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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Semester Abroad in Istanbul: Galatasary vs Fernerbache

Written by John David Charlton
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In 2009 I spent six months studying in Istanbul as part of my degree course. There were many reasons as to why I chose Istanbul over the other cities available, one of which being the chance to experience what many view as the most infamous football derby in the world. Ignoring the obvious safety concerns, I’d read enough on the Istanbul derby to want to go. The existence of Besiktas does indeed complicate matters from time-to-time, but the real antagonism lies in The Kitalar Arasi Derbi (Intercontinental Derby) between Galatasaray and Fernerbache. 

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Galatasaray verses Fernerbache is in many ways the perfect storm. A cocktail of geographical, political and financial contrasts making it one of the few derbies that is—at least to the fans of the two sides—truly more than just a game. Like all world renowned football derbies, the Istanbul derby had a political edge. Whilst Galatasaray is located in the European side of the city, Fernerbache is situated across the Bosphorous in Asia. Traditionally the latter represented the workers of the city, with Galatasaray being the elite club holding the wealth of Istanbul. 


Times change however, and Fernerbache was now the dominant team, particularly in the transfer market. Able to offer colossal wages to former Spanish manager Luis Aragones as well as providing the likes of Roberto Carlos one final pay day meant they were rightly viewed as pre-season title favorites. However, three quarters into the season both teams were struggling, making the upcoming game between the two of vital importance, not just with regards to the title race—a draw would effectively end both sides chances to become champions—but also for pride should neither win the title. 


The drama behind merely acquiring tickets proved tasking. It began five days before the actual game, April 7th (one day before my 21st birthday).  My Galatasaray supporting friend, Gökhun and I had planned the ticket hunt for a good fortnight beforehand. We arranged to meet around midnight, and in contact with his friends determined the least populated ticket office and queued overnight with the other fans. The club sold tickets in numerous Migros supermarket kiosks scattered across the European side of the city. This gave us scope to move to another ticket office should our Migros of choice prove unsafe. 


It was close to midnight as I met up for a beer with Gökhun before heading to the European side. The Ultras at the first kiosk clearly took exception to us being there, so Gökhun, myself, and five of his other friends squeezed into the car and headed to the next kiosk. En-route to the next Migros, we were stopped at a police point, while the officer ignored the blatant breach in car safety and waved us on. 


The next Migros we visited ended up as our home for the night. As well as being friendlier than the previous kiosk, it also had the kind of lively ambiance I needed to get through the night. Supplied with plenty of Efes Beers we began to wait for the sun to rise and the ticket kiosk to open. The more alcohol consumed the chants inevitably became louder, and as fans mingled, people clocked on to the rather obvious fact that I was not a local.  This was initially a somewhat private concern for me, but it turned out to be the beginning of something incredibly amusing, as well as entirely unexpected.



As those around me noticed my foreign nature, people became curious as to where I was from, what I was doing in Istanbul and, most importantly, what team I followed back home. To those fans at the front of the queue (who were chanting throughout the night) I seemingly became one of them as I managed to learn two of the more simple Galatasaray chants. And in what I can only assume as an act of goodwill, the faithful began to sing in praise of my team – West Bromwich Albion. Despite it being rather short-lived, it became even more remarkable as they then denounced my teams rival, the Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the same fashion as they did towards their own. It was as much bizarre as it was amusing.  

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As the sun came up the real Ultras appeared and jumped straight to the front of the queue. Nobody was happy with it but the well-sharpened knives the group held meant there was little anyone could do. As it grew closer to the kiosks opening time additional Ultras arrived. It suddenly became plausible that we may not acquire the tickets we had waited so patiently for. As it approached close to midday it became increasingly hot, and adding to the frustration from those who realized they were not going to get a ticket, scuffles broke out. Three police officers turned up, who subsequently straightened out the queue by picking out and hitting one of the younger-looking supporters. 


The morning had brought my 21st birthday, and as I was closer to the back of the queue than the front, my primary concern became not getting hit by an officer rather than picking up tickets. No sooner had Gökhun appeared from nowhere to state he “has tickets” did one of the more vicious-looking Ultra fans demand them in exchange for a questionable amount of Turkish Lira. There was nothing we could do, Gökhun had purchased some of the last available tickets and the kiosk was beginning to close. We left the place ticketless.


Gökhun insisted that he could get tickets on the black market. He stated that we could probably purchase tickets during the week for around 150 Lira (£60 at the time), but if we waited until the day of the game—which he was insisting on—we could pay around 100 Lira (£40). As Sunday arrived I anxiously checked my phone waiting for the call from Gökhun and eventually it came, he had tickets and I was going to the derby. I had three exams scheduled for the following day, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I felt I had gone through too much to not bother, and besides, I fancied my chances in the three modules. 


The ambience around the neighboring bars was impressive, with a sea of fanatical followers championing the clubs colors with flares and other football paraphernalia. Although it was clear the stadium was crumbling it had character and with that came an intimidating atmosphere. The game was cagey and bad-natured from the start, with neither side having much potency in the final third. The first half was poor with limited chances, though plenty of tough tackling reminded me it was a derby. Thankfully the noise from both sets of fans was a spectacle in itself. 




The Galatasaray fans were limited in what they could throw at the Fernerbache players, as police confiscated any items deemed dangerous to throw from those entering the stadium (despite the fact I had no intention of throwing good money away, much to my dismay, I had about ten Liras’ worth of loose change confiscated). As the game progressed the tenacity increased, and when Roberto Carlos chose to act out the most lamentable dive I have ever witnessed—he must have completed close to ten rolls before holding his left knee—in front of the Galatasaray fans the atmosphere, game, everything became frantic. 

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It’s safe to state that our seats were precariously positioned. Wedged between unstable Turkish police, seriously outnumbered Fernerbache followers and fanatical Galatasary fans all in a stadium holding seemingly twice the allowed capacity;  it was intense. Alongside a sizeable line of police in riot gear, the Fernerbache faithful were also protected by netting which sported a hole no more than a couple of inches wide. Some friendly Galatasaray fans chose to spend the entire game throwing anything they could (mostly lighters) to get through the hole. One gentleman succeeded, with the lighter in question narrowly missing one goading Fernerbache fan, who, on the odd occasion, would bravely stick his head by the hole. Others, more optimistically, began ripping up plastic seats to throw. Being close to the Fernerbache end myself, it was something I privately took exception to. 


As the game drew to a close, it was clear neither team looked like winning, and with this both sides chances of lifting the title began to evaporate. I can only guess that because of this both sets of players decided to kick the Turkish delight out of each other in the final few minutes. Consequently four players were sent off. The chaos at the end of the game on the pitch transferred into the stands, and as such the Police decided to make tactical charges towards the fans whilst firing what I hope were rubber bullets in the air. With the final whistle being blown, I took this as a sign to leave before I lost the chance to do so.


The game was one of the last derbies to be played at The Ali Sami Yen aka ‘Hell’ Stadium. The Club now resides at the more corporate friendly New Turk Telecom Arena, though fans refer to it as the Aslantepe “Lion Hill” stadium (named after the district it’s situated in). Although the environment throughout the game was intense, the safety measures appeared more controlled than I expected. I drew the impression that the days of seriously dangerous derbies were left in the 1990’s and that the powers that be were doing a good job to limit the dangers inside. As recent news reports illustrate, however, what happens outside the stadium is, of course, a different matter altogether. 

©John David Charlton

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012