Welcomed at the Gates of Hell

Football derbies are often more important than winning the championship, they often ruin friendship and even blood relationships, but they are always intensely exciting. Indranath Mukherjee provides an account of one of the most (in)famous of football derbies

“How can you do this to us, Indra!” was how Didem had reacted on seeing me browsing through the official website of Fenerbahçe. She, like most of the other project team members, was a diehard Galatasaray fan. During my 20 days stint in the fascinating city, I was planning to visit the Fenerbahçe Stadium as I had read that it is the best stadium in Turkey for design and acoustics. Didem protested again: “Our new stadium is better”. Galatasaray had moved to the Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex Türk Telecom Arena recently, a new stadium with increased capacity recently.

As luck would have it, the Kıtalar Arası Derbi was scheduled on December 7, my last week in the project at Istanbul. “How do I get hold of a ticket?” was my immediate concern. Just so my team members don’t feel they have a novice amongst them when it comes to football, I narrated some stories of watching the game in England and Spain, over lunch. “The experience here will be very different from watching football anywhere else in Europe”, they retorted. And must I say, true to their word, it was…and how!

With a stadium capacity of a little over 50,000 and seats filling fast, getting tickets to the match would have been impossible, had Didem not gone the extra mile to ask her brother a favour – to use his Galatasaray card to book tickets for us. She had used her own to buy tickets for herself and her dad. Her husband being a Fenerbahçe fan had to stay at home, since by law, no Fenerbahçe supporter can go to the Galatasaray stadium for the derby game and vice-versa. The games between the two clubs had often caused mass uprisings in the past and last season’s match-fixing scandal had only added to the tension among fans. The Fenerbahçe president, Aziz Yıldırım is still in prison on charges of bribery.  As many as 92 club officials and football players are still suspect and the trial will begin on February 14, 2012.

Having experienced the madness among Turkish football fans on my first day at Istanbul when Besiktas, the other city rival, had hosted Galatasaray, I was preparing myself for another emotionally charged night of football. But the reality was nothing compared to my imagination. Anticipating heavy traffic on the street, we decided to take the metro and by the time we reached Taksim, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience. Thousands of fans singing together in support of their club wasn’t new to me, but the intensity was clearly manifold higher. It was a rainy evening in Istanbul but that couldn’t dampen the spirit of the Gala fans.

Some of the singing and chanting was clearly targeted at two Fenerbahçe footballers. One of them being Volkan Demirel, the Fenerbahçe goalkeeper, who went on record saying he will not shave his beard until the club president comes out of prison. Didem had said about him: “He always plays against us”. The other was Emre Belözoglu, the 31-year-old midfielder who was one amongst 125 best living footballers in the FIFA 100 chosen by Pelé. He had left Galatasaray to join Internazionale in Italy and then spent three years in Newcastle United in England before moving back to Istanbul to join Fenerbahçe. Gala fans had greeted him with a garland made of money when he first came back to play there. That night, he was being remembered with the choicest of words again.

The Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex TT Arena

The Ali Sami Yen Sports Complex TT Arena, the newly built home of Galatasaray, was absolutely packed with fans. Coming into the game, Fenerbahçe was at the top of the Spor Toto Super League with 28 points from 13 games while Gala at number two with 25 points from equal number of games.

Galatasaray started the game strongly but Volkan made three very good saves which reminded me what Didem had said about him always playing well against the Galas. Fenerbahçe played some good passing game but failed to penetrate in the final third. Felipe Melo of Brazil did a good job of holding for Gala while Johan Elmander gave the Fenerbahçe defence a really tough time. The former Liverpool man Milan Baroš missed a sitter for Gala before the ex-Arsenal man Emmanuel Eboue danced them into the lead in the 32nd minute from an assist by Elmander. Eight minutes later, Elmander grabbed the ball from Bilica (Fabio Alves Da Silva) and netted a goal, thanks to a poor piece of goalkeeping from Volkan.

Fenerbahçe started the second half with a little more composure. Alex de Souza, their Brazilian captain started showing more initiative but Tomáš Ujfaluši was rock solid at the Gala defence. Fenerbahçe had more possession of the ball during this half of the game but they failed to create clear chances for goals. In the 66th minute, the Fenerbahçe defenders were caught sleeping when Melo got a free header to score the third for the Yellow-Reds from a corner from Selçuk İnan. Alex scored a consolation for Fener in the last minute of the game.

Fenerbahçe left too much of space for Felipe Melo to score from a free header to make it 3-0 for Galatasaray

With the 3-1win, Galatasaray moved up to the top in the league standings with superior goal difference. A dejected Aykut Kocaman, the Fener manager revealed after the game: “We are truly very upset. We had to have dominance over Galatasaray and we were supposed to direct the game. However, we failed in meeting our expectations and we did not perform at our utmost in the first half of the game. In the second half, we seemed to play better but that did not help us win the necessary points at the end. Now we have to focus on the upcoming game against Bursaspor.”

In terms of overall quality of football, the game might not have scored enough to be topmost in my memory but the sheer intensity and energy among the Gala fans before, during and after the game sure have. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in words; superlatives like ‘most electrifying’ may also seem understated. They all sang for Cim Bom on their way back home. Even the most helpless of Gala fans hadn’t quite expected the score they saw.  Little wonder that the score was discussed the next day; it will continue to be discussed in offices, bars and bedrooms until the two fiercest of rivals meet again.