Come up the steps of this hotel, there's something you should see while we explain this setup to you. First, there is this soccer game. It takes place in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people founded around two thousand years ago, a city so old it has Viking graffiti in its Muslim mosque which was once a Catholic church built for an emperor. Nothing can happen here that has not already happened, and yet people are very, very excited about a soccer game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, Istanbul's two oldest and bitterest rivals.
Keep following this way, and into the claustrophobic Euro-sized elevator to the roof of this insane Agatha Christie movie set of a hotel. This elevator is slow, so it will take a minute, so more details while we wait for the view you're going to get up here. The first time the two teams played in 1909, they were playing in the Ottoman Empire, and none of the Turkish players had their own surnames. The first real brawl between fans happened in 1934, and the series has been played through two World Wars, dictatorships, revolutions, and every other hiccup of history. Fans have been brawling in this series since 1934 — pre-antibiotic tussles.
The elevator didn't trap us. Now walk out, and look around. Over the years pink paisley wallpaper found its way to the walls of this place, and the Turkish national addiction to chandeliers crept in and started festooning hallways with squid-like white ceramic lighting fixtures. The carpet is all dimmed curlicues of some pattern the English language gave up on making an adjective for, and there is a peacock figurine peering down at you when you reach the hallway leading to the rooftop bar.
Someone has been killed conspiratorially here, and it was fabulously done.
Someone has been killed conspiratorially here, and it was fabulously done.
You're supposed to stay awake to kill jet lag and acclimate as soon as possible, so have a beer and stare out from this rooftop bar. You could care about how tired you might be after flying fifteen hours to get here, but you're too busy watching the sun burn down through air pollution, and ozone, and a layer of dust blown off the land. It's thick enough to let your eye sit on the sun directly, letting it sit on your eyeball for a second like it sits on the water of the Golden Horn, frying the whole thing into coppery ripples rolling toward the sea. (It's really called that, by the way, because everything in Turkish sounds dramatic. The word for a dentist, one of the most boring things in the world? "TEETHMASTER.")
The off-white poured concrete block apartments are turning sandy brown around you. They are wedged in between new, horrid glass-paneled office buildings from the 1980s and Parisian-looking apartments from the 1920s and 30s. A few wooden Ottoman era houses stick out like dark holes in the honeycombed landscape.
It could be fatigue, sure. But you could be pardoned for thinking it looked like the end of the world, like the sun was having a stroke and firing out its last, longest rays in one short protest before turning the entire world into a dark, unlit tunnel of doomed history. Even if it were the end, the two biggest soccer teams in soccer-mad Istanbul, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, are still going to play a game.
You are going to be there, but first you have to look at all this Istanbul, simmering in a silty bath of sunset light. You'll have to take it in for just a few minutes from this weird Istanbul hotel rooftop. Then, you'll have to accept that at the end of all that history the net result of all that civilization and progress will be the same: the citizens of the city screaming for blood at a game involving two nets, a ball, and bad, evil people from somewhere else.
If you set out to play SimCity on hard, you would get something that looks like Istanbul. Your splines would be reticulated with great cruelty, a series of hills so steep the city built a funicular railway from the shore of Karaköy to the top of one just for the fat bankers who got tired of walking up the beast in the heat of an Istanbul summer.
There would be water — unpredictable waters that very large ships have to pass through one at a time, each bobbing and waiting in line like so many cats lingering around the back door of a butcher's shop. If you want to find the sex workers of Istanbul, draw a beeline from the waiting ships to shore, and follow lonely sailors. If you want to find the Ukraine, hang a left at the docks of Dolmabahçe Palace, and keep going until you hit Sevastopol.
The shores of the Bosphorus are lined with timber mansions and palaces. Most are utterly uninsurable. The odd currents of the strait push large ships and small into them with impressive frequency. If it's a small boat, the damage is recouped. If a Russian oil tanker plows into your house, no insurance company in the world will understand your pain. And that tanker may very well be Russian, since thanks to their gentle insistence they can sail whatever they like through the strait since the waters are international. To get to Galatasaray's stadium from the bars of Beyoğlu, you need only get on the Metro. A trip over to Asia, however, involves traveling through international waters, and polite dodging and skipping around whatever behemoth is barreling down the birth canal of the old world and out to sea.
Try to tunnel under all of it, and hit the layer cake of humanity's back pages the whole city is built on, over, around, and under. The most recent tunnel project hit pre-Byzantine ruins, postponing construction while the Ministry of Culture figured out what the hell to do with another chunk of the city's history that construction had knocked loose.
The city has so many spare parts from so many civilizations that even its restoration efforts use the scraps. The heads of Medusa in the Basilica Cistern — used as the bases of support columns for the cistern's roof — came from somewhere else, though from exactly where is unclear. The statue celebrating the Greeks' victory over the Persians is just sitting in the middle of the Hippodrome, because well, sure. It might as well be there, in an old place filled with fragments from no fewer than four different empires.
Istanbul suffers from its own unkillable, unplanned, and unpredictable success.
If it weren't hard enough — the disconnected hills separated by water they sometimes don't even govern — Istanbul suffers from its own unkillable, unplanned, and unpredictable success. Despite being located on a fault line big enough to cough up earthquakes that have ended societies, the building continues. Construction cranes pivot grandiosely over the road from Ataturk Airport, building 20 story apartment blocks along the water. Workers weld without goggles in the street.
And there is more: plagues, war, and the trampling of millions (literally millions, hundreds of millions at this point) of the dead and living across one of the world's only natural universal joints. There is evidence that people have been living in the area for eight thousand years, older than Paris, older than Rome, older than even Beijing. For most of those eight thousand years, those people have lived under someone's very heavy thumb: the Persians, the Greeks, the Byzantine Emperors, the Ottoman Sultans.
Plague, fire, plaguefire, war, more war, World Wars, revolution, floods, storms, urbacidal earthquakes, riots, ethnic rioting, genocide, the Crusades, depressions, famine, poverty, AIDS, typhus, religious schisms, millennia of corruption, impossible geographies, and the overturn of entire ways of life by others have not killed Istanbul, because Istanbul is unkillable. It is a daywalking vampire of a city sipping tea with a stake in its heart and a necklace of garlic knotted around its neck. It could not die if it wanted to, and will be thrown clear of the earth's wreckage when the sun dies intact and most likely sitting down to some tea, and maybe a game of backgammon before watching the game.
These are the positions of the teams, if those can even be considered important here. Galatasaray's only real hope in making up the gap between themselves is to visit utter ruination on the rest of their schedule, beat Fenerbahce at their home stadium, and then hope for a total collapse by Fenerbahce, the team who can still win the Turkish Süper Lig even without the Champions League spot. There will be no rioting by Fenerbahce fans, and none to sit in the fortified opposition section in Türk Telekom stadium beneath the security nets strung over the seats. They've been banned. The match will be 50,000 on eleven, not counting Fenerbahçe reserves and coaches.*
*The bans are nothing new, and come and go, but it is very much worth noting that the most recent round of fan restrictions between the big three of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Besiktas occurred after rioting broke out between Galatasaray and Besiktas supporters AT A WHEELCHAIR BASKETBALL GAME.
Feel no pity for outmanned, unsupported Fenerbahçe. At the point just before their second match against Galatasaray, Fenerbahce most likely has the 2013-2014 Turkish Süper Lig season won. They can't win, at least in the sense of Fenerbahce getting a coveted spot in the Champions' League because of a match-fixing scandal. When the team's President returned to the country after addressing the charges with FIFA, he was met at the airport by hundreds of cheering Fenerbahce fans. They believe the scandal is a conspiracy because ... because it just is.
Fenerbahce really doesn't care if you think they were match-fixing, or about the Champions League snub. What they will get is the Istanbul title, and new stars on the uniform, and scandal be damned, another title over Galatasaray. At this point in the season, that seems like all but a given. Then, in celebration, they'll probably throw things into the pressbox.
The exchange of that kind of loyalty in exchange for emotional expression is fandom anywhere, really. Yet in Turkish soccer it can buy more than say, the average affection for an NFL team will get you in the United States. The currency of loyalty can be exchanged in any number of directions for Turkish soccer fans. It can buy seats thrown into the pressbox, as it did for Fenerbahçe fans shortly after the announcement of an investigation into their alleged match-fixing. That currency can buy protection, as it did during the xenophobic riots of 1955, Fenerbahce fans and players protected the team's Greek star Lefter Küçükandonyadis from angry mobs. It can buy political muscle at the street level, as it did when Besikitas fans, and in particular their fan club Çarsi, coordinated and participated in many of the anti-government protests in 2013. It can buy improv engineering, as in the 2013 incident when ticketless Galatasaray fans were caught attempting to tunnel into a match against Schalke in their home stadium in Germany.
The simplest exchange of all: emotion given in the name of violence. A 2013 match between Galatasaray and Besiktas collapsed into total chaos after Galatasaray midfielder Felipe Melo was red carded — and that was after notable, Worldstar-quality street fighting between Besiktas supporters and Galatasaray crews before the match. The 2012 derby between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce ended with police protecting Galatasaray players with riot shield, and with a Galatasaray supporter stabbed in the street.
There will be security. There are so many reasons to have that security, and not all of them have to do with soccer.
— Galatasaray chant
Every street in Istanbul smells like roasted chestnuts. You never see anyone buy one, much less a bag of them. People do scarf down simit, the pretzel-ish bread somewhere between a sesame stick and pretzel, all sold by the same red carts advertising the low, low price of one Turkish Lira.
The men are on the street all day and the simit business is run by the government, so it's assumed they work for the government. They might not, or they might, because it is really hard to get away from the idea that the government wants their authority to be known. The white military tower overlooking Taksim Square in the distance has a guard peering out on each corner. He will wave you off if you take a picture of the building, if you somehow managed to ignore the scary-ass red signs reading "THIS IS A MILITARY INSTALLATION" in no fewer than four languages.
There are police in Minis — Istanbul is a peppy hatchback town for the most part, and even the police prefer them — and mysterious government types in Ford Focuses. They crackle to life when their unmarked lights go off, and people clear the way for them without a single honk. In larger intersections and in Taksim square there are big police riot busters with extendable ram-plow arrangements rigged to the grilles. Their windows are covered in wire mesh, and the sides are reinforced with plate metal. According to locals, they can move a lot faster than you might think they can.
It's hard to know where the security apparatus ends and the fog of rumor begins.
It's hard to know precisely where the security apparatus ends and the fog of rumor begins. Turkish has a hypothetical tense, a way of saying something that is said to be true. The simit men might be police, or at least it is said that they could be. The police might be fully licensed to fire tear gas from their paintball guns full of CS pellets at the Galatasaray match on Sunday.
What is known is that the police are out and out in numbers. Somewhere on the tram between Kadıköy and Sultanahmet a squad of fifteen policemen fixing gloves to their hands and moving at a light trot pass, followed by two more clumps of very serious looking police in blue uniforms moving from the opposite direction. Their target: a peaceful bunch of people in suits and ties holding a few signs and walking at a creep along the Shore Road, a lawyerly group probably outnumbered by the cops, and incapable of taking a chestnut cart, much less fifty cops ready to start zip-tying people at the wrists and tossing them into waiting vans.
For all the security displays, Turks do a great job ignoring all the flexing. The Twitter ban crumbled online before it ever died in the Turkish courts. The YouTube ban — also struck down in court shortly after the Twitter band ended — was circumvented by many with VPN and other online widgets cloaking the location of the user. Most used it for extremely apolitical purposes, like watching the video of a cat dressed up like Bane. (Actual quote on the matter: "I couldn't watch Bane Cat. What kind of bullshit is that?")
The cats and dogs of Istanbul are its best rebels. Cats wander freely through the fences of military installations, eating and shitting and pissing where they like in between long suspicious stares at passersby. Just behind the military museum behind the big scary military apartment building you definitely should not take a picture of, a ring of statues rolls clockwise through Turkish history. There is a statue of Attila the Hun, and Timur the Lame, and then Ataturk, huge and bronze and gesturing in the general direction of a blood-red Turkish flag.
A dog sprinted across the park, circling and setting down in the grass to gnaw a bone he'd found somewhere. Two other dogs followed in tow, waiting with all the intensity of a thousand suns for the hound to drop it. He ignored the soldiers and the signs and the other dogs and everyone else, gnawing on a meal at the feet of the father of the nation.
Turkish beer is awful. It is brewed with sugar, and at best tastes like the ghost of some horrid and defunct Midwestern piss-punch, but Turks drink it. They drink Raki, and horrible Efes beer, and overpay for Tuborg because hell, it's not Efes, and like everyone else shell out for American whiskey for the right and wrong reasons. (Wrong: it's expensive and fashionable, and right: it's good, and will get you moonshot drunk in a very short span of time.)
Turks drink shots, too, doled out on barrels outside shot bars in cluster bomb fashion. You could theoretically buy one shot, but the menus in Beyoğlu start with five, and not always for group consumption. You can have a walking beer on Saturday nights as long as you're not causing a problem. Based on the level of ruckus in Istanbul on a Saturday night, "problem" would be somewhere north of openly attacking strangers, and south of "one person riot."
And there is a cutoff for booze sales, and there are the periodic attempts to limit where people can drink, but to be in the midst of a city that is avowedly Muslim and stumble into a hornet's nest of shot bars full of Iranians who flew in just to get trashed clear and legal, locals pregaming two days early for a soccer game, and tipsy expats asking all the wrong people for hash ... it is all very life-affirming, and a reminder that Islam is nowhere near as monolithic as you might think it is, even if you knew that in theory.
There is the knowing you get from reading, and being told, and then there's seeing a Galatasaray fan leveling what's left of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black before entering the stadium. Ataturk deposed a king and built a nation, and he died of cirrhosis at the age of 57. A lot of Turks have taken this not as warning, but as an indication of productivity through medication.
A group of Galatasaray fans walking down Istiklal, maybe seven or eight guys you'd call bros or possibly dudes, meander toward the Metro stop in Taksim Square. One carries an open bottle of Jack Daniels. They share it, passing it back and forth with grimaces in between verses of a chant.
Fuck your mother's ass
Fuck your mother's ass
They make their way past the gates of Galata high school, out of the shadows of Beyoğlu and into brilliant sunlight afternoon sunlight blackening everything into a high-exposure frame of exploding humanity. The subway runs right to the new stadium, an improvement on the old method of delivering Galatasaray fans to the stadium. Fans used to ride en masse in buses, and shoot flares and firecrackers out of the windows as they went.
The call to prayer begins to wind its way down from a minaret somewhere. The group, still chanting about some Fenerbahçe fan's mother's ass, quiets down, with two or three of the bros shushing until they take a respectful silence. They take the moment to top off their Cokes with the remainder of the Jack before getting on the subway.
He is missing the index finger from the first knuckle on his right hand. His intact left hand is wrapped around a glass full of what appears to be raki, and he is wearing a shirt with UA HOLIGAN in iron-on looking letters on the back. His pockets are stuffed with firecrackers — not babyish state-legal firecrackers you find in the grocery store parking lot, but the monstrous illegal chinese pipe-crackers that could take a hand off. Or a finger. They might be able to take a finger, or specific, raki-holding fingers off, too.
There is more chanting involving Fenerbahçe's abused assholes, and Galatasaray, many made by request by randoms on the train who become unrandom simple by wearing the same soccer jersey. The age range of those participating is astonishing: old men are chanting along, and smashing their fists into the roof of the train to keep the beat along with guys in their twenties pounding on the windows. The men who would be taciturn boosters or yelling down in front! at football games in the United States are leading the charge here, and not even trying to stop the man with one missing finger from doing what he is doing, which is laughing, swilling raki, grinning, and then throwing lit firecrackers into metro stations just before the train pulls away.
He giggles and tosses one out into the cavernous space of a metro station. Everyone on the train starts to giggle, and their voices rise in a single escalating pitch:
The explosion is loud, loud enough to be a real bomb, or at least a real something going off, because while Turkey is not Israel or Iraq, it is closer to the part of the world where things randomly explode, or at the very least froth over into protests involving helmeted death police and clouds of tear gas more often than they do in the United States. No one else seems bothered, not even the random police standing on metro stations. They do not flinch.
There is a man's face beaming with what can only be described as idiot excitement.
More singing, more chanting, and then a rush of bodies--this is a clearing out, a very defined mass rush away from something. Over a wall of shoulders draped in red and yellow, there is a man's face beaming with what can only be described as idiot excitement. It is the face of a dad as he guns a new car down a hill with the kids in the back at easily thirty miles over the speed limit. It is the face of a budding pyromaniac, or the smile on a bar patron's face when the first pint glass has been thrown across the bar, and every piece of unbolted material will rain sideways through the air in the flash-fire of a fight. It is the look of a child who figured out that the sockets are filled with electricity, and is trying to talk their sibling into making the same discovery with their finger.
This man is pointing down toward a gentle hissing from the floor. He is giggling, and puts his fingers in his ears. Voices rise.
The firecracker explodes, and splits the air in the car and floods the space with white smoke. Ears ring. To the left there is a kid, maybe twelve or so, smiling the same idiot's smile and laughing hysterically as tiny, sound- hairs lay down dead in his ears forever. He looks ecstatic.
Volkan Demirel (GK): Volcano Ironhand
Egemen Korkmaz (DF): Sovereign Unflinching
Selçuk Şahin (MF): Selcuk (medieval Turkic empire) Hawk
Mert Günok (GK): Manly Day's Arrow
Ibrahim Serdar Aydın (DF): Ibrahim, Marshall of the Crescent Religion
Salih Uçan (MF): Righteous Aircraft
Serdar Kesimal (DF): Marshall Takes My Share
Caner Erkin (MF): Manly Blood Mature
Hamit Altıntop (MF): Protector of the Golden Ball
Aydin Yılmaz (MF): Crescent Religion Dauntless
Burak Yılmaz (FW): Dauntless Thunder
Umut Bulut (FW): Hope Cloud
Hakan Balta (DF): King Axe
Ibrahim Coşkun (MF): Ibrahim the Ebullient
Yekta Kurtuluş (MF): Unique Independence
Berk Ismail Ünsal (FW) Solid Ismail comes to the forefront
Eray İşcan (GK): Manly Moon Beloved Work
The subway disgorges Galatasaray fans directly into a long tunnel — let's call it a chute, like the ones in large cattle slaughterhouses — that after a blind turn to the left puts you on a beeline for Türk Telekom Arena. There is the stadium in front of you, shaped like a Swedish coffee table like every other modern football stadium in Europe, and a long corral of fences on every other side. The tops are angled in to prevent someone scaling the fence and throwing rocks at the opposing team's buses.
Galatasaray fans have climbed the fences and are waiting to throw rocks at Fenerbahçe's bus as it rolls down the highway to the stadium. While they wait, they buy corn and kebab off a vendor, munching, pacing shadows on the ridgeline testing out various rocks for weight and talking to other fans as they pass.
Someone has climbed into a half-finished apartment building adjacent to the subway chute, and is dropping red flares on improvised parachutes down. They hang burning in the air, and float down to the road below on a lazy trajectory. Occasionally someone will spark up a flare on the ground, a chorus of cheers going up with each one. The police massed over in the corner pay slightly more attention when this happens, nervously spitting sunflower seeds to the ground and fidgeting with their tear gas cannons and riot shields.
One cop buys a pack of sunflower seeds off a kid and looks at him and tells him "Don't let me see you again."
There is something deeply odd and tense about a group of soccer fans amassed with no other to rage against. On one hand, since Fenerbahçe fans aren't here, there is no one specifically to detonate in the general direction of, no other — a truly weird thing since fandom works on the notion of us v. them, an other representing every cowardly, craven, hideous, and inferior thing you have defined yourself against. On the other, Galatasaray fans stabbed two Leeds United supporters to death in 2000 during the UEFA semifinals, had a match abandoned due to rioting as recently as last year, and staged a series of running skirmishes with the Spanish police after a match with Real Madrid in 2013, and stormed the studios of a Turkish TV station whose commentators predicted an early exit for the club.* They left only when they realized they could not get into the studio where the on-air talent was actually having the discussion.
*Please consider the wonder of an angry mob breaking into the studios of First Take and beating Skip Bayless until he admitted that LeBron James was more than capable of carrying a team, and was in fact a true winner and champion. Then remember that not even Turkish soccer fans or any other angry mob would travel to Bristol, Connecticut for love or money.
That other — the thing to stab, beat, scream at, throw flares at, and exist to antagonize — is only here in the form of the team, its coaches, and that bus, the bus speeding at a robust clip from left to right and tracking across the ridge line, the bus currently clacking and clicking with the sound of carefully chosen rocks thrown by Galatasaray fans. The team bus is obvious: a blue and yellow luxury coach outlined against the gray sky. It gets a solid spray of road shrapnel, but just to be sure the rock throwers pelt the buses accompanying it just in case they're using decoys.
On the way into the stadium there are a few of those Dalek-looking police vans with the people plows on the front of it. A kid, no older than ten and wearing a Galatasaray jersey, smiles and kicks it as he walks by.
The stands do not fill up immediately for the same reason they do not start totally full at college football games: the stragglers are outside trying to put as much alcohol as their system as possible. Walking in you pass the empty shells of booster rockets tossed clear by orbiters bound for the stadium. There are Efes Malt tall boys, and bottles of Tuborg. A bottle of Johnny Walker Black sits tossed aside by a throng of riot police.
"FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK FENERBAHÇE" rolls around the fringes of the stadium. Security guards deliver grippy pat-downs at the gate. At noon it was in the seventies in Istanbul, but the temperature took a dive sometime in the last hour. A cold wind is hacking from left to right. The sun is gone entirely.
Up a flight of stairs, and another, and still another until the stadium opens up and shows you its ribs, its skeleton, all of it built to contain, control, and channel something monstrous, bloody, and angry. U-shaped bands of metal line the back of every row to prevent rolling human stampedes down the stands. A net hangs over the empty visiting fan section to prevent flares, seats, or the unimaginable from being thrown into or onto human heads. On either side there are metal gates you could not drive a car through. You might not think Turkish soccer fans would ever get a car into the upper deck of a stadium. For the right occasion, they could.
There is more singing. The occasional flare goes off, red smears held up in defiance of attempts to get fans from doing all the things they clearly want to do so very badly: to light off flares, to spend the entire match telling Fenerbahce to sodomize themselves and their mothers, to find something in their way wearing the wrong colors and to let it know just how much they fucking love their team, and how much hatred they by rule have for you. The sportsmanship and fan conduct announcement appears on the jumbotron hanging from the edge of the stadium roof. It is booed lustily.
The Turkish flag replaces the list of all the things Galatasaray fans will immediately do the opposite of for the next two hours. The legend is that the red flag represents the crescent moon and stars seen in a pool of Turkish warriors' blood. This is a line from the anthem's full lyrics:
Let it howl, do not be afraid! And think: how can this fiery faith ever be killed,
By that battered, single-fanged monster you call "civilization"?
They don't have to sing that part here. The two teams come out holding the hands of small children dressed like soldiers: a tiny elementary school aged commando, a pacing helicopter pilot too short to ride a roller coaster. If they are holding the hand of a Fenerbahçe player, they are booed. Across from our seats a sign reads "WELCOME TO THE JUDGMENT DAY." All is screaming and chanting in a language whose every breath at this volume sounds like a vow of murder.
In lieu of actual rioting, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe decide to substitute a brawl for the promised soccer match. The first ten minutes of the game is the entire game, a nightmare of yellow cards, extended agonized lolling on the turf, and one precious goal from Sneijder to shatter Fenerbahçe's composure for ... oh, for the next hour, really. A forest fire of flares explodes from the Ultraslan Galatasaray fan section amidst the singing. They have set them off directly in front of of a line of luxury boxes, the exact people behind the sportsmanship announcements and attempts to sanitize the game experience. All anyone in that section can see is smoke, and flame, and the raised middle fingers of men in Galatasaray jerseys with bandanas wrapped around their faces.
Every time a yellow card pops out against a Galatasaray player or with each missed crime against Galatasaray, the crowd shake their fists. If there is a gesture unique to Turkish soccer, it's this: a looping circle made violently in the air as if it were hitting an invisible speed bag with real, blood-deep anger. There is an invisible line somewhere in the world, somewhere between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, where people stop cupping their mouths to boo, and instead start shaking their fists like they're trying to knock someone out. We are all decidedly over that line, and deep in fist-shaking territory.
The crowd starts chanting, among other random profanities, "Let Didier Drogba fuck you."
The first half's ten minutes stretch into a small eternity. Soccer tussles break out every ten minutes or so in between long stretches of Fenerbahçe being dispossessed at midfield. There is shirt-tugging, shoving,the bump of chests if it's particularly intense. The referee starts spitting out yellow cards like a malfunctioning ATM, and the crowd starts chanting, among other random profanities, "Let Didier Drogba fuck you."
Back in goal, harried by a marauding Drogba, Fenerbahçe goalkeeper Volkan Demirel fumes. He's reportedly 6'3", but looks nine feet tall in soccer scale and twice as big when another fracas breaks out in Fenerbahçe's beleaguered box. He's screaming at defenders, glowering in the back of simmering arguments, and generally looking like someone seconds away from unsheathing a broadsword and bringing it down on the back of the referee's neck. He has the unique superpower of visible, ambient anger emission: Volkan sweats rage droplets, and fine waves of fury and piss-rage wobble off him like heat waves on a baking summer highway. He missed two games in the 2008 UEFA Euro Championship for shoving Czech Jan Koller to the ground, and in 2013 choked Galatasaray right back Sabri Sarioglu during a tussle that ended with both players eating red cards. He's slightly insane on even the steep curve of goalie insanity, and the quick goal and short-circuiting Fenerbahçe defense have him playing in a black pall of his own rage.
It takes ten minutes for the game to devolve into a chain of sliding fouls interrupted by periodic attempts at soccer. Drogba rockets a shot off the post and raises his hands to his ears like he can hear the sound of his only chance at scoring boiling away in the heated disorder of the game. Players, at a certain point, lose all power to perform and become pawns of an idiot fury. Yellow cards, more yellow cards, and finally the inevitable red card arrives and is delivered to Emre Belozoglu, the Fenerbahçe captain.
Honestly, he can't be blamed for a grotesque foul committed against Felipe Melo. The screeching, bloodthirsty dervish controlling the match did it. He was merely a vehicle for it, a pawn. Felipe Melo celebrates with a huge, lionfaced expression at the home fans. It is the death blow for the Fenerbahçe, who play out the second half with a desultory series of attempts at scoring followed by more exchanges in shin-kicking, shirt-grabbing, and ref-baiting. When Volkan emerges from his sulkstorm of anger to argue with a ref, he's given a yellow card, probably just to make him feel like he's not being left out of anything.
The game ends, and leaving the stadium a Galatasaray fan is unhappy with the way the team won. "WE CAME TOO SOON!!!" he yells. In the tunnel back through the human cattle pen and down into the subway, more flares go off, held up by Galatasaray supporters and flooding the hallways with acrid gray fog. Some Ultraslan members run past, then stop, look back, and then keep running in the universal pose of "Ohfuckitsthecops," but there's no one in pursuit, and no one to pursue. No one seems to know why they're running, or where they're going, or why they're doing it like fifty cops should be in pursuit, firing tear gas canisters into the fans' asses and clattering along with their riot shields.
The cops have stayed back, though. The stampede never happens, and the fans press through the turnstiles and gates without a hint of disaster in the air. Soccer is about whatever you want it to be about, and tonight for Galatasaray fans it was to be about a fight that never really happened. Fenerbahçe, in more than one sense, never appeared. With no one there to fight but themselves, Galatasaray melts back into the carpet of lights and water that is Istanbul, flowing downhill through the metros system into the bars of Galata and Beyoğlu.
In children's books, cities have always come sliced longitudinally for easy viewing. I'm thinking of one in particular from a Richard Scarry book of a city. It is not one city in particular. It could be Lisbon, or Shanghai, or New York or Paris. The top layer are the tops of the buildings, topped with old zigzagging television antennae and little chimneys coughing out squiggles of charcoal line smoke.
The middle are windows of businesses. There is a bored anthropomorphic cat looking out the glass panes of a publisher. There is a dance studio, and below it a restaurant, and two other talking animals lounging at a cafe. Someone peers out of their apartment window, looking at nothing in particular in the street, where a preschooler's checklist of people in your neighborhood drawn as bears, dogs, and cats do the work of the twelve or so professions a four year old knows and believes in. The garbageman takes the trash away. A fireman waits for fire. A cop waves an ambulance through with a polite smile rendered with three strokes of a pencil.
Below that, there is a subway, located mere inches below the street. A train rides along the bottom of the page, loaded with the full menagerie of humanity obscured by animal archetypes. A solemn bear reads a newspaper; a goat waits by the platform with a hint of anticipation in the arch in his eyebrow.
That perfect city map does not have dogs, or fire, or three soccer teams like Istanbul does. It doesn't have their fans, either: stuck in the subways throwing firecrackers out of the doors, shaking their fists in stadiums, and periodically stabbing someone because they're wearing the wrong shirt. The stray dogs, Galatasaray fans bum-rushing television studios, government protests with clouds of tear gas and scurrying police vans, the random antiquity that falls out of a fresh subway tunnel: none of them are ever part of the plan, and always butt their way in regardless of the blueprint.
At no point in any map of the city does it depict the moment you stumble and grab hold of that live wire of human emotion: the bent of the faithful at a mosque, the sizzling anger of a crowd with its eyes fixed on the beetle-like forms of riot police, the profanity of soccer fans shaking their fists in a particular way and demanding blood in exchange for their love.
There is never a place on the map for that, nor any need. It doesn't render well, doesn't flatter the idea of a plan or order. It's not something you have to accept if you want that map to be alive, filled with the living and not the sanitized notion of the dead. It would be a cleaner, simpler world. That place would also not be a city. It certainly wouldn't be Istanbul.
So if you're looking at Istanbul sliced on the half and want to do it right: that corner on fire is Galatasaray's stadium, moved out to their own cordon but still shaking fists and burning flares in front of the VIPs trying to dull their knife-edge fandom. That thing in the subway is a pre-Roman dig site, and the men surrounding it are befuddled construction worker and one terrified man from the Turkish ministry of culture. There are old men making muddy coffee strong enough to kill a dragon, and huge mosques with muezzins drinking tea and biding time between calls. There are dudes cruising in VW Sciroccos on the shore road at night, drinking beers subtly in their cars and adjusting their hair in the mirror. There is traffic choking the city at every point.
Sometimes the soccer fans fight over in Asia at Fenerbahçe's stadium, and sometimes they dare the streets of Besiktas at their stadium. There will be police, and plans, and from time to time it will all burst into flames and screaming. And sometimes, just when you want it to most, it will refuse to combust at all.
On the way to the airport you rewind backward through time. You start at that insane Agatha Christie hotel, the one with the doomsday sunset views of Istanbul, then up through the streets, past the Ottoman-era wooden buildings and the giant construction holes. You lurch through Galatasaray's home territory, through streets spotted with tea tables and backgammon boards left empty in mid-morning. Dogs lay everywhere: on doormats in front of banks, snoozing on the grass in parks, sometimes walking down streets towards somewhere very important for dog business.
The bus reaches the Golden Horn and crosses the bridge into truly ancient Istanbul, trotting a good clip past the inlet where some of the Jews kicked out of Spain by the Inquisition settled. The spires of the Blue Mosque and Afya Sofya rotate past, and behind them rise the walls of Topkapi and the rest of the sultan's palace. Then the road runs along the Sea of Marmara where a steady line of ships loiter, waiting for their turn across the straits.
Along the seawall there are construction sites, new high-rise villas and apartment buildings for the wealthy and those that never dreamed they'd have this much. Sometimes there is just the blankness of the sky and the spot where the land fades into the water. Three stray Anatolian shepherds trot in formation toward the city, tongues wagging and paws flicking along the ground in cadence. They have been here as long as people have. In the afternoon sun, they sleep wherever they want.
Matt Ufford interviews Spencer Hall about his trip: