When the police and protesters clashed around Istanbul’s Gezi park, an unlikely alliance of football rivals banded together. But will politics continue in the new league season?

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.

Besiktas jersey, hardhat, slingshot. Photo by: Charles Emir Richards

If Gezi made everything contentious, football was no exception. But Turkish politics and football had long been entangled. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had an eleven-year career in the mid-league himself. It is not just that footballers become politicians, or that politicians have been known to seek a toehold in the lucrative upper echelons of the Turkish leagues, but that football’s popularity makes it a favorite vehicle for political statements.

In June, Galatasaray’s star signing, the Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, posted a picture to his Instagram feed about the Taksim unrest. The protesters went wild at the apparent celebrity endorsement, and his name appeared in graffiti all over the streets of Taksim: “Drogba is the answer.” The exact words of his post, however, were hardly an expression of radical solidarity: he had simply expressed the hope that “everything get back to normal.” The way Drogba’s statement was appropriated was typical of Gezi, during which even the blandest remark could be transformed into a potential call to arms.

Since Gezi, others in Turkey have adopted Drogba as a political figurehead. Abdullah Öcalan is the former leader of the revolutionary Kurdish movement. Since 1999 he has been serving out a life sentence on the island of Imrali. Öcalan roots for Drogba’s team, Galatasaray, and he recently voiced his frustration with the pace of the Kurdish peace process. His advice to Kurds was to imitate Drogba, a ruthless and powerful center-forward known for his win-at-all-costs mentality.

After Gezi, the sport is more than ever a political football itself. The question, as the off-season wound down, was whether politics would creep into football. The first Istanbul derby of the season seemed like a good place to find out—could the spirit of Istanbul United outlast the protests?

This would be not just the grandest ever Besiktas-Galatasaray game, but the largest crowd in Turkish football history

The match, which took place late September, was predicted to break attendance records. Officially a Besiktas home game, it was held at the 80,000-seater Ataturk Olympic stadium, a drafty monument to Istanbul’s five failed Olympic bids. With the newly expanded capacity this would be not just the grandest ever Besiktas-Galatasaray game, but the largest crowd in Turkish football history. Before the game, speculation grew about the potential for political protests during the game. One specific rumor suggested fans would use the 34th minute to flout the ban on political slogans in the stadium. 34 is the car registration number for Istanbul, and acts as a symbol of the city. Any sort of uproar in the crowd at the 34th minute would be, in a subtle but undeniable way, a signal that the politicization of Turkish football had continued.

The government and football federation showed that they would make every attempt to prevent it. As well as the usual undercover policemen, it was widely publicized there would be four special “sports prosecutors” hidden amidst the crowd. Late this summer, the government supplemented last year’s prohibition on “slogans exceeding the limits of football” with a new clauses specifically banning political expression from the stands. Besiktas’ season ticket applicants were required to sign a form promising to obey. Some fans didn’t renew their passes this year in protest. My neighbor Sinan, however, had tickets and he promised to take me to the game. Sinan is a Besiktas supporter who grew up in Fenerbahce and married a Galatasaray fan, but his ardor for the black-and-white of Besiktas is undimmmed by his confused origins. Knowing the match would be crowded, Sinan suggested we get there several hours early. But we were not as early as Carsi. Checking Twitter the previous evening, I saw that the abis had spent the night camping outside the stadium.

On our way to the game, Sinan presented me with a Besiktas shirt. It was the first one he bought since 2003, the last season before confectionary giant Ulker became the team’s main sponsor. Certain Besiktas fans perceive the conservative confectioner as being too close to the ruling AKP and its diktats about what they should drink, when and where. His form of protest revolved around what he chose not to wear, though he warned against reading too much into it. “It was the fact that you could only buy Ulker-branded products in the stadium that I objected to. Who wants to drink their Cola Turka?”

They were living, shouting, spitting proof of why teenage boys are called ‘mad bloods’ in Turkish

We walked from the metro behind a group with ‘Dersim 62’ on their backs. In the arcane vocabulary of Turkish football, 62 refers to the vehicle registration number and therefore symbol of Tunceli, the name of the Kurdish city of Dersim where an uprising ended in brutal massacre in the early years of the Republic. To wear 62 is to raise your voice against state violence, however quietly.

As we approached the stadium, overt political statements seemed entirely absent, while crowd exuberance was on full display. A stream of young boys ran towards where we were queuing and hoisted themselves up over the gates—living, shouting, spitting proof of why teenage boys are referred to as ‘delikanli’ or ‘mad bloods’ in Turkish.

On our seats, in a little pool of dirt that had gathered, was a printed note from Besiktas’ Croatian manager Slaven Bilic, promising that this would be a record-breaking game. When we whipped out tissues to clean the seats off, the man behind us shouted that instead of tissues we should try telepathy. Again, like the #62 jerseys, there were subtle political inferences in what he said. His allusion was to Yigit Bulut, advisor to the Prime Minister whose defense of the government’s authoritarian crackdown was that there were people out there trying to use what he called ‘telekinesis’ to kill the Prime Minister. The man in front solved the seat-dirt problem by sitting on the newspaper he had brought with him, the pro-government daily Zaman. I made a note not to expect too much in the way of dissent from him.

Getting married in Gezi, with a Carsi sign and Besiktas black and white. Photo by: Charles Emir Richards

Nearby, a girl had the face of Ataturk, the admired founder of the Turkish republic, on her black-and-white t-shirt. “Everyone likes to believe he was on their team,” quipped Sinan. “But most likely he didn’t know or care they existed.” Turgut Ozal was the first Prime Minister to declare his sporting affiliation (for Fenerbahce). As Prime Minister shortly after the 1980 coup, he was also the architect of media reform that opened the game up to a wider audience beyond the stadiums and, in a way, helped give teams the political identities they have today.

The slogans on display in the derby, though, were resoundingly apolitical. Some were just jokes: “We don’t fit in here,” said two banners, held side by side. Others merely displayed regional affiliations (there are Besiktas fans from all over Turkey). Opposite us on the northwest side, a large banner read “Forza 1453”.1453 is a date that has become a fashionable touchstone amongst religious conservatives, representing the date of Mehmet the Conqueror’s Islamic conquest of Istanbul. Forza 1453 is a right-wing Besiktas supporters’ group, hastily formed over the summer as a reaction to the prominence of leftist Carsi, and so the banner was more an endorsement of the status quo than any kind of protest. I pressed Sinan about the lack of radicalism on show. “It’s just not about politics, this game,” he said. Why not? “Because it’s a big game.” Then with a smile: “And the team are playing too well for it to be about politics. Anyway the match hasn’t started yet. Just you wait. The real political stuff will come out later.”

Before then, however, we needed to sit through the first of twenty pre-game singing renditions of Hakan Peker’s “Atesini Yolla Bana,” a schmaltzy 90s love song that has been adopted by Besiktas fans as their unofficial anthem (Peker is, in fact, a Fenerbahce fan).

”Come and be mine!” sang the fans. “Be my promise! Leave your nights, I’ll have your days!”

A scrap in the southeast corner ended in what sounded like gunshot.

We saw a cluster of heavily armored police waddle after some young men who had climbed up the ten-meter-high fences separating us from the cheaper seats not far off. One man got stuck at the very top, pinioned there awkwardly until a kid saw fit to climb up and unhook him. An hour before the game began, a scrap in the southeast corner ended in what sounded like gunshot. No one could explain what was happening, or who had started it, but some in our section broke into a few unconvincing lines of “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” just in case.

The match began eventually, and it began well for Besiktas. A goal attempt in the 18th minute. Sinan was right. The team were playing well, and no one cared about the politics I had come to see. “There’s no one on the left! There’s no one on the left!” someone yelled, but he was talking about the players, not politics. I was watching the seconds tick down to the symbolic 34th minute, but I seemed to be the only one. A few moments in, the realization swept our stand and a few of us chanted a few lines in homage to Taksim. And then, just as quickly, something on the field took people’s attention away. If this was all the most militant football club in the Turkish league could muster, it seemed the government really had succeeded. As the match wore on, I almost resigned myself to watching the game too.

The loudest cheering came not in the 34th but in the 59th minute, when the referee granted what Turks call a ‘frikik’, leading to a goal by Drogba, the reluctant darling of Taksim Square. Even if you’ve adopted another team’s striker as the face of your cause, it still rankles when he scores against you. The second half of the game was Galatasaray’s. They may not have had any fans cheering them on, but they had two goals and were on their way to an important victory. Now my companions were really angry, for no more complicated reason than that their team was going to lose to its hated rival.

With the game in its dying moments, someone hurled a bottle from up high. Between the enormous tiers of the stadium, it had a great distance to fall, and whomever it hit was not pleased. A huge space cleared as a fight broke out. “They’re getting attacked from above, and since they can’t fight back they just end up fighting each other,” groused Sinan. That, at least, sounded not so unlike Turkish politics at all. The scramble intensified and supporters fled the epicenter, spilling onto the edges of the field. It was harder than ever to focus on the game, and I barely noticed the red card handed out in the 89th minute. There were more and more spectators dashing onto the pitch by now. Further around the corner, from us someone made a dash for the goal and was bundled off by security guards.

The scrapping on the sidelines seemed to coalesce around the single purpose of giving the police a sound thrashing.

The sidelines of the pitch swelled with unruly fans who had come down from their seats. We saw the rival squads being hurried down the tunnel. The scrapping on the sidelines seemed to coalesce around the single purpose of giving the police a sound thrashing. Perhaps the police blinked and ran first, or perhaps they were chased, but for some reason, security suddenly turned and fled, and a thousand fans ran after them, throwing the plastic chairs left on the sidelines. This was the scene that appeared on the back pages of the international press the next day.

Everyone felt that what had happened at the stadium was politically significant, but nobody could be sure exactly how. The riot was quickly buried beneath theory and counter-theory. Already that night several government ministers pinned the pitch invasion on Carsi. The opposition party Republican People’s Party spoke out in defense of the alleged rioters. Of course, none of those leaders were actually there. An elaborate explanation popular on the metro home was that this was a provocative attack staged by the ruling AKP and its supporters: they were uneasy about the support enjoyed by anti-government football fans, so they had infiltrated the stands. Besiktas was supposed to move to Kasimpasaspor’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stadium for the next few games, and the theory held that conservatives were terrified that there would be a clear display of dissent in a stadium named after the conservative prime minister himself. So—and again, this is just the theory—they were trying to get Besiktas fans banned from future matches by staging something drastic, and they must have concocted this oddball right-wing 1453 outfit especially for the task.

This argument seemed preposterous, a parody of secular paranoia.

The evidence for this theory focused on 5000 match tickets mysteriously released at the very last minute. This argument seemed preposterous, a parody of secular paranoia. However, it gained considerable currency in the next few days. While Gezi Park protests had been largely ignored in mainstream media, this was on every front page in Turkey.

Carsi quickly took the stance of the unimpeachable: We are innocent; we don’t care what you think. Not a single one of our members was involved in the pitch invasion, they said in a press conference the following day. Certainly it would have been hard for them to storm the pitch from the upper tier. I wanted to talk to Carsi. I procured a phone number, only to find that my contact had been taken into custody in a dawn raid. 1453 didn’t respond to any of my requests for comment. Perhaps they don’t exist, perhaps they are simply poor correspondents. A few days after the match, someone tweeted from the 1453 account: “There is no left, there is no right, there is only Besiktas”.