There has been a recent influx of African players into the Turkish league. David O'Byrne analyses their impact
We know all about the phenomenon of racial abuse at British football grounds and it’s tempting to assume that the same pattern exists elsewhere in the footballing world. In Turkey, where a resurgent economy has left the top clubs awash with cash and their fans eager for success on the international stage, the situation is complex but, on the whole, encouraging.
Last season, over 20 players from countries as disparate as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and South Africa appeared in the Turkish first division alone. Among them were big names such as Nigerians Daniel Amokachi of Besiktas and ‘Jay Jay’ Okacha and Uche Okechukwu both of Fenerbahce.
Given the popularity of many of the African players it’s somewhat surprising to learn that they are often referred to as yam yam – literally, “cannibals”. But not by racists on the football terraces. Hooliganism is an often unpleasant presence – police searching fans prior to a match between two midtable clubs last March confiscated thirty knives and two pump-action shotguns. Racist chanting, on the other hand, is unknown.
The many African refugees and immigrants now in Turkey have become wrongly associated with Turkey’s exploding heroin problem and have come in for a fair amount of abuse in the media. In April, Jay Jay Okacha was on the receiving end from daily paper, Sabah, following a bust up with a couple of press photographers last April. ‘Comic’ writer, Ridvan Yelekli, pointed out that the photographers in question “should be thankful he didn’t eat them... because after all he is a cannibal”.
Talking to Turkish Daily News, Okocha suggested that the use of such words had more to do with “naivety” than malicious intent: “They just don’t realize how insulting it is.” This is backed up by Attilla Gvkge, General Director of the Turkish Sportswriters Association. Turkey, has had a small but well settled black population since Ottoman times. “Racism of that kind has never been a problem in Turkey. Unlike America or Europe, it’s just not part of our history,” he said, adding that the influx of world class African players had been of great benefit to the Turkish game and that they were extremely popular with supporters and press alike.
Just how popular can best be shown by the latest slang expression to enter common use in the backstreets of the central Istanbul district of Beyoglu – a largely run down area with a lively bar and night club scene. Beyoglu is also home to many of the African immigrants, who now find themselves referred to en masse as “the Amokachis” in homage to the highly popular Besiktas and former Everton striker.
Although a few footballers may have become synonymous with certain types of behaviour, I can’t offhand think of any whose names have entered a language. Amokachi, intelligent and quietly spoken, nothing like the extrovert he appears on the pitch, seemed puzzled at the thought that his surname was being used as a generic term for African. It was nice, he said, to get respect for doing a good job. He didn’t think the press were racist, though he conceded they were a problem.
Only that day a number of newspapers had printed claims that he had accused Turkish referees of favouring Galatasaray by awarding them more penalties. It was, he explained, completely untrue, adding that he hadn’t talked to journalists since they printed claims that a car crash he’d suffered had been due to drink. “I’ve never touched alcohol in my life,” he explained. “I’m married with two sons, I don’t go out much and the press don’t like that. I have to put up with the attention but my wife finds it really difficult. It’s like living in an aquarium, not like in the UK where no one cares about your home life.”
As for the media, “They’re in business,” he added, “they have circulation figures and ratings, but they have to accept that I just don’t want to talk to them.”
“They”, however, don’t. All top players are considered fair game. Attilla Gvkge accepts that players are right to complain: “Unfortunately it’s all part of the Turkish game. The pressure on journalists is intense. All the papers want a big story about each of the top clubs every day so it’s hardly surprising that occasionally they manufacture stories.”
Press intrusion notwithstanding, both Daniel Amokachi and Jay Jay Okocha look set to remain in Turkey next season. And with the league apparently ready to allow its cash-rich clubs to field four foreign players they will almost certainly be part of an even larger black presence.
Also attracted by the high earning potential is new Besiktas manager John Toshack, who may find a couple of surprises awaiting him. The first, that his surname is perilously close to tashak, the Turkish word for testicle, the second that part of his reported $700,000 salary may be coming from sales of his club’s latest money spinner, Beskitas lager. Should the teetotal Amokachi be offended at the thought of promoting alcohol, he could always move to neighbours Galatasaray who are reportedly about to launch their own brand of milk...
From WSC 126 August 1997. What was happening this month