Turkish soccer fans are taking the lead in İstanbul’s anti-government protests, effectively turning the country’s most popular sport into a potential political battleground.
The politicization of soccer fans poses a quandary for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A former semi-professional soccer player himself, who is known to don the scarf of a local club when addressing public rallies across the country, Erdoğan long considered soccer to be his own political domain. But no longer.
The sight of soccer fans standing on barricades, taunting police, has shattered that image. For many Turks, soccer is now associated with political protest.
Soccer fans notably took on a leading role in İstanbul demonstrations last week over claims that a police tear-gas canister had killed 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan during September 9 rallies in the southeastern city of Hatay. The demonstrations were centered in the city’s Kadıköy district, home to the 106-year-old Fenerbahçe soccer club, a national icon.
Interspersing political slogans with soccer chants, many demonstrators wore the club’s distinctive yellow-and-blue shirts. “This is Kadıköy, and this belongs to Fenerbahçe! We won’t let the police take this neighborhood!” shouted one defiant protestor, covering his face with a club scarf to protect his identity and mitigate the effects of pepper gas.
While the Fenerbahçe protesters received lots of notoriety, it is another İstanbul club, Beşiktaş, that is perhaps most closely associated with the protest movement. Known for their sense of humor and rebellion, a left-wing group of Beşiktaş fans, called Çarşı, are “the heroes of the [protest] movement, and they have been joined by other soccer fan supporters,” observed Yasmin Çongar, a writer on Turkish affairs.
Back in June, during the height of the Gezi Park protests, Çarşı supporters at one point gathered outside Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdoğan’s İstanbul office, just a stone’s throw away from the heartland of Beşiktaş supporters. One member “hijacked a bulldozer and drove it against police,” recalled Çongar. The club’s İnönü stadium is also not far from Gezi Park, where a small rally against government development of the area sparked the nationwide protests.
Soccer fans are accustomed to facing pepper gas, which authorities routinely have used to disperse unruly elements following matches. They proved eager to share their experience in dealing with gas attacks with other Gezi Park protesters. “They were always in the front when police used gas,” remembered one demonstrator who wanted to remain anonymous. “They really helped those not used to facing such things. They protected them.”
The anti-government mood that has simmered since the summer has achieved something that most sports commentators had thought impossible -- breaking down, albeit temporally, the fierce rivalry that borders on hate between İstanbul’s soccer fans, claimed Çongar.
“There is no love lost between these İstanbul teams and supporters. They don’t even eat together,” Çongar said. “These Gezi park protests brought them together. There is new energy solidarity along the lines of soccer clubs. Watching that, the government has become very wary of what the fans could do.”
Of late, Çarşı supporters have become the target of a crackdown; under Turkey’s draconian organized-crime laws, prosecutors arrested and charged 20 of its members as ringleaders of the June unrest. “I hope football supporters are not being made [into] scapegoats,” warned Emma Sinclair Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The laws used against them are normally used against groups like the mafia.”
The fans were subsequently released, pending trial. They face sentences of up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Further arrests could be in the offing. The newspaper Taraf reported on September 19 that as many as 1,000 people could be arrested as part of an alleged major sweep-up of anti-government protestors.
The crackdown extends to crowd behavior in soccer stadiums. Ahead of the new soccer season, which started in late August, the government took steps to purge politics from stadiums by extending a ban on racist slogans to political chants.
The owner of the Beşiktaş soccer club, Yıldırım Demirören, known for his close ties to the government, demanded that all season ticketholders pledge “not to insult in a way that could provoke social, political and ideological clashes” on pain of being banned from the stadium
The sports ministry has blitzed television channels with advertisements warning parents about political protests as the slippery slope to terrorism. The ads end with the image of a suicide bomber.
“They have come up with fantastic measures,” Soli Özel, a columnist for Haber Türk newspaper, said of the government. The techniques indicate that “if there is a wave of protests again, the response is going to be pretty harsh.”
For now, the crackdown appears to be only hardening attitudes. At the 34th minute of games [İstanbul license-plate numbers start with 34], many İstanbul club supporters switch from soccer chants to protest slogans.
Beşiktaş’ opening game on September 1st at its home stadium, in particular, saw a torrent of anti-government slogans. Adding insult to injury, the club is currently playing at Erdoğan Stadium while its own stadium is being rebuilt. Erdoğan Stadium is in İstanbul’s Kasımpaşa distinct, where the prime minster grew up. Sensitive to that awkwardness, TV channels quickly muted the sound of the protests in compliance with state regulations.
One defiant Çarşı supporter, though, dismissed the crackdown. “We will always protect our beliefs, which are always on the side of fairness and justice, and we will continue protecting this,” he said.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.