Bonkers by the Bosphorus: Why Fenerbahce vs Galatasaray is more than a game

The Istanbul derby: so violent the authorities tried to ban it, so bitter the whole world is watching, so important the fans of two teams will do anything. Steve Bryant and Dan Brennan reported for the February 2006 FourFourTwo magazine

“You are all sons of whores,” come the chants of Galatasaray fans, as they tear up their seats and hurl chunks of red and yellow plastic onto the pitch of their team’s crumbling Ali Sami Yen Stadium.

By Istanbul derby standards, the 351st clash between ‘Cim Bom’ and their arch rivals Fenerbahce has been a fairly quiet affair. The target of the home fans’ vitriol is not, though, their friends from across the Bosphorus, who have just sneaked a 1-0 win, but their own club’s management and directors.

It is probably just as well that Galatasaray’s prim and polite chairman Ozhan Canaydin has boycotted the match in protest at Fenerbahce fans being allowed to attend.

In all some 1,000 away supporters, crammed into one small corner of the stadium, have managed to make it into the ground, and their mood is, by contrast, ecstatic.

Victory has set a Fenerbahce club record of 12 league wins on the trot and carried the champions six points clear at the top and well on track for a historic third straight title. To add considerable insult to Galatasaray’s latest injury, the small blue and yellow wedge of Fener fans, though outnumbered 30 to one, have severely embarrassed the massed red and yellow ranks of the Cim Bom.

Flare up: This Fener fan's a bright spark

“Ali Sami Yen’s gone silent, they’re all listening to us,” sang the jubilant away contingent in the second half, and they had a point. During the first half, the drums, whistles and songs of the Galatasaray fans drowned out whatever noise the small cluster of ‘Yellow Canaries’ dared to make.

But by the 80th minute, after yet another failed attempt by faded national icon, Hakan Sukur – these days known even to Galatasaray fans as Donkey Hakan – the home support is utterly subdued.

“We won the football match, but we also won the fans’ ‘game’ decisively,” beams Cuneyt Aytac of Fener supporters group Antu after the match. “We are very happy with this result.”

Global dimension

Indisputably the biggest event in the Turkish football calendar, the showdown between the Yellow Canaries and Cim Bom is a game with a global dimension, too.

Supporters munching on their doners and meatballs outside the Ali Sami Yen have travelled from across Turkey; some have even ventured from across Europe, with fans from Germany and Holland swelling the numbers. And with a sizeable football-mad Turkish diaspora scattered across the planet, the games also draw a crowd in smoke-filled cafés from Hackney to Moscow.

Forget Glasgow. Forget Barcelona. This is the biggest derby in the world. I’ve been coming since I was 12. I don’t smoke or drink, I just save all my money for this

- Galatasaray supporter Gökhan

“Forget Glasgow. Forget Barcelona. This is the biggest derby in the world,” boasts Galatasaray supporter Gökhan ahead of the latest set-to. The 20-year-old has made the 870-mile journey from Gaziantep near the Syrian border – a 26-hour schlep on the train.

“I’ve been coming since I was 12. I don’t smoke or drink, I just save all my money for this,” he adds, munching on pine nuts, the nibble of choice for the Turkish football fan.

Two hours later, it seems an awful long way to come for what has been, by common local consensus, one of the flattest derby encounters in years. His team look a pale shadow of the flagship Turkish side that used to humble European giants on a routine basis and that defeated Arsenal to win the UEFA Cup in 2000.

Galatasaray beat Arsenal to win the 2000 UEFA Cup

But even in defeat, Gokhan can draw comfort from slagging the opposition. “Fenerbahce are the worst team in the world,” he mutters. “The foulest, the lowest, the most dishonourable. They’re nothing and their fans are even less. We don’t hate them because they’re big and rich, it’s more than that. Galatasaray are an ethical team, honourable. But Fenerbahce are all about money and buying success.”

A Cim Bom banner inside the ground reinforces the view that these days Galatasaray find themselves clutching at reasons to be cheerful: “Success comes and goes,” it tells the players, “but your nobility is enough for us.”

Subverting the paradigm

Istanbul derbies don’t fit neatly into any of the classic paradigms for local rivalries. There is no ethnic split between the clubs and no religious divide, although historically, at least, social class played a part in forging the identity of each.

In the 1970s, Kurthan Fisek, a leading Turkish academic (and Fenerbahce fan) summarised the differences between Istanbul’s three leading clubs thus: Galatasaray, he said, were the club of the Europeanised aristocracy, Fenerbahce the club of the bourgeoisie, while the city’s third club, Besiktas, were supposed to be the team of the working classes.

Fisek’s definition holds some water but, according to local sportswriter and radio broadcaster, Bagis Erten, the modern reality is more fluid. There are unsurprisingly, plenty of posh Besiktas fans and no small number of poor Galatasaray supporters.

Other major derbies have ethnic or religious differences or class at their roots; here, each of the three big clubs has to compete for every new-born child

- Sportswriter and radio broadcaster Bagis Erten

“Other major derbies may have ethnic or religious differences or class at their roots, but in Turkey, things are different,” says Erten. “Here, choice of club is like a kind of democratic citizenship. Anyone can become a supporter of any club. Each of the three big clubs has to compete for every new-born child.”

Besiktas, Istanbul’s oldest club, having been founded in 1903, represent a third way of sorts. They don’t inspire the same intense hatred among either of their neighbours, and any success is tolerated by both.

The perception of Besiktas as the team of the working classes is bolstered by the fact that in recent decades the club has drawn much of its core support from the traders, porters and labourers who work in the maze of shopping lanes around the old fish market in the Besiktas district, on the European side of the Bosphorus. They have also tended to attract the sympathies of Istanbul’s beleaguered minority groups, the Greeks, the Armenians and the Jews.

A Fenerbahce fan feels the long arms of the law

Galatasaray’s roots, meanwhile, lie at the opposite end of the social spectrum. The club was founded by old boys from Istanbul’s equivalent of Eton. 

The Galatasaray High School in the heart of the European part of Istanbul is a 400-year-old institution built to provide a French-language education for the elites of the Ottoman Empire, and it was there, in 1907, that Ali Sami Yen convinced a group of his friends that they should start a football team, presenting them with a ball repaired with leather cut from his own shoes.

“Our aim,” he wrote, “was to play in an organised way like the English do, to have a set of colours and a name and to beat non-Turkish teams.” Two years later, in the first ever Istanbul derby, they defeated Fenerbahce 2-0 with one of the goals scored by an English ex-pat by the name of Horace Armitage.

NEXT: Switching allegiance