Crisis at the Taksim Square

From the Gezi Park protests near famous Taksim Square in 2013 to the ongoing activities of the ISIS and Kurdish militants, Turkey has been majorly involved in various conflicts in the recent past. Football too hasn’t been spared and got severely impacted in the process. Indranath Mukherjee explores the disquieting sides of Turkish football as Arda Turan and his men are traveling to France to play their first major international tournament in eight years.

After a lazy brunch at Bebek and a blissful afternoon nap in the hotel room, I decided to go to Taksim to spend the Saturday evening. My first impression of Taksim square on that cold December evening was simply overwhelming. That was 2011 and my first trip to Istanbul. In the next twelve months, work took me to Istanbul couple of more times and I made sure that I went to Taksim square as often as I could. Istanbul is a spectacular city, the crossroads of civilizations where East meets West. While the rich historical Sultanahmet area takes one to a different time and space, the sheer vibrancy of Taksim square fascinated me. Gezi Park next to Taksim square was a lovely little green space which provided solace from the urban modernization of the Beyoglu district.

When I heard the news of the police breakdown at Gezi Park on 28th May, 2013, it was a personal shock. The then Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government decided to destruct the park as part of their redevelopment plan. The plan included building a replica of 19th century Ottoman barracks with a shopping mall and a mosque with added sidewalks to make the square more pedestrian-friendly. There was a protest demonstration at the park that attracted a few hundred environmentalists who braved police attacks that included tear gas and water cannons. For the larger section of the society, the fury was caused not just by the decision to destroy the park but largely because of the impervious way the redevelopment decision was taken by the government. Hence the abusive response of the authorities touched a nerve and more people started joining the protest and within days the hashtags #DirenGeziParki (Resist Gezi Park) and the account for Ayaga  Kalk Taksim (Stand Up Taksim) started trending all over social media. Turkish actor Mehmet Ali Alabora tweeted (in Turkish), “It’s not just about Gezi Park friend, haven’t you understood? Come over,” and it got thousands of retweets.

The situation in Turkey became one of a war zone. There were diverse gathering across all the 81 provinces in Turkey and the government acted as if it’s waging an invisible war against its dissidents. Apart from anti-government media organizations, large number of people from civil society groups, members of football fan clubs, arts community and various marginal groups joined the protest. Prime Minister Erdogan managed to bring Turkey among the three countries in the world, alongside Iran and China, to have most journalists behind bars. There had been charges against Mr. Erdogan that he tried to play the financially stressed football clubs against their fans who played prominent role in the “Gezi Park Protest”.

In particular, 35 football fans had been prosecuted based on the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government during the mass protests. All the fans were associated with the ‘Carsi’ group, the well-known supporter group of Besiktas Gymnastics Club which notably includes the Besiktas Football Club. Carsi is tad different from typical fan groups and they manifest their difference during football matches through their chants, as well as through the placards they carry to the stadium. People from different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds came together to form the group and they stand against racism, fascism, sexism. Their pro-environment stance made them participate in the Gezi Park Protest spontaneously and with strong intent. However, prosecuting them for attempting a coup was completely baseless. Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Human Rights researcher in Turkey, said, “Charging these Besiktas football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty.”

A Carsi tattoo (Source: Flickr semra AYDOĞDU )
A Carsi tattoo (Source: Flickr semra AYDOĞDU

The court accepted the lawsuit on 11th September, 2014. According to the summons, the Carsi members were accused of attempting to capture the Prime Minister’s offices in Ankara and Istanbul and overthrow the government. In reality, the accused Carsi  members were actively participating in the mass protest at Gezi Park and on the night of 2nd June, 2013 they hotwired a bulldozer from the construction site outside Besiktas’ Inonu Stadium and used it to push the police’s water cannon trucks away from their home turf. The evidence submitted against the fans consisted of intercepted phone calls and text messages, possession of gas masks and goggles. The defendants’ intercepted calls and messages did not establish any proof of criminal activity but just their opinion about the government, emotional sentiments of support for the demonstrations and a few abstract claims. Cem Yakiskan, one of Carsi’s leaders jokingly said, “If we had the power to carry out a coup, we would make Besiktas the champion.” For the record, Besiktas last won the league in 2008-09.

On the first day of the trial, some of the defendants and lawyers wore black-and-white Besiktas jerseys. Fans marched to the Istanbul court carrying banners with the Carsi logo—with its characteristic anarchy-style A, shouting slogans. There was unprecedented support from large section of people including fans of city rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce who otherwise are known as sworn enemies.


For a lot of people, the sight of people wearing surgical masks and safety helmets, chasing the police and waving Turkish flags from the top of a bulldozer was one of the most enduring images from civil unrest.

I remember what one of my colleagues Guner, who was a Besiktas supporter, told me in one of our post lunch customary Turkish coffee drinking sessions. He said that Besiktas may not have as much money as Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, but they have got heart. After talking to number of people in Turkey, after having read as much as possible about the situation in the country, I realized that not only do they have heart but they are also well equipped to combat police attacks. They have been subject to the Turkish police throwing tear gas cans towards them before football matches. “Pepper spray is a Besiktas fan’s perfume” was a joke cracked by one of the Carsi members.

The snatching of the bulldozer was to show that they were against the demolition of their beloved stadium too, but the act was not particularly out of character for the Besiktas fans. They have been playful with their banners and often made political statements through the banners. Once, before a game between Besiktas and Fenerbahce, they had made a banner of Argentina’s Ariel Ortega – Fenerbahce’s star player at the time – with the caption “Cobarde Gallina Ortega,” meaning, “Coward Chicken Ortega.” This was in criticism of Ortega’s admission that he would fly back to his home in Argentina if a war erupted in Turkey’s neighbouring countries – a fear he voiced in February 2003, just before the allied troops invaded Iraq.

Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”

Another memorable banner was made right after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. It read: “He who lived half of his life black and the other half white, great Besiktaslı Michael Jackson may your soul rest in peace.”

It’s true that among all the football fans, the Carsı group were on the frontlines in the “Gezi Park Protest”. Despite police brutality, they maintained their humour all along through their tweets and graffiti. A tweet asked everyone to call 155 (police hotline) to say that it is already noon and the police are late.


A graffiti (seen in the above picture) said: “You messed with a generation who grew up beating up cops in GTA”. GTA referred to the famous video game series Grand Theft Auto. They at times were direct yet subtle in their message. The “Please don’t come back!” graffiti was clearly addressed to Mr. Erdogan who went to a trip to North Africa amidst all the disturbance.  What an irony it was to see a graffiti which read “Enough! I will call the cops.” Another one mocked the tear gas throwing police: “With this much gas, the government can shit (shit is often used as “to fuck up” in Turkish) at any moment.”

A New Yorker article in 2011 cited a headline that sarcastically called the Besiktas stands, “the only place where the Armenian problem has been solved”. It’s well known that the history between Armenia and Turkey is not very pleasant and hence there is a stereotype that Armenians in Turkey support Besiktsas. Carsi has a strong pluralist image. One of their most prominent members, Alen Markaryan, is of Armenian descent. They say: “We are the people’s team; our leftists are populists, our nationalists are populists, our Islamists are populists – you can’t find extremists in Carsi . Our members support and protect the people and Carsi  is an umbrella under which everyone is included.” I remember Guner saying: “We have heart.”

If we go back in time, Besiktas was established during the late Ottoman period in 1903. Fuat Balkan who had represented Turkey in the 1924 Paris Olympic in Fencing was the president of Besiktas in the early years. He was a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revolutionary army officer who founded the Republic of Turkey. Quite naturally, Atatürk’s sympathy and support gave Besiktas a philosophical foundation of secularist principles and an adherence to hard left-wing politics.

Although Mr. Erdogan is adamant in his stand that “Gezi was a coup attempt, they didn’t succeed,” the Besiktas fans’ trial isn’t the first time he had sought to clear-out dissent from the football pitch. In August 2013, he made Besiktas football club ask its fans to sign a pledge when buying season tickets that they would not raise any political chants during matches that could “trigger mass, political or ideological events.” The fans of course rejected the club’s attempt to make them sign the pledge.

The reason why Mr. Erdogan had been able to whip clubs into line and use them against their own fans was the “uncertainty over the sustainability” of the finances of the clubs. As per Bloomberg, the shareholders’ equity for three of the four Istanbul clubs, Galatasary SC, Besiktas JK and Black Sea club Trabzonspor FC, are negative. Galatasary has accumulated a lot of debts in the recent past to acquire big names like Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder and manager Roberto Mancini and their debt-to-cash ratio is 13:1. The other two cases are even worse, the ratio for Besiktas is 24:1 and Trabzonspor is 40:1.

What is most ironic about targeting football fans by Mr. Erdogan is that he himself was a semi-professional footballer and played for Kasimpasa between 1969 and 1982 before being elected as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

Turkey football dissent
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has scored three goals in an exhibition match to open a new stadium in Istanbul

Money laundering, match fixing and bribery have historically been the scourge of the Turkish football economy. The battle over freedom of expression on the pitch was being waged as Mr Erdogan unveiled what he termed a historic democracy package that granted greater liberties but fell short of the expectations of everyone – liberals, Kurds and Orthodox Christians. The greatest concern about the state of football has been rightly expressed by the football economist and journalist Tugrul Aksar: “If Turkish football isn’t reformed, institutionalized and if all goes as it has so far, Turkish football is doomed to hit a wall.”

As per the statement made by Turkey’s Sport Tourism Union (STB) President Ferit Turgut in December 2015, the country has suffered a loss of 52 million Euros in revenues from visits to football training camps in tourism hot-spot Antalya. Close to 900 pre-planned training camps were cancelled, with the clubs citing security reasons and the Russian jet crisis as the reason for the cancellations.

Hakan Sukur, Turkey’s all-time top scorer chose politics as a career post his retirement from football and joined the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but resigned in December 2013 when a corruption probe targeted Erdogan and the ruling elite. In early 2016, he faced a sedition charge that could send him to jail for up to four years as one of his tweets apparently insulted Erdogan and his son.

On 22nd February, Trabzonspor and Galatasaray were having a feisty encounter. The score was 1-1 and Tranzonspor were already down to nine men when referee Bitnel red-carded Luis Cavanda for a foul and awarded Galatasaray a penalty. The Trabzonspor players started complaining and in the confusion the referee dropped the red card on the ground. At that point, Trabzonspor defender Salih Dursun picked it up and waved it at the referee, who in return held it up to the player as he sent him off as well. Gala won the match 2-1. Dursun received support for his act from both his club and the fans. Trabzonspor chairman Muharrem Usta said: “Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.”

“Salih Dursun showed the red card to Turkish football. This is not a symbol of rebellion. It is a symbol of rebirth.“

The head of Turkey’s central referees’ commission, Kuddusi Muftuoglu, acknowledged: “We share the disappointment of Trabzonspor.”

Trabzonspor's Salih Dursun (R) shows a red card to referee. Source: REUTERS

This year the (in) famous Kıtalar Arası Derbi between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce was to be played on Sunday, 20th March, but the Turkish authorities called off the match just about a couple of hours before kick-off. A brief statement from the Istanbul governor’s office said that the match was postponed following “the assessment of serious intelligence”. No other details were provided. The fans of both the clubs were found arguing with security officials outside Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena Stadium. The unofficial claim is there was a serious bomb threat in the stadium and hence the authorities were forced to cancel the high voltage game. The decision came a day after an Islamic State group linked suicide bomber blew himself up killing four tourists and injuring 36 others on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street of Taksim Square located at the heart of the city. Alarmingly this was the sixth attack since July 2015 and all of them are mostly linked to either ISIS or Kurdish militants.

Away fans are barred from attending the derby games between the Istanbul big-three, Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce. This ban was applied several times in the last decade to avoid violence and has become a norm since 2011. The ban has been extended to men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball games as well. There have been number of protests against this ban but the authority is firm that the ban on the away fans is here to stay.

The Turkish authority has introduced “PASSOLIG” card in conjunction with Turkish law no. 6222 on prevention of violence and disorder in sports. The card is also an attempt to put an end to the era of printed tickets. It’s a multipurpose card which acts as ATM, credit and store discount card and in contracted cities, it also works as transportation card. On the flip side, people need to enter their personal data to register for the card and personal details include their favourite club as well. Fans see this as a way to uphold the ban of the visiting fans in Istanbul which caused serious downfall in attendance in Turkish super league games. This is a serious issue of breaching privacy and most of the common Turkish people see this as an attempt by the government to control football fans.

The Fenerbahce team bus was shot at by a gunman en route to the airport after their 5-1 win over the Black Sea side Caykur Rizespor in their Turkish Super League game on 4th April, 2015. None of the players were injured but the bus driver was wounded and had to be taken to the hospital. The league was suspended for a week after this incident.

Few months later, on 11th August, 2015, Fenerbahce’s 29-year-old Turkish midfielder Mehmet Topal’s car was fired at by a gunman. Topal was returning home along with his team mate Uygar Mert Zeybek after a training session when the car was attacked. Fortunately, Topal’s car was bulletproof and the gunmen could only damage the passenger side of the widescreen without piercing the glass. The club was shocked by this “armed terrorist act” and called the series of events as “peak point of hostility” towards them.

The game between Trabzonspor and Fenerbahce on 24th April, 2016 was abandoned after a Trabzonspor fan assaulted the assistant referee Volkan Bayarslan. The home side were down 4-0 when a Trabzonspor fan jumped onto the field of play and pushed the assistant referee to the ground and punched him. The home fans were already throwing projectiles onto the field from the beginning, after the incident the game was immediately called off.

On 14th May, 2016, Eskisehirspor was playing at home against Istanbul Basaksehir for a win to avoid relegation. Stefano Napoleoni scored for the visiting side early in the second half but Tornike Okriashvili equalised for the host in the 66th minute. However, three minutes into stoppage time Sokol Cikalleshi scored for the away side to finish the match 1-2 which ensured relegation for Eskisehirspor. The fans went crazy and vandalised their ground and some people got seriously injured in the process. Even the stands at Eskisehir Atatürk Stadium were set on fire by some disappointed fans.

The golden time for Turkish national football was between 2002 and 2004. In the 2002 FIFA World Cup, they finished 3rd and repeated the same feat in the 2003 Confederations Cup. They reached their highest FIFA ranking, 5th, in 2004. In the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship, Turkey lost in the semi-final to the eventual runner-up Germany by a 90th minute goal by Philipp Lahm. Since then Turkish football has been going through a crisis. They missed qualifying for the 2012 Euro but made it to Euro 2016 as the best third-placed team after beating the already qualified Iceland 1–0 , in the process ousting another favourite The Netherlands. The tournament will be the first major tournament in eight years for the Turkish national team and it will be interesting to see how they perform in France at a time when their domestic football is in deep crisis. A good show by Arda Turan and his men may pump in some money and bring some long due regulatory measures in Turkish football.