This excerpt was taken from Patrick Keddie‘s upcoming book, The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey, on Turkish football culture, ultras and police, politics, match-fixing, war and more.

“The spectators are divided into two sections. Each would encourage the [players] of its own side, and keep swearing at the enemy. Everyone says whatever they want to. Everyone shouts and bawls at will. A freedom of expression, and thought, at full speed… Those who want to understand democracy in a specific sense should go to Taksim Stadium. I, for my part, spent a beautiful and lucid two hours there.”

This account of a football match in the 1920s by the great Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet does not sound much different to today’s spectacle. Taksim Stadium was Turkey’s premier football venue at the time; it hosted Turkey’s first international game in 1923. In 1940 it was demolished and turned into Gezi Park, as the locus of Turkish football shifted down the hill to Dolmabahçe Stadium. Taksim – İstanbul’s most famous square – has always embraced collective emotions, writes the artist Emre Zeytinoglu. Gezi Park, in the north-west corner of the square, is a scrappy mishmash of concrete, patchy grass, playgrounds, fountains, crumbling steps, ad hoc coffee shops, stained and worn benches, half-hearted flower beds, and perhaps more than 600 trees – a rare and awkward and precious green space on the overdeveloped European plateau of the city. Gezi Park’s users represent downtown İstanbul in idling microcosm: office-workers, tourists, refugees, dedicated drinkers, couples, hawkers, families, tea sellers, solitary readers, sex workers.

As mayor of İstanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had supported a decades-old plan for a mosque to be built in Taksim Square. The project ended up being aborted after the 1997 military intervention – many Kemalists had seen it as an attempt to impose an Islamist identity on a symbolically vital square that features a monument dedicated to Ataturk.

In 2012 Erdoğan – then prime minister – announced that the park would be demolished to make space for a  reconstruction of the Ottoman-era Halil Pasha artillery barracks. The run-down barracks had been transformed into Taksim football stadium in 1921. In Erdoğan’s vision, the reconstructed barracks was expected to house a shopping mall, luxury apartments and possibly a museum. Historic buildings and green spaces in İstanbul have repeatedly been slated for destruction under the AKP. Any protests were typically dispersed or ignored, and the land was developed.

Protesters at Gezi Park defied this trend, and many of its fiercest foot soldiers were football fans. Football became an unprecedented site of rebellion, triggering a fierce backlash from the government, and a hugely symbolic struggle over the character of Turkish football fandom. As the government wanted to gentrify Gezi, some say they wanted to gentrify football fans.

‘The “looters” are coming’

The Beşiktaş ultras’ group Çarşı – ‘bazaar’ – formed in the early 1980s and took their name from the marketplace in Beşiktaş, a central district next to the Bosphorus, just down the hill from Taksim Square. ‘Look out for a heavyset bearded guy,’ said Yener Öztürk, a long-standing member of the group in his mid-thirties, before we arranged to meet next to the eagle statue in the heart of the district. We settled in a pub to talk over pints of Guinness, an apt drink for a fan of Beşiktaş, who play in black and white. Çarşı are often associated with left-wing politics – their logo features a version of the anarchist ‘A’ and they are known for social activism: delivering books, clothes and school supplies to earthquake victims, donating blood, and speaking out against racism, fascism, animal cruelty and environmental destruction. Yener may look tough with his heavy-metal beard, all-black attire and arms patterned with tattoos, but he is also a big softy: when not watching football, he spends many of his weekends volunteering at an animal shelter, feeding and playing with the cats and dogs.

While Galatasaray’s origins were among the aristocratic elite of the Galatasaray High School, and Fenerbahçe were originally associated with the bourgeoisie, Beşiktaş sought to position themselves as the working-class underdogs. ‘There is a saying – “Beşiktaş iç sesidir”: “Beşiktaş is your inner voice,”’ said Yener. ‘You have to be willing to help other people, treat them the way you would want to be treated, help the less fortunate if you can – that’s just the way a lot of people here were brought up.’

Despite their left-wing associations, Çarşı have members from all backgrounds, with views across the political spectrum. Çarşı are held together by their particular love for Beşiktaş, expressed in poetic intensity, longing,  melancholy and humour in banners and songs:

‘I saw you on a rainy day / You were wearing your striped jersey,’ begins one Beşiktaş song:
‘I was stricken that moment, I fell in love
The meaning of life was black and white
The line that separates death from life
Cannot separate black from white
Even if all roads end in death
No one can come between lovers.’

With such love come corollaries – disappointment, bitterness, betrayal. Players who fail to demonstrate sufficient passion are told to take off their shirts and play naked. Çarşı congregated under the Kapalı – the covered stand – in their old İnönü Stadium, where the acoustics would amplify a formidable din. Beşiktaş can plausibly claim to be the world’s loudest football fans – they hit a record 141 decibels at their final match in the stadium in 2013.

Çarşı can also be fiercely antagonistic and irreverent, known for their humour – particularly when it comes to their most hated rivals, Fenerbahçe. Beşiktaş have a famous song, known as the ‘Fener Opera’, in which they pledge to stop swearing, before the chorus rings out: ‘But one last time / suck my dick, Fener.

Some of Çarşı’s most famous chants include ‘Çarşı is against everything,’ and ‘Çarşı is against itself.’ Çarşı’s main weapon might be humour, but they have also often battled rival fan groups and clashed with the police. ‘Before the whole Gezi thing a lot of Çarşı fans owned gas masks,’ said Yener, ‘so we were used to all that.’ The decision to raze Gezi Park had been officially made in February 2013, but a protest movement to save the space had been growing over several months. On the evening of 27 May 2013, bulldozers demolished a park wall and began uprooting trees. A crowd gathered and set up a peaceful protest camp to try to prevent any further destruction. Erdoğan was belligerent from the outset: ‘Even if hell breaks loose, those trees will be uprooted.

Over the next few days the police cleared the camps, but the protesters just set them up again. Yener stopped in at the sit-in on 30 May: ‘It was just 30 to 40 hippies in tents having beers, nothing out of the ordinary.’ Just before dawn on 31 May, the police used extreme violence to clear the encampment and set fire to tents – several protesters were hospitalised with head injuries or breathing difficulties. The police sealed off the park; they probably thought it was all over. But something inside many people snapped. Hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands took to the streets to chant anti-government slogans – not just in İstanbul, but in many cities across Turkey. They fought running battles with the police in streets echoing with the sound of firecrackers and clouded with endless volleys of tear gas. Protesters began digging up paving stones and building barricades.

On the first day of the protests Çarşı were hesitant, unsure whether to join. But they saw the brutality on TV: the police tear-gassing and chasing children and old people through the streets, pursuing protesters and spraying water cannon and tear gas wherever they took refuge: into restaurants, hotels, a hospital. Police vehicles crushed bodies, police batons cracked skulls, projectiles made contact with heads and eyes. ‘We thought – we can’t just stand still and do nothing,’ said Yener. Thousands gathered in Beşiktaş on the second day of the protests and marched the short way up the hill to Taksim Square. ‘The roads were blocked by the cops but when they saw us [coming] they moved,’ he laughed.

Erdoğan had derided the protesters as ‘çapulcu ’ – ‘looters’ – and protesters happily appropriated the name. ‘The çapulcu are coming,’ chanted Beşiktaş fans as they entered the square wearing their black-and-white jerseys. Many held Çarşı scarves. Thousands of fans from other football clubs also joined the protests. The Taksim demonstration was the first time that significant numbers of fans from different İstanbul teams set aside their history of mutual loathing to unite in protest. Fans of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray protested together, chanting: ‘Down with fascism: Cim Bom, Fener, Çarşı!’ ‘It was one of the best things I’ve seen in my life,’ said Yener, ‘because I never expected to see a Fenerbahce fan in arms with a Galatasaray fan walking down the street together. I saw a Fenerbahçe fan take off his jersey, rip it, and tear it round a bleeding Galatasaray fan’s leg.’ The phenomenon
was dubbed ‘İstanbul United’ by some in the media.

Football fans joined protests across the country. In Ankara, Ankaragücü fans joined Gençlerbirliği supporters in the streets. In İzmir, supporters of bitter foes Göztepe and Karşıyaka joined forces with supporters of other clubs in a kind of ‘İzmir United’ protest. In Adana, the vicious rivalry between Adanaspor and Adana Demirspor was – mostly – set aside as they also joined forces in the streets, although limited skirmishes also broke out between the two sets of supporters.

For some, the coming together of fans was symbolic and epitomised the blurring of borders that had brought all kinds of people to the streets. Like the leftists, feminists, LGBT activists, Kurdish groups and others who came together in the Gezi protests, many football fans were experienced and adept at facing the fury of the police in the streets. Football fans fortified barricades, helped with first aid, adroitly dealt with tear gas and battled the security forces. Beşiktaş fans hot-wired a bulldozer from a construction site close to İnönü Stadium and used it to harry the police. The protesters successfully occupied Taksim Square and Gezi Park, creating a festival vibe in their hard-won, shared space. They sang songs, gave speeches, cooked, prayed, made art, held debates and workshops, and practised yoga.

The argument that Çarşı and other football fans ‘saved the day’ was overblown and perhaps belittles the many others who instigated the protests before football fans turned up. However, there’s little doubt that football fans were among the most effective street fighters of the protests. Football fans swelled the numbers, raised morale and injected an element of abandon.

A court’s decision on 31 May to temporarily suspend the demolition of the park failed to quell the uprising. Beyond the initial aim of saving Gezi Park, and outrage at police brutality, a range of other grievances came to the fore during the protests, mostly relating to Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism.

Among those present were Kemalists and some nationalists angered by the AKP’s increasing promotion of Islamic values in education and throughout wider society; those enraged by the AKP’s support of Islamist and jihadist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war; feminists angered by Erdoğan’s retrograde attitudes towards women; LGBT people who had suffered under the AKP’s growing social conservatism; anti-capitalist Muslims angry at the AKP’s economic policies favouring big businesses; Kurds; environmentalists; urbanists; yoga practitioners; the list goes on and on. Some were upset by hostility shown towards Alevis, epitomised by the naming of the third Bosphorus bridge after ‘Selim the Grim’, an Ottoman sultan infamous for massacring Alevis.

Many were alarmed by the AKP’s growing intolerance of dissent and freedom of expression. Turkey has historically been a repressive state for journalists, but under Erdoğan media repression has become increasingly severe as thousands of websites have been banned, social media has been periodically suspended, media outlets have been seized by the government or shut down, and ever greater numbers of journalists have been harassed, sued, arrested and jailed. The extent to which the media has been cowed by Erdoğan was epitomised by CNN Turk’s decision to screen a documentary about penguins instead of covering the outbreak of the protests. Many found Erdoğan’s abrasive manner infuriating, with his propensity for hubris and bullying, his total rejection of criticism, his eagerness to control people’s private lives and his divisive rhetoric. Many were angered by the government’s restrictions on alcohol: Erdoğan has described anyone that drinks as an alcoholic and once claimed bafflement as to why people drink wine when they could just eat the grapes. Alcohol is symbolic for many of Kemalist values.

‘We have never seen any democracy in Turkey,’ argues Gökhan Karakaya, who was, until recently, a member of the largest Galatasaray ultras’ group, ultrAslan. ‘Whoever leads the country always tries to impose their beliefs. But [Erdoğan] did it the most.’

Above all, says Gökhan, antipathy towards the police, stoked through their regular violent encounters, brought football fans together. ‘Be sure that most supporters hate police in Turkey,’ he said. ‘Religious, nationalist, left-wing – it doesn’t matter. They hate police.’

While the protests revealed the depth of the animosity towards Erdoğan and his government, he also enjoys huge support. Counter-Gezi protests formed in which thousands gathered to show their backing of the government. Erdoğan railed against the Gezi demonstrators, calling them alcoholics, spies, traitors and the stooges of foreign powers.

Over time the Gezi protests gradually lost their force. Opposition parties and groups sought to join and capitalise on the protests, leading some Çarşı members to become disgruntled and leave. Everyday life and work loomed again. After a couple of unsuccessful violent attempts, the police finally succeeded in clearing the park and the square on 15 June 2013. Millions had taken part nationwide, thousands were injured, and at least 11 people died. Yet, sporadic protests continued throughout the summer. Despite the divisions among the protesters, it felt to some as if a political and cultural movement – albeit messy, contradictory, inchoate and divided – had begun to emerge. And, for the moment, the ark had been saved. Meanwhile, football became an unprecedented site of rebellion.