Besiktas 0 Sakaryaspor 0

Besiktas 0 Sakaryaspor 0 (29/10/2006)

I don’t think too many Turks would argue that Istanbul isn’t the most attractive city in the world. Certainly Prague isn’t going to worry too much about tourists being lured off into the charming streets of Beyoğlu, where a string of greying underpants drying on a washing line tied to a tower block apartment’s balcony could often actually add aesthetic value. It wasn’t all bad. The main street through the district, İstiklal Caddesi, is more scrubbed up than most places, with more than enough bars and eye-catchingly dressed women to hammer home that despite this being a Muslim country, it’s certainly no Iran.

Without doubt though, it’s the Muslim influence that gives the city its most stunning buildings. Four huge mosques, one of which is now a museum, dominate the southern skyline and give it an air of the exotic unequalled anywhere in the western world, even if they do occupy the last few hundred yards of land that could be described as such with Asia starting just half a mile away across the Bosphorus. The Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque square up to each other across the park of Sultanahmet like two giant sumo wrestlers ready to battle it out to be declared best in the city, while the mosque of Süleyman the magnificent watches from a distance. All are magnificent, even if a penchant for blue on white decorative tiles made them at times curiously reminiscent of fantastically grandiose Victorian public lavatories.

And the first time you hear the call to prayer, the transportation to a different world is complete, although the grounding in the western world somehow conjures up images of an atmospheric sequence from a Bond movie than genuine eastern experience. The fact that it’s blasted out of a PA system rather than being chanted from a minaret makes it rather louder than you expect, and I can vouch from personal experience, after being moved to a normal, less sound-proofed room after two days in the suite, that the 5am call to prayer can be quite a startling experience. The other problem is there are mosques everywhere, and you hear it time and time again. After a while it just end up sounding like someone singing a slow Sting B-Side track while have a rubik’s cube pulled out of their arse. To be fair, I think having three small mosques near my hotel clouded my thinking. After all, being woken at 5am by the two quieter calls, only to be waiting for the window-shatteringly loud one to crank up like an air-raid siren isn’t the best way to recover from a slight hangover.

Despite that, I was actually quite pleased that one of the features of the Besiktas stadium, apart from overlooking the Bosphorus with views to the Asian shore, was that it had a mosque behind the away end, with minarets and a domed roof peeking over the stands. I deliberately chose my ticket with a view in that direction.

Tickets for both game were purchased from the same ticket shop on İstiklal Caddesi, found on the second day of trying after assistance from the Galatasaray club shop, at the top end of the street. It wasn’t the easiest exchange of communication, with neither of us having much fluency in languages other than our own, but although an actual address couldn’t be offered, I was given a slip of paper bearing the name “Ada Misik”. It was either the name of the shop that sold tickets, or my partially understood requests had been misinterpreted as a request for a geriatric hooker. Thankfully, after a very slow walk down the street, I was faced by Ada, a record shop, which sold tickets from the basement. Judging by the look of surprise on the face of the guy working there, he didn’t appear to know he sold football tickets there either.

Besiktas was a lot less hassle than Galatasary. For a start I could stroll to the game from my hotel, just 10 minutes away. I found a decent souvenir stand en route and the surrounding area, with it Bosphorus view, lack of flyover or murky tower blocks, and the mini-mosque on the corner made it seem a rather more genteel and orderly place. Even the Muezzin’s call to prayer over the mosque’s PA system, which cranked up as I stood outside the ground, avoided the usual Spinal Tap style urge to turn the volume to 11, for which I was very grateful. It also gave the impression of sounding like a beckoning to the Besiktas faithful to come to their altar, which they did in their thousands.

I again had a ticket for an end that was unreserved, in both senses, and made my way to a decent vantage point on the middle tier. The ground was somewhat tidier than Galatasaray, but while this can sometimes have a quietening effect on the crowd, the Besiktas more than made up for the earthiness that it lacks in comparison to the Ali Sami Yen with some very enthusiastic fans. As at Galatasaray, there was the familiar exchange of chants from different sections of the stadium, delivered with a forcefulness that made you feel they were having an argument rather than combining support. Perhaps about whether being at the side or end is better, or at the front or back of the side, all delivered in the same curiously awkward sounding tune, like an overblown bad angry line from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

If there was one thing everyone could agree on, it would be that getting in late is a very bad idea as although every seat in the end was probably sold, many towards the sides, next to the stands, offered views that could be described as challenging. Ideal for those who like to stare at a sliver of grass as an accompaniment to an afternoon of staring at a large white wall, but not much else.

It was all looking very promising, but then the game started. On my way up to the middle tier seats, I’d passed a fan kneeling on his prayer mat in the corridor, and it was a day when divine intervention was required. If there is only one god whose name is Allah, then it’s a shame as Besiktas needed the help of all the deities they could muster to find a way of scoring that afternoon. I’m sure they can play better, as the faces on the crowd showed the familiar look of fans not exactly regarding it as the best performance of the season. To be fair Sakaryaspor did play in a fashion which made you suspect they’d sack Sven Goran Eriksson for being wildly cavalier tactically, but as times it felt like Besiktas were collectively filming a training video for the Turkish FA and would be filming the “now, how you should be doing it” scenes the following week.

The game dragged out like lingering chest infection to its inevitable 0-0 conclusion. The crowd, the best performers on the night by a mile, sarcastically applauded Sakaryaspor off the pitch to show their displeasure with the home side’s performance. The crowd drifted away into the night, no doubt with the Turkish for “well at least we didn’t lose” being said by those determined to salvage something from the evening.

Taksim, just up the road, was again packed with people, but this time they were gathered for free concert in the square as part of the Republic Day celebrations. That or I misjudged, with a 0-0 home draw with Sakaryaspor being a really massive achievement. I had other plans for much of the evening, but dipped back into the square later when I imagined the acts would be better and be demonstrating why they are so popular in Turkey as opposed to why they aren’t elsewhere. There was a good sense of occasion, and I got as near as I could (which was still a long way off) even though I couldn’t quite see why I wanted to be able to see performers I wouldn’t recognise anyway. Sadly I seemed to arrive for the finale – they finished their song and it all abruptly ended. No encore or anything. Kind of a let down, but still rather better than the match earlier.

I did have the option of going to a Trabzonspor match the following day, despite the lure of a “day trip” to Asia, but I saw some of it on TV, and an evening in the pub was a better option. Actually, an evening stuck in a lift with a time-share salesman looked a better option that the football I saw from that one, but I clearly wasn’t in luck as far as football was concerned. I could have got lucky if I followed those kind people offering to take me to bars full of pretty girls, or maybe just followed my good fortune that I was in Istanbul when they were having a sale on in the shops I was invited in to, but I let it pass. So two games, only one goal, and not much else in them to cheer about, but I could probably have got a very good deal on a belly dancing costume in the Grand Bazaar, had I wanted one, so it all balances out I suppose.

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