THE GREAT GAME
In the attempt to fathom Turkish sports fan culture, I spent this past Sunday at not one but two Istanbul soccer games. I started at Beşiktaş, whose fan organization is renowned for its high levels of political committedness and general enthusiasm.
“You’re going to hear all kinds of curse words,” the taxi driver told me, on the way to the game. “You’re going to hear unheard-of things that nobody should ever hear.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m trying to advance my knowledge of the Turkish language.”
“If you’re trying to advance your knowledge of the Turkish language, I’m not sure a Beşiktaş match is the first place I would advise you to go. It seems to me there are other, better places to advance your knowledge of the Turkish language. But of course, you know best,” he said. We drove a while in silence. “Here’s what I really want to know,” the driver resumed. “What are you going to write in your story? That the Beşiktaş fans are spewing curses unfit for the ears of civilized people? Or that Inönü Stadium is united by a warm, intimate, unpretentious atmosphere?”
“Well, whatever I see, that’s what I’ll write,” I said.
“You’re going to write what you see?” The driver looked really depressed. “Well, then we’re done for.”
I’m told there were between 40,000 and 42,000 football fans that day in the stadium, which has a 38,000 capacity. I had bought a ticket in the cheapest section and literally every seat had someone standing on top of it and directly in front of it. Getting into the stands was no joke. The low point for me was when some particularly solid-looking dudes in leather jackets shouldered me out of the crowd and it looked like I wasn’t going to make it into the gate. But just then a magical gust of wind blew off my hood, and one of the solid dudes exclaimed: “There’s a lady here! Back off, man, let the lady through.” Everyone standing near me stepped aside and let me through! Say what you will about Beşiktaş fans, they know how to treat a girl (sort of).
A few hours later, with a somewhat advanced knowledge of the Turkish language, I found myself on the Asian side of the city with my very dear cousin Evrim, an obstetrician and Fenerbahçe season pass-holder who, as I recently learned, has been attending every single home game for years with a group of hospital colleagues. It really felt like another continent. I sat—sat!—next to an ear-nose-throat specialist, saw practically no riot police, and heard no language stronger than: “Degenerate!”
The Fenerbahçe doctors were really impressed that I had watched a Beşiktaş game from the stands. “Was there ever a moment when you thought you were going to die?” asked the urologist. As it turns out, three Bursaspor fans had been hospitalized that afternoon with stab wounds.
“You like that little bear, huh?” asked a urologist, noticing my interest.
“It’s not a bear, it’s some kind of child,” a dermatologist objected.
“Come here! Just one picture! We’re crazy about you!” the urologist shouted to the weird mascot.
Judging from our facial expressions, I think the mascot and I had similar feelings about having this photograph taken.
To my delight, the ear-nose-throat specialist proceeded to hand me a souvenir Alex de Souza T-shirt, exactly like the one worn by my new friend.
“Oh, how great!” I exclaimed. “And there’s some kind of, um, human head!”
I had just noted a faint, spectral head floating in the middle of the shirt’s stomach. Closer inspection revealed this to be an upside-down photographic likeness of Alex printed, for unknown reasons, on the inside of the shirt.
“You can’t give it to her now!” said the urologist. “It’s not suitable for a Turkish girl have Alex’s face stuck to her body like that.”
I was briefly worried that I wouldn’t get to keep the creepy shirt after all, but the ear-nose-throat specialist saved the day: “She’ll wear it inside-out,” he decided.
Another day full of happy endings, for lots of people. I got a really weird free shirt, and advanced my knowledge of the Turkish language. Alex scored his 12th goal of the season, bringing Fenerbahçe to a 2-1 victory against Kardemir Karabükspor. Beşiktaş shut out Bursaspor 1-0, and nobody scratched my cousin’s car. On the other hand, three people were stabbed and a woman was hit in the head by a bottle. So I’ve been thinking about the taxi driver’s question, and what I think now is that there’s no way of balancing the credits and debits. I’ve tried, and it just can’t be done.