Galatasaray 1 Genclerbirligi 0

Galatasaray 1 Genclerbirligi 0 (28/10/2006)

It was with deep regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn a bit of Turkish before coming to Istanbul. For starters it would have been more polite to be able to exchange the odd social pleasantry with the locals in their own language, but mainly so I could have had a t-shirt printed bearing the Turkish for “No I don’t want to buy a ***ing carpet.” Rather like the mafia are supposed to, the touts and sellers of Istanbul attack as your friend, and like the former, they all do their best to make you offers you can’t refuse. In some respects you have to admire their persistence. One shoe-shiner was literally on his hands and knees begging for my custom. Even the fact that I was wearing trainers didn’t deter him, with him seemingly convinced giving them a quick buffing with his tin of Kiwi black would enhance their appearance.

Of course it didn’t matter how you deterred one, be it polite insistence or an expression of a desire to shove his brushes into an alternate storage space if he won’t let go of your foot, no further than 20 yards up the road you’ll be approached by someone else saying “ah, he’s a very bad man. Gives Turkish people a bad name. Turkish people are very hospitable. Come back to my carpet shop and have a mint tea, and I’ll show you real Turkish hospitality….”

Not that I want to tar all Turks with the same brush. Some, such as the reception staff at the 4-star Marble Hotel who decided that for some reason I should be allowed to stay in the penthouse suite rather than the single room I’m paid for, I couldn’t praise enough. And taxis drivers, for driving me through the streets of Istanbul with killing or injuring me even once (although one did hit and old man crossing the road, but as he bounced off it was apparently OK) which is quite remarkable given Istanbul’s traffic. Many cities have very heavy traffic. Many have maniac drivers. Istanbul offered a possibly unique distillation of both – the only place I’ve been to that has high speed traffic jams. Stockbrokers must live in envy of people in Istanbul who own panel-beating franchises, as cars filter in at packed junctions at high speed as if the owners smeared their cars in butter before setting off.

Seatbelts were also regarded as a frivolous waste of energy, but a worrying number of taxis had cracked windscreens on the passenger side, as if an unbelted passenger had been caught unawares by the driver using his brakes for the first time that month. Once such taxi took me to Galatasaray, speeding through Taksim Square, usually avoiding the pavement, as if taking part in qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix. The spectacle of the decorations of Turkish Republic Day whizzed by, with the city decked out in enough red flags to have Chairman Mao regarding it a bit excessive and cultish.

I was deposited underneath the flyover which runs right next to the south end of Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen Stadium. It’s not the most picturesque setting in world sports, but if the area really is a “Welcome to Hell”, then it makes sense that the neighbourhoods of Hell wouldn’t be leafy suburbia. The area was a homage to the god of pre-stressed concrete from the “I don’t give a shit how it looks” school of architecture. At least the stadium did its bit, being slapped in red and yellow paint, even if the flakiness of the paint was like the ineffective make-up of an ageing woman who ceased to be attractive long ago, and similarly looking very much like it hadn’t been touched up in 20 years.

I fought through the crowds to get to the new and fair-sized club shop to try and buy a scarf. The Galatasaray club shop in the city offered a very poor selection of them, and this shop was disappointingly no different, with a small range of insipid designs looking more like they were designed with an 80s new romantic band in mind, rather than a distinctly blue collar football team. It’s fair to say they were flying off the shelves at the same rate as pork chops at a Tel Aviv supermarket.

I set off instead hoping to find a seller or two outside the ground, and also to try and find where to get in – my ticketmaster style ticket decreed inviting me to try a well-known brand of poor instant coffee as more important than marking my entry point to the stadium. I only found one seller outside, offering a better-than-nothing selection of merchandise which I bought on that basis. The dubious nature of the design matched the seller’s clearly dubious nature of his business, with one guy selling, and one guy keeping a sharp lookout for the police.

Although I wasn’t genuinely concerned, given the less than cordial relations between Turkish and English supporters in the past, I had felt a degree of prudence in buying this scarf that I hadn’t felt at other grounds. Wearing it did allay a slight pang of unease, but at least now I was showing “my” colours as I walked round to where my ticket seemed to be indicating that I enter. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear the sound of breaking glass as I turned the corner of a street on the north east side towards the entrance, as shards of glass from a broken bottle scattered across the road in my general direction. A few shouts came from the bar across the street from where the bottle had clearly resided previously, but the bottle, despite being in my direction, fell a long way short, so I put it down to bad timing. Why, after all, would Galatasaray fans throw a bottle at someone in a Galatasaray scarf?

That I’d misread my ticket, as I found out 100 yards down the road at the barrier, and had been going to the away entrance, explained it a bit. As did the way I wore the scarf under my coat which possibly only left the black and red stripes showing, coupled with the fact that today’s visitor’s, Genclerbirligi, play in red & black. My efforts at blending in had left me looking like an Englishman going to the Ali Sami Yen to support the away team. Perhaps only a “Greece – Champions 2004” t-shirt could have topped it off.

It took another half-tour of the surrounding streets to find the correct entrance, and even then, getting down to the entrance seemed problematic, unless I fancied jumping down a 6 foot drop to get to the correct level. Luckily several fans outside spotted a possibly common dilemma, and pointed the way through the gathered fans. Clearly not all the natives listed “throwing bottles at tourists” as a hobby.

My 11 Turkish Lira ticket got me a seat on a large, very weathered open end (which has since been demolished to make way for the first stage of the ground’s rebuild) with a large cigarette kiosk being the first concession stand inside the stadium, being a stark contrast to the UK, where smoking is banned in many grounds. This is Turkey though, and like much of the far east of Europe an admission of not smoking elicits the surprised response of “why not?” as if the health warnings on Turkish cigarettes read “Warning – there are rumours that smoking may not be all that good for you.”

I got the impression that seat and row numbers seemed to be taken on board with the same degree of enthusiasm that the warnings on cigarette packets clearly are, and so I found myself a decent seat, and settled down wondering how Reading were doing at Portsmouth that very moment, where it’d be the second half.

I can only imagine that Genclerbirligi don’t exactly stir the passions among Galatasary fans, as the place was hardly the seething cauldron of hate that made the place famous. It certainly didn’t seem any more heated than what I’m used to at Reading, and Reading’s fans are not exactly known for being the wild bunch. Indeed, when a few spoke to me, mainly to say excuse me as they walked past me seat, they always did so in English and were very polite. Very hospitable, and without once asking me back to their carpet shops.

Things perked up nearer kick-off. The gradual build up of atmosphere, once normal at English grounds, but now almost gone, is still alive in Turkey. Each section of the stadium would take it in turns to chant at those opposite, to be returned with appreciative applause. The songs were sung with much enthusiasm, but remarkably little tune, but got the message across in a very energetic way, and with a quarter of an hour to go any hint of prawn sandwiches in the crowd had been swept away.

Pretty much every single person was standing, despite the seats, but having been walking around the city all day I decided to take a break and try to find out about events at Fratton Park. As I texted a mate in the seemingly different world of Portsmouth, I noticed the fans were singing along with a fair degree of gusto to some awful dirge which I took to be the club song or similar. As I clearly wasn’t Turkish I’m they’d have understood my reluctance to join in, but at the rousing finale it occurred to me I’d probably just sat down and sent a long text during the Turkish national anthem. I got the text reply, which in its entirety read “Lost 3-1”. Its brevity telling me exactly everything I needed to know about the kind of performance it was. I just hoped this game would be better.

It was an eventful game, but mainly a frustrating one. Galatasaray were clearly a far better side, with Genclerbirligi offering little beyond the occasional breakaway, but the final ball was constantly one to bring about premature baldness, with tearing your hair out in annoyance the most likely outcome. They couldn’t even blame the ref for their troubles as he couldn’t have been more of a homer if he’d been yellow and starring in the Simpsons. Naturally, on the rare occasions that he decided to give Genclerbirligi a free kick, perhaps for the sheer novelty of doing do, howls of outrage spilled down from every stand, and very nearly more too – dozens of fans in one stands upper tier took such opportunities to walk right out to the edge of a flimsy looking roof extension over the lower tier. It’s only going to take a bit of light rain to have some fan being able to berate a linesman from rather closer than he imagined.

The breakthrough eventually came with 20 minutes left, Sukur for once proving that it is possible for a Galatasaray player to shoot without looking like he has ankles made of rubber, and provoking the kind of cheer that only a goal in a frustrating game can produce. The 200 or so away fans, in contrast, looked very quiet and lonely in their little corner. It’s not as if they could slip out to a welcoming bar in the vicinity either.

At least I knew with a game like this, that I was unlikely to miss another goal if I slipped away early to try and get a head start on the crowds, as the ground was well off the metro line and I was bargaining on finding a taxi. Or having a very long walk. It seemed that everyone else had the same idea though and I was fighting through a flood of human traffic rather than the trickle I’d presumed, but luckily there were cabs lining the street. I chose one, yet another with a cracked passenger side windscreen, and we shot off as fast as the traffic would allow towards Taksim, where crowds were surprisingly milling about. Given that on the square itself, the most interesting features are a bus station and some pedestrian crossings (where a countdown to how long before the “walk” sign turns red again produces “beat the clock” feats of road-crossing recklessness and derring-do that Evel Knievel in his prime would have dismissed as too dangerous) it’s hardly an obvious place for anyone to gather, but at least it made avoiding the clip-joint touts a bit easier. I might have been in need of a beer and a bit of a chat, but not in a place that’d probably charge me 1000 Turkish Lira for the privilege.

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