The rivalry between the ‘big three’ Istanbul football clubs is legendary, but it is not only in legend that it exists . On May 12 this year, only a fortnight before bulldozers moved in to pave over the city’s Gezi Park and sparked a summer of anti-government protests, a man wearing Galatasaray’s no 7 shirt knifed Fenerbahce fan Burak Yildirim in the heart while he waited for a bus home from that evening’s derby. Since a 2011 decision by the Turkish Football Federation, supporters from the Istanbul teams have been forcibly kept apart. Only home fans are invited to attend games between Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Black Sea heavyweights Trabzonspor, to minimize incidents of violence like Yildirim’s stabbing.
Istanbul giants Galatasaray lifted the trophy on May 19, and ten days later the city erupted. Istanbul’s streets hosted a new kind of violence this summer: a civil uprising that extended beyond hooligans to environmentalists to young people who feel sidelined under what they see as the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The protests unleashed a polarization of the kind the country had never seen outside of the football. Every film star, every journalist and every business pinned their colors to a mast—or in many cases, had them forcibly pinned. Every innocent gesture was scoured for signs of affiliation. From pro-government boycotts of a hotel that aided injured protestors to the matinee idol who went underground after the Prime Minister damned his show as a ‘rehearsal’ for the protests, the country adopted a cartoonish animosity that looked more like football rivalry than politics. So it was one of the unlikeliest of the many unlikely things unleashed by this summer’s protests to find those same fans arm-in-arm, swapping shirts and chanting slogans, not at each other for once, but together. Scenes of Turkish nationalists battling the police alongside Turkey’s Kurds were a novelty, when for 30 years the two have been locked in a war near the Iraqi border. But the most potent emblem of this new unity was the cooperation of the city’s football fans. By day three, Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce had officially buried the hatchet and formed a new team called Istanbul United. Istanbul United never played any football. Its sport was at the barricades. Baiting the police into nightly games of cat and mouse, they forgot their differences in a haze of gas and tears.
At the center of this coalition was the left-wing Besiktas supporters’ club called Carsi. Turkey has the highest number of Twitter users per capita in the world and the micro-blogging site became the key forum for the spread of information, rumors and political posturing about the protests. “I’m a Fenerbahce fan but I support Carsi,’ was a typical post by one user. Even those without a team joined in: “I don’t support any team, but I support Carsi” tweeted Nedim Sener, an investigative journalist on trial under terror charges after writing a book critical of the government. “We are all Carsi now.”
There were as many interpretations of the fighting as there were participants. Desperate to discredit the unrest as the work of a single puppet-master, the Prime Minister blamed the events variously on Israel, the opposition Republican People’s Party, “marginal looters” and a shadowy cabal that he called the “interest rate lobby.” The opposition certainly couldn’t have been the puppet-masters: They are not even able to organize themselves, as their inability to capitalize on the wave of anti-government sentiment during Gezi demonstrated.
Istanbul’s football fans are organized, however. And none are more organized than Carsi. Ferit Katipoglu, a filmmaker who lives in the Besiktas neighborhood where Carsi are based, explained to me how the Carsi leaders, known as abi or older brothers, were on hand each night to smooth out tensions. “They were not the only ones on the streets by any means, but when they were there they broke up fights, they calmed the situation down. People respected them because they have a reputation for being fair.”
Almost every one of Besiktas’s heavily-policed games ends with dispersal by gas.
Carsi’s reputation as campaigners against perceived injustices preceded Gezi. To draw attention to the lack of aid reaching victims of the Van earthquake in 2011, Carsi led a stunt in which the whole stadium stripped off its clothes. In recent years Carsi members have spoken out against racism and domestic violence. They have supported an eclectic range of moral causes, including standing up for Pluto when it was declassified as a planet.
The European Court of Human Rights has condemned the amount of tear gas the authorities used on Gezi protesters, but that’s not an altogether unusual environment for Carsi to operate in. Almost every one of Besiktas’s heavily-policed games ends with dispersal by gas. The chant “sik bakalim” (“spray, spray, spray your teargas, take off your helmet and drop your baton and then we’ll see who’s hardcore”) became well-known during Gezi, but it had been a Carsi anthem of sorts long before this summer.