Altered state

Day 19 of the WSC advent calendar and we’re concentrating on the true meaning of Christmas: turkey. In issue 191, from January 2003, Barney Ronay reported on football’s role as an arena for politics in Turkey, and how it could change after the election of a new nationalist and Islamic-leaning government.

In 1985 England beat Turkey 5-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. Two years later, an opportunity for revenge presented itself when the teams met again. This time the score was 8-0. Yet when Sven-Goran Erik­sson’s men travel to Istanbul next October for their final Euro 2004 qualifier, they will face the team that fin­ished third at this summer’s World Cup. Turkish foot­ball has transformed itself over the past ten years. And now Turkey looks set to follow suit.

After the Justice and Development party’s shock victory in November’s elections, a new rightwing Is­lamist government is preparing to install itself in Ankara’s parliamentary headquarters. Even in a coun­try where sport, religion and politics have become very publicly linked recently, the implications of this sud­den rise in Turkish nationalism for one of Europe’s most effervescent footballing cultures are surprisingly hard to predict. For 20 years Turks could be more openly nationalistic inside their sporting stadiums than anywhere else; but with nationalism back on the streets, how much longer will they feel the need to be fanatical about football?

Football and politics have been un­easy bedfellows in Turkey ever since the early Eighties, when the country’s mil­itary leaders introduced a series of laws designed to curb the outbreaks of political violence that at one stage had verged on full-blown civil war.  At the end of the 1970s the army had outlawed political demonstrations. As a result, political groups began to use football as a means of publicising their causes. Even re­cently, the ultra-rightwing nationalist MHP party is rumoured to have in­structed its mem­bers to infiltrate the stands in order to encourage crowds to sing nationalistic songs.

Indeed, the most resonant image of Turkish foot­ball over the last decade has been the terrifying atmosphere generated by supporters inside stadiums such as Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen. High on a cocktail of tribalism, unaccustomed on-field success and the dis­covery that with just a large white sheet and a mar­ker pen you can make all kinds of obscurely threatening banners, Turkish fans have developed a par­ticularly hostile terrace culture – white noise, flares, ceaseless motion in the stands and bizarrely personal messages (the ubiquitous “Welcome to Hell” interspersed with such barbs as “Giggs – you play in a woman’s league” and “David Beckham – you are homo­­sexual”).

Turkey’s strict public order laws may have helped to stoke up the fevered atmosphere inside its football grounds. Football has become a symbol of Turkey’s Eur­opean aspirations – Turks are still waiting for the green light to join the EU, but their footballers have been playing in European competitions for years. But Turks also use the stadium to vent their frustrations and express their emotion in ways the state forbids. When Galatasaray played Milan in Istanbul in 1999 at a time of huge tension – the Kurdish separatist Abdullah Ocalan was hiding in Italy – Turkish supporters inside the stadium used the occasion as an excuse to stage a mini-riot.

But things have been changing. Thwarted nationalism no longer stalks the streets – it has its own rooms now in the prime ministerial suite. And significantly, although still only marginally, things may already have begun to change inside Tur­key’s football stadiums. This season Gala­tasaray lost at home to Barcelona and Lokomotiv Moscow and drew with Bruges in the process of finishing bottom of their Champions League group. To some ob­servers at least, the atmosphere inside the Ali Sami Yen, while not exactly muted, appeared to have lost just a little of its edge.

Has Hell frozen over? It is tempting to see a connection between the expression through the ballot box of pent-up Turkish nationalism and the dimming of the frenzied partisan anger of the country’s football stadiums. Although equally, the success of the national side at the World Cup may have helped to sate the appetite of Turkish fans for foreign scalps. Either way, in a society that remains divided along the historical fault lines of east and west, Turkey’s new leader-in-waiting Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well aware of the unifying power exercised by foot­ball over his electorate.

Once famously imprisoned for reading a religious poem in public, Erdogan was also a talented footballer in his youth and remains a fanatical supporter. Ru­mour has it that he was dissuaded from pursuing a pro­fessional career by his father, who believed that football was an unsuitably impious occupation for a de­vout Muslim.

“Last night Fenerbahce were much better than Gal­atasaray,” Erdogan ventured in November, with a cau­tion verging on the neurotic given that his own team (he is a huge Fenerbache fan) had just annihilated their bitter rivals from across the Bosphorus 6-0. This was sensitive stuff, and Erdogan was refusing to draw par­allels between the scoreline and his own electoral landslide. “The derby result was a real sur­prise and, of course, there were people who compared last night’s result and Sunday’s,” Erdogan told reporters in An­kara, presumably before spending the night driving around town hanging out of the window of his car and beeping his horn loudly.

In a more simplistically divided society, victory for Erdogan’s team over their derby rivals might have sig­nified another blow for Islamic  nationalism against the forces of European secularism. But this is not Glas­gow, and the two Istanbul teams correlate only loosely to the many layers within Turkish society.

During Hakan Sukur’s time at Galatasaray, the club at­tracted a prominent minority of Islamist  fans, but they were more interested in Sukur than the club itself. On the other hand, just before the elections Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the pro-Europe ANAP party and a big Galatasaray fan, was publicly told where to go by ban­ners held up by his fellow supporters inside the Ali Sami Yen stadium.

Galatasaray, incidentally, are not the only Turkish club to have been affected by the rise of political Islam. Last year Gaziantepspor sacked two players, Omer Catkic, Turkey’s reserve goalkeeper, and Mert Kork­maz, brother of international defender Bulent, on the grounds that excessive piety was adversely affecting their performances.

It was perhaps inevitable that the influence of rightwing Islamic groups on Turkish football should come to a head during this year’s World Cup, when the prospect of genuine footballing success for the first time in its history intoxicated a country already high on a rising tide of nationalism. However, responses to the team’s success were not unequivocal. Writing in the daily newspaper Milliyet, columnist Tuncay Ozkan – Giving It To You Straight, like a Turkish John Sadler – accused the national team of “suffering from the return of a disease that has plagued Turkish sport, the equation of professionalism with piety, prayer given precedence over skill”.

With un-Sadler-like eloquence, Ozkan voiced what had previously been merely rumour, that the leadership of the Turkish squad had fallen into the hands of an Islamic sect led by team captain Hakan Sukur. Ozkan went on to claim that Sukur and his cronies picked the team and even refused to pass the ball to players who didn’t pray.

The fact that Turks were ready to entertain such ideas demonstrates the outlandish tensions affecting Turkish football. The schism in the squad between European-based players such as Yildiray Basturk, who was born in Germany, and the Islamic faction headed by Sukur is symptomatic of a split within Turkish society between the modernising tendency towards secularism and EU membership, and the rightwing Islamic majority responsible for electing Erdogan. By comparison, rumours of an Anfield/Old Trafford div­ide inside the England camp – complete with partisan poker games on the coach back from training – seem fairly trifling.

Organised football violence is on the rise in Turkey and England’s match is bound to attract  the attentions of hooligans on both sides (though Turks generally see England as a friendly nation thanks to Tony Blair’s support for their European aspirations). But by the time England arrive in Istanbul, Erdogan’s party will have been in power for almost a year. It will be fascinating to see what kind of a welcome they receive in a country where the football stadiums, perhaps more than anywhere else of late, have been a barometer of intense social change.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month