Warning - don't bother with this entry if you're not interested in football...


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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
December 17th 2007
Published: December 17th 2007
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Istanbul. Almost Australia’s entire population crammed into a bustling, vibrant metropolis encompassing two continents. It’s funny - we were chatting to a bloke in Tehran who lives in Basel in Switzerland and we found it amusing how he used to go over the border to Germany to do his grocery shopping. Well, last night we left our hotel, jumped on a ferry and had dinner in a different continent…

It’s quite bizarre though having arrived here from Iran - you seem to experience culture shock in reverse (counter-culture shock I suppose) - it just seemed so odd to see blokes standing around drinking beer, women without headscarfs (and the latest in cutting edge fashion), couples holding hands (and even kissing occasionally - right there on the street!!)

We’re staying in a lovely hotel in Curtakan, the only room on the top floor, and as I sit here typing this, sipping a beer that feels long overdue, we can see out over the Golden Horn, the Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara, as well as the twinkling lights on the Asian side of the city. Both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are just a few hundred metres away and we’re nestled in between lovely cobbled streets almost totally devoid of traffic - the peaceful ambience only ruptured by the calls to prayer, the first of which kicks off at around five thirty in the morning (we’ve also been blessed with a minaret just metres from our window which delivers this beautiful but oh so loud call before the sun has even considered peaking out over the city…)

Oh..before I delve into the rest of this entry, I have finally managed to upload a few shots from Iran - they've been added to the last blog so check them out if you have a spare moment. Anyway...

Our first night here was an incredible experience for me, and I understand that not all of you are that interested in the football - so, if you ignored the title and read on, take the opportunity now and please feel free to skip the rest of this blog…

When we were obliged to bypass our train trip along the Iraqi border due to the daily-increasing tensions between the Turks and the Kurds and booked a flight to Istanbul instead, I happened (quite accidentally of course) upon the upcoming football fixtures and noted with much interest that Fenerbahce were due to play their final Champions League group game here on the day that we arrived. Luckily, we have some family friends in Istanbul who, after a grovelling and pleading email, managed to secure two of the heavily sought after tickets, so myself and Ingrid’s 13 year old stepson, Aytuk, headed off to the game.

We arrived at the Fenerbahce ground about an hour and a half before kickoff and the stadium was already half full. The chants and noise grew over the next ninety minutes as the terraces rapidly filled with a mass of yellow and blue clad fans.

I have watched quite a few matches over the years, all around the world. I’ve sat in Old Trafford with a full house as United demolished Chelsea and Cantona set the crowd alight. I’ve watched Gary Linekar score his final goal for England in a 2-2 draw with Russia in a packed Lenin Stadium (15 cents a ticket) in Moscow and armed troops escorted us home to prevent any outbreak of hooligan violence. I’ve stood behind the goal with the Parisian skinheads and yelled abuse at the Germans during a Champions League game at the Parc de Princes. I’ve downed copious beers in Melbourne with 55 000 others as the Victory destroyed Adelaide 6-0 in last years Grand Final. And just recently, I participated in the rampant exuberance of a Persepolis game in the pouring rain in Tehran. Nothing, and I really mean nothing, that I’ve ever experienced compares to the atmosphere of a football match in Istanbul.

In brief, after five rounds Fenerbahce were sitting second in their group (having beaten Inter at home already - that in itself shows the intimidating effect of an intense Turkish crowd). However, PSV were just a point behind so while the Yellow Canaries were in pole position, anything less than the win could see them out before the knockout stage. To add even more intensity to the clash was the fact the Fenerbahce had never progressed past the first round in their illustrious 100 year old history…

The abuse, whistles and jeering started as the CSKA players came onto the pitch to warm up. And by abuse, it was not the odd catcall or insult, but every one of those present uniting to create a shrill, deafening cacophony of whistles, so loud that it literally hurt your ears and left an ever-present ringing tone for much of the next day. I couldn’t tell you the name of one Russian player as the announcer’s reading of the team sheet was received with such a dense wall of sound that it drowned out everything else. And during the game, every single time a CSKA player touched the ball, this deafening whistling would erupt yet again. Even the players, professionals and supposedly used to this sort of reception, looked visibly shaken.

The Fenerbahce players however, were received like gods and they continually interacted with the crowd during their warm up, encouraging the rapturous noise yet further. When kick-off finally arrived, the chanting began in earnest. For those of you who’ve been to the Victory games, imagine the ‘north-end, south-end’ chants and then incorporate an east and a west. And then magnify the noise levels by ten. Every single person joined in the myriad of chants as they rolled clockwise around the stadium. By the second half, physical displays were accompanying the chants (kowtowing, scarf waving, vertical hand claps) so that the opposite end was a perfectly synchronised mass of rabid gesticulation. It was truly an amazing sight and I stood captivated and in awe as the noise and sight flowed over and around me…

As for the game itself, the thunder completely disappeared (it’s so bizarre to go from such intensity to absolute silence in an instant) in the 32nd minute as a Turkish defender mistimed a clearance and the ball trickled in for an own goal. Minutes later however, Alex de Souza (like Victory last year, there is a sublime Brazilian essence to this team, although theirs is of a slightly higher quality than ours - Roberto Carlos plays at left back and none other than the legendary Zico is their coach) sent a thunderbolt from outside the box into the top corner. The stadium absolutely erupted, I know in an earlier blog I’d talked about the mad mosh-style celebrations at Persepolis but, and I apologise for repeating myself, this was really something else. I was suddenly hugging these great hairy Turkish blokes, tears of pure, unashamed jubilation welling in their eyes. After the early scare, the tide seemed to have turned and when the Turks scored another right on the stroke of halftime, the crowd and the atmosphere seemed to lift even further. The second half felt more like a carnival with the continuous chanting and when the news came through the PSV were down 1-0, it really seemed like a tremendous weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the fans. In the dying seconds, Ugur scored his second and Fenerbahce’s third and the festivities really began as a torrent of blue and yellow confetti raining down on the crowd. We staggered out amongst the crushing sea of jubilation and slowly made our way home - really I felt like I did when I went to the match at Old Trafford at the age of fifteen, just like a little kid with this silly grin on his face, totally enraptured at the passions that football manages to inspire around the world.

Oh...and while I'm on about it, special thoughts go out to Adam, James & Robbie - Jane and I sat there swigging the local Efes brew and thoroughly enjoyed watching you poor little scousers lose to the mighty United - yet again. You are all in my thoughts on this wonderful day...ha ha ha...

Anyway, I apologise profusely for boring those of you who hold no interest in football and unwisely chose to ignore my warning to skip this entry. Apparently Istanbul has loads of mosques and palaces and stuff, but today, it was all about the football…






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