There is a narrow channel with just 750 meters of water separating Europe and Asia. This is at the Bosporus straight which divides cornerstones of civilisation into two. This narrow channel has been the meeting point of not just two continents. But of empires, religions, conquests, and ideas.
European and even world history has had two of the great empires make this land, its capital. Byzantium and the Ottomans knew just how important it was to control this city. The amount of history and the influence this small piece of land has had on the world can’t be understated. Even in World War One, the unsuccessful allied campaign to take control of this location, which was spearheaded by a certain Winston Churchill shows just how crucial having control of this territory was for the rest of the world.
And that is why controlling the football dominance over ISTANBUL is crucial for the teams that play there.
Istanbul is literally where two worlds meet. And there is no better way to feel that sense of occasion than if you were to go to Istanbul on a matchday between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce. One club on the European side of the city, one on the Asian side, and when they meet. It is the epitome of the struggle and violence and the catharsis, which this great land divided by 750 meters of water has witnessed for millennia.
And if you were to ask a person from Istanbul what are the religions of Turkey, the answer would be Islam and football. Even though that might sound a bit non-secular, it is not too far away from the truth. Most people might not know it, but Istanbul is a major European footballing city. Of the likes of London or Moscow or Berlin. But much more rabid and much more savage. The lines between passion and violence are as thin as the straight that separates the continents.
Plant the flag
In 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured the erstwhile capital of the Byzantine empire of Constantinople, thus bringing an end to the 2000 year old Roman Empire. This moment was marked when an Ottoman soldier placed a flag on the fort and this is one of the most iconic paintings in Turkish history.
In 1996 – 543 years later, a football maverick by the name of Graeme Souness (Yes, the Pogba hating pundit on Sky Sports) would go on to do the exact same thing, which would go down in Turkish history and folklore as the most iconic moment in their footballing history. After beating Fenerbahce in the final, in Fenerbahce’s stadium, he takes the Galatasaray flag to the centre of the field and plants it there like how the Ottomans did after they had defeated the Byzantines.
It was one of the most inflammatory things anyone could have done. But the hot-headed Scotsman that Souness is, couldn’t care for a reason. He made a statement and it is said that his decision to head inside the stadium right after that, saved his life.
But Fenerbahce fans’ pride was hurt. They needed to respond. They needed to show that they can also “Plant the flag”. So a Fenerbahce fan, called “Rambo” would go and hide in the stadium of Galatasaray a day before the match in the advertising boards and during the opening match of the season. He would cut open the advertising boards with a kebab knife and plant the flag in the middle of the field. He had the knife until he was apprehended. Rambo was clinically diagnosed to be mentally ill. But for Fenerbahce fans, this was revenge and Rambo would write his name into Turkish folklore too.
This is the level of passion in Turkey, that borders some kind of hatred. It got so violent with stabbings and even deaths becoming a bit too common that away fans were prohibited when these teams meet. They are too caustic towards each other that the only way the authorities believe that they can keep control of this set of fans is by keeping them apart.
These clubs were formed even before the Turkish republic was formed. Let us take a look at the football clubs of Istanbul.
Anyone who knows Eric Cantona knows the unwavering confidence the Frenchman had in himself. But in a 1993 European cup tie, Man United needed a win since Gala had 3 away goals in Old Trafford. Even Cantona was feeling a bit apprehensive at seeing hundreds of Galatasaray fans greeting the team chanting “Welcome to Hell”. The absolute astonishment in that young united team is obvious and Galatasaray fans are the epitome of that kind of rabid support.
Gala as an institution is of a much more refined and nobler origin than screaming death threats at an airport. It was one of Europes oldest schools and it still is. The club was formed in 1905 and they have won the league 22 times. In Europe, their best result is winning the UEFA CUP (Current Europa League) and the UEFA super cup in 2000. This was Turkish football’s greatest moment and has not been surpassed ever since. They play in the Turk Telekom Stadium with a 52,000 fan capacity.
A lot of top names have played for them in the past. Drogba had a stint in Istanbul with Galatasary and won the club’s 19th title and they made it to the champions league quarter-finals. They won their home leg against Real Madrid 3-2, but was knocked out on aggregate. That team also had Wesley Sneijder who moved to Istanbul a little later after winning the Champions League with Inter Milan.
Currently, they have in their ranks, Radamel Falcao, Fernando Muslera, Arada Turan, Ryan Babel and a host of other talents. That is a very strong list of super starts that would have made any defense worried when these players were playing at their peak. But the Turkish league is not where world superstars play at their peak. They come here in the dusk of their careers to play in a league that offers an atmosphere very few can match.
And that is what happened with Manchester United in 1993. The atmosphere was too toxic for united that they ended up drawing that game and got eliminated from the competition. Decades later, Sir Alex wrote in his autobiography about that match and the troubles they had to endure. I think the Galatasaray fans would have been really proud to have read that.
On the Asian side, we have Fenerbache. Mesut Ozil just transferred there and being of Turkish origin, he is well aware of the intensity he is about to experience. Fenerbache is like Galatasaray in the sense that it is also not just a football club. But a sporting institution that has a whole array of other sports that they engage in. The club is just 2 years younger than Galatasaray and was formed in 1907. They have never been relegated in their history and have won 19 Turkish titles. In terms of total trophies won, they are the most successful Turkish club.
They have also had a lot of Europe’s top names play for them at the twilight of their careers. That includes Robin Van Persie, Martin Škrtel, Bruno Alves, Dirk Kuyt, Diego Lugano amongst others. The current squad has Ozil, Papiss Ciesse, Enner Valencia and Luiz Gustavo amongst a list of other Turkish players.
Beşiktaş might not be the most famous of the clubs from Istanbul, but their atmosphere would send most of the top teams of Europe into their dens. That is how loud these fans can get and their choreography is very unique and deserves a lot of respect.
Beşiktaş is the oldest of all the clubs in Istanbul. Having being formed as a basketball club in 1903, it would be a little later when they become a football club. They also have the honour of having never been relegated in their history. They play in the Vodafone Park stadium with a capacity crowd of almost 42,000.
They last won the league in 2016-17 season. They have familiar names like Kevin Prince Boateng, Vida and Douglas. They are currently on top the Turkish league table with both Galatasaray and Fenerbahce right behind them.
İstanbul Başakşehir F.K.
This club needs to be mentioned since every Manchester united fan is still hurting when they hear the name of the club who kind of knocked them out of the group in the champions league. A poor result away to Başakşehir, started United’s decline in the group. Also with the recent instances of racism by the referee against one of the coaches of Başakşehir, they become very relevant in the footballing conversations across the world.
They are a relatively new club and doesn’t have the 100 year old heritage their bigger rivals across the city have. But they are the reigning champions and that too for the first time in their history. They are a club that came to challenge the hegemony of the traditional top 3 and they have been doing a good job of it so far. They have in their ranks former United right-back Rafael and a few other famous names like Chadli and Demba Ba. They are not doing so good this season and are in 15th position. But they are a team that can surprise anyone as Man Utd are well aware.
But there are a lot of problems too with Turkish football. I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the top Turkish players that play for the national team in the squad of these clubs. Or the times the clubs have been penalised by UEFA for match-fixing. There is a whole dark-underbelly of Turkish football where politics, corruption and other ulterior interests play their cards. But that’s for another day.