In a week dominated by headlines with the visit of United States President Barack Obama and his administration’s hopes of repairing somewhat strained relations with his host, Türkiye, any feelings of conciliation and mutual understanding that were fostered during this trip had absolutely no bearing on the world of sport.
And while President Obama, addressing the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, made one sporting reference to two Turkish basketball players plying their trade in America’s NBA, Mehmet Okur and Hidayet Türkoğlu, one got the feeling that even if the President were an avid football fan (there is no conclusive evidence that he is or isn’t), he would have made no attempt to foray into any light humored discussion of the colossal derby match between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe that was scheduled to be played merely days after his visit.
So divisive is this match that even if White House advisors had told the President that football is a great way to start a conversation with an average Turk, all of the President’s efforts in reaching grounds for mutual understand and respect would have been unraveled should any Turkish journalist have had the opportunity to ask the President who he would support on Sunday.
Without a doubt the Galatasaray-Fenerbahçe (GS-FB as it is commonly referred to in short script) derby holds grip of the country as well as ex-pat Turks living around the world. While I will note that the renown World Soccer magazine recently placed it as the number three derby (after Boca-River and Barcelona-Real Madrid) in the world, others have done a far better job at explaining the history behind this derby and I will defer to their expertise. Yet this week’s derby held monumental ramifications for both Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe aside from the usual obligations of either club to defeat its biggest rival.
The season has proved to be a huge disappointment for both Istanbul giants and in light of their position in the table with both clubs anchored at third (Fener) and fourth (Galatasaray) for a good portion of 2009, both clubs were trying to reassert their relevancy to a title race that is more and more being contested by rank outsiders Sivasspor (who have never won a title) and Istanbul’s “other” giant, Beşiktaş.
Given the fact that since 1995, with the exception of Beşiktaş’ league win in 2003, the title has been claimed by either Galatasaray or Fenerbahçe, supporters were growing impatient with a season that has been spent by both clubs on the sidelines watching a championship race. Needless to say that along with the usual baggage and burdens borne by both clubs coming into a derby, this match at Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen Stadium was crucial to either club’s championship hopes. Both clubs sat on equal points separated by goal difference but as the match kicked off, Sivasspor had extended their lead to 9 points and Beşiktaş to 8 points. In terms that can be best understood by neutrals, imagine a scenario where Chelsea and Manchester United were set to square off with the league being led by, say, Fulham. Such was the scenario.
In a dour match that ended 0-0, the highlight was an all out brawl in the dying minutes of injury time. It is a testament to the animosity felt by both clubs against the other as well as to the frustrations felt by both clubs in light of what a 0-0 draw would effectively mean to their championship aspirations. Ironically there were reports and numerous interviews in the days leading up to the derby by players from both clubs who reaffirmed that they could reconcile their friendships outside of football with a passion to see their club win.
As I noted in the days leading up to Türkiye’s World Cup qualifier against Spain, the Turkish national team is comprised of players mostly from Galatasaray and Fener whose club affiliations take a back seat to the national cause under the guidance of manager Fatih Terim. You would think that the relations fostered on the national team by stars, like Arda Turan of Galatasaray and Semih Şentürk of Fenerbahçe, might diffuse any tensions felt by the supporters. That wishful thinking was quickly dispensed as Roberto Carlos lined up one last free kick attempt. Veteran national team and Galatasaray defender Emre Aşık was felled in his own area and lashed out at Fener’s Diego Lugano. The standard camaraderie actions by teammates to protect one another quickly led to a tussle between Arda and Semih and when Semih went to the ground after an apparent punch by Arda, Galatasaray’s goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis and fellow Turkish international Hakan Balta, lifted Semih off the ground by his shirt like a father picking up a three year old child.
The tension was also visible with the two club presidents, who sat side by side throughout the match but were seen nowhere together as the fight ensued. Galatasaray coach Bülent Korkmaz came onto the pitch to diffuse the situation amongst his players but was joined by a fan wearing an Arda kit running from one end of the pitch to the other, and like many of the clowns that engage in this behavior, never making it anywhere near the target as he was taken out by security.
More alarming was the growing discontent in the stands where UltrAslan and the other Galatasaray supporters began to rain down whatever they could throw onto the pitch. While the melee hovered around Galatasaray’s goal, in the center of the pitch stood Galatsaray’s Cassio Lincoln arm in arm with Fener’s Roberto Carlos. Both watched in amusement and seemed to enjoy whatever they might have been animatedly discussing. Perhaps the scene in front of them hit a nostalgic chord of memories from their playing days in Brazil where scenes like this are not so foreign. Whatever it was, the image of two Brazilians from either side casually conversing juxtaposed next to images of the match officials being whisked away by Turkish police holding up shields amidst raining plastic seats was one to take in.
Far less comedic is the harsh reality that both Galatasaray and Fener wake up to as they now sit 8 points behind Sivasspor with only seven matches left in the league.