers: “It’s long past the time for their testimonial but still they resist. All the matches that they go out to play they lose … Hopefully this time they’ll get the message.”
The comment seemed like one of those moments in which the metaphor revealed more perhaps than the speaker intended. To cast one’s political victories in football match terminology is not simply cute but reveals a lot about your view of politics, namely a ‘winner takes all’ conception of democracy. Over the years, Erdoğan has deployed increasingly harsh language against his opponents, casting them as terrorist supporters and traitors to the nation.
In Turkey in 2018, it is no longer possible to buy an old-fashioned ticket to a football match, at least in the top two leagues. Every person in the stadium must have what is known as a Passolig card. This holds the fan’s name and surname, their ID number and a photo. Tickets for games are purchased online and ‘added’ to the card.
The Passolig system is the element of the 6222 law that has most affected the ordinary Turkish football fan. The card is only the tracker chip in a much larger system of monitoring. The 6222 law required stadiums to install high-tech security camera systems capable of distinguishing an individual face in the crowd, and large screens above the turnstiles to allow officials to match each person entering the ground with the picture on their Passolig card. “If 40,000 people go to a game, the government wants to know every single person,” explained Ceyhun Kazancı, Passolig general manager, in an interview from his Istanbul office. “They want to know who came to that game. They want 40,000 separate ID numbers.”
Ostensibly, the government wants to know in order to stop people from causing violence and disorder. The new cameras theoretically allow individual troublemakers to be pinpointed and punished. In practice, the TFF applies blanket bans to entire blocks of the stadium that they see as being culpable of any wrongdoing. But Kazancı also conceded there could be other driving forces behind the changes. “Security could be a reason behind this,” he said. “But marketing tools could also be a reason. Because when you know the people who enter the stadium, you can create lots of products for them. If you know all the details about them, then it’s easier to market to these guys.” That marketing is perhaps of higher importance is also suggested by the card itself. In its bottom-right corner is a Mastercard logo. The bank sells the tickets. But the card on which you buy them can also be used as a credit card.
The task of implementing the system was awarded to a small investment bank called Aktif Bank. Defenders of the decision say that the bank was qualified for the task because it produces the e-payment system for transport networks in many cities across Turkey. Critics suggest there is another reason why Aktif Bank was chosen. The bank is a subsidiary of Çalık Holding, a large conglomerate owned by by Ahmet Çalık, a billionaire businessman who is very close to President Erdoğan. In 2013, Erdoğan helped out the company by cajoling a large construction firm into taking an ailing media group off its hands. At the time, Çalık’s chief executive was a young businessman called Berat Albayrak, who also happens to be the son-in-law of the president. Albayrak left the company just before the Passolig tender was awarded to Aktif Bank. Later, Albayrak joined the cabinet as energy minister and then finance minster, and became one of his father-in-law’s closest political confidants. The episode highlights the close intertwining of business, politics and football in modern-day Turkey.
Aside from the political murkiness, the Passolig card is also just plain annoying. Each Passolig card is associated with a club and entitles the holder to priority tickets for that team. This makes it difficult to be a roving football fan. I have four Passolig cards: a Beşiktaş card (to buy advance tickets for Beşiktaş, which is my Turkish club), a card with a season ticket for the Ankara club Gençlerbirliği (I can’t upload this ticket to any other card), a Fenerbahçe card (so that I can buy tickets for Fenerbahçe games in advance) and a neutral card not affiliated to any club (which I took out before realising it bestowed no advantages).
Most fans were deeply unhappy about the new system when it came into force. Progressive fan clubs boycotted games, angry at both the increased surveillance and the giving of money to pro-government business. Attendances plummeted. Stadiums were half empty. Yıldız Holding, a confectionery giant whose brands include McVities and Godiva, pulled its sponsorship out of Turkish football. It looked unsustainable.
But these glitches turned out to be growing pains. While I’ve not met anyone who celebrates needing a card to go to matches, most people got used to it. Some fans were broadly sympathetic to the law’s wider efforts to overhaul decrepit stadiums and reduce the threat of violence. Others, exhausted and frustrated with boycotting their favourite game, simply gave in. The clubs like the new system. For each Passolig card sold, 47 per cent of the revenue goes to the club. Aktif Bank takes the rest. Galatasaray made 4 million lira, almost a million pounds, in 2015 through Passolig card sales. They also like the fact that it reduces their sometimes-difficult relationship with fan groups. In the past, the most hardcore would get free tickets from the club. Some of them they would give away to members of the group, others they would sell as a way of making money. Now the clubs can be much more standoffish towards fans while claiming that their hands are tied.
The law has had an effect on terrace culture beyond numbers. “Stadiums in Turkey are a place where suppressed emotions erupt. You spend 10 hours at work every day, getting bottled up, then you come here and release it,” explained Murat, an Adanaspor fan. “But this Passolig system. There are 120 cameras in the stadium. If I swear, they can see it on the cameras. They’ll block my card. I’ll get a three- or six-match ban.” At Champions League and Europa League games the level of profanity has increased since the same regulations do not hold.
“The fans that we don’t want aren’t coming to the stadium. The number of spectators has dropped by 10 per cent but now more quality fans come to the game. It dropped 10 per cent but it will rise by 50 per cent. The profile is quickly changing.”
But despite the new cards, the increased monitoring and harsh punishments, misbehaviour at games has not abated. Every week in the margins of the sport press another story is told: a team forced to play without fans for one match due to their offensive chants or a fan banned for hurling a mobile phone at a goalkeeper. In the Turkish Super Cup final in August 2017, a fan threw a flick knife that landed metres from the Beşiktaş forward Ricardo Quaresma. In April 2018, the Beşiktaş manager Şenol Güneş had to be taken to hospital when an object thrown by a Fenerbahçe fan during a derby match cut his head open. But this should perhaps not be surprising. From the outset of the Passolig scheme, stopping violence seemed to be secondary to turning fans into consumers.
There is much grumbling and nostalgia for the old days. “[We used to have] that beauty, that continuous, magnificent atmosphere – 20 to 25,000 football lovers on the terraces at Galatasaray, everyone chanting as one,” Veysel Giley, a former leader of the Galatasaray fan group UltrAslan, told me. “That society has gone. Now it’s the ones with money in their pocket, cigars in their mouths, a glass of booze in their hands, sipping alcohol, who watch the matches – I mean, that’s commercialised football. It’s their product now.”
On 10 April 2016, Erdoğan stepped out onto the turf of the Vodafone Arena – the brand new Beşiktaş stadium, three years in the making. Lessons had been learnt from the opening ceremony from the Galatasaray game five years earlier. This time, the stands were empty.
The Beşiktaş president Fikret Orman made a speech in which he addressed Erdoğan as “dear president”, “venerable president” or “the people’s president” no fewer than 13 times, angering many Beşiktaş fans with his obeisance. But Orman knew his football club had to exist in Erdoğan’s Turkey. He is far from the only footballing figure who doffs his cap to the president. The head of the supposedly independent Turkish Football Federation publicly backed Erdoğan in a 2017 referendum. Famous footballers, including the then-Barcelona star Arda Turan, took part in an online campaign backing Erdoğan. In a political landscape divided starkly into friends and enemies, many influential companies and organisations know on which side they want to be.
But football in Turkey is not completely cowed. At a time when Erdoğan is accused of controlling all aspects of life, from the judiciary to the media and the business world, his reach into the ‘Big Three’ football clubs of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş is perhaps more limited than anywhere else. With their enormous cultural clout and vast numbers of fans, they are difficult to conquer. The AKP has thrown its weight behind efforts to create new teams, such as Istanbul’s Başakşehir and Osmanlıspor in Ankara. On the pitch, Başakşehir have been giving the more established sides a run for their money – they finished second in 2016–17 and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League. But the club is a long way from rivalling the broad appeal of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş. When I went to watch them play in the 2017 Turkish Cup final, they couldn’t even sell out their 15,000 ticket allocation. And for Erdoğan, stepping out onto the pitch in front of the rowdy, unpredictable fans of the Big Three teams remains politically risky.
The undercurrent of subversion was brought home to me when I went along to the real opening of the new Vodafone Arena, which came the day after the president’s carefully stage-managed appearance. The opening game, which saw Beşiktaş take on Bursaspor, took place against a difficult political backdrop. We didn’t know that a dramatic and violent attempted coup would be unleashed three months later, killing 250 and turning the country upside down. But even in April 2016 the atmosphere was tense after a wave of bombings, the resurgence of the country’s painful Kurdish conflict and the jailing of opposition journalists on charges of terrorism and espionage.
In typical Turkish fashion, the stadium was open before it was properly finished. Also predictably, the lack of a ticket didn’t prevent me from wandering past the police cordons, piles of debris and into the stands – more by chance than intention.
As kick-off approached, the terrace slowly took on that familiar feel: bodies packed together, arms round shoulders, vodka on breath. After three years of playing home games in the Olympic stadium on the other side of town, here they were, back home. Yet home didn’t feel wholly familiar. The shiny seats, the giant screen flashing commercials, the free wifi – for those like myself who had grown fond of the broken seats and grime of the old ground, the experience was unsettling.
The game itself was tense – Beşiktaş were under huge pressure to win their first game in their new ground. In the 90th minute the score stood at 3–2 to the home side. The onslaught of whistling stung in my ears, like a thousand kettles coming to the boil. There was an incident on the pitch. Quaresma was cynically fouled. He overreacted, getting up and pushing the defender in the face. A mass riot appeared to be on the cards as all the players waded in. I was waiting for the referee to deal with it all but then the Bursa players and staff started trooping off the pitch. “The game’s over,” said the man next to me. At some point the final whistle had been blown. It was hardly a fairy-tale victory, but Beşiktaş had won their first game in their new home.
But it was what happened afterwards that really struck me. Outside, the atmosphere was anarchic. The crowd from the stadium combined with the larger ticketless mass, just desperate to be there. Boys on motorbikes were gunning their engines and honking their horns while their friends on the back waved black and white Beşiktaş flags. I passed four young men crawling along in a caterpillar formation, shouting and singing as they made their way down the middle of the street on their hands and knees. This was one of the busiest roads in central Istanbul, now surrendered to the fans.
Walking through the chaos, I couldn’t help but reflect on the disparity. The Big Man had exerted a tighter and tighter grip. A year later, Erdoğan would arbitrarily outlaw the use of the word “arena”. “You know what they used to do in arenas in the past?” he would say. “They chopped people to bits in them … there’s no word ‘arena’ in our language.” Clubs would scramble to change the name of their grounds. Having been open barely a year, the Vodafone Arena would suddenly — due to a whim of the president — become the Vodafone Park.
But here was a wild, untameable mass of people doing whatever they liked. I reached the centre of Beşiktaş, the district that gives the club its name. The square was filled with 500 or so people chanting at the tops of their voices. The ground was completely covered in beer bottles, cigarette packets and a mush of wet cardboard. There was a constant background tinkle of breaking glass, as drunken fans got up from nearby tables and staggered giddily into the nearby streets.
You can keep tightening the regulations but there’s natural energy to a crowd, an unpredictability that will spurt up. In modern-day Turkey, where people cannot congregate in large groups or speak their minds without fear of arrest, for many people football is the last realm in which they can breathe. Passolig tries to limit it but it still comes through.
I think this lack of control is why the government doesn’t like football fans as a grouping. But this is why I love football: this unpredictability, that heady excitement of surrendering autonomy to a crowd. It happens at matches in England too, of course. But in Turkey it just feels more loaded with potential, both positive and frightening. That is why it remains one of the most interesting domains in which to test the temperature of the nation.
“I speak of a game that gives hope,” Erdoğan said in 2017. “From the deserts of Africa to the Brazilian slums, everywhere in the world it gives hope to kids whom life has shoved to the side.” He was talking about players, but football also gives hope to the fans. For those who are angry or worried about the direction of their country, the game is a chance to melt into a mass of people – to forget what is going on elsewhere, or to find the inspiration and solidarity to try to change it.