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Soccer Fans Increasingly on Front Line of Turkey's Protests

  • Dorian Jones

Besiktas fans throw plastic chairs onto the pitch during the Turkish Super League derby soccer match between Besiktas and Galatasaray at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul September 22, 2013.

Besiktas fans throw plastic chairs onto the pitch during the Turkish Super League derby soccer match between Besiktas and Galatasaray at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul September 22, 2013.

Since the mass anti-government demonstrations in Turkey earlier this year, soccer fans have been playing an increasingly prominent role in the country's political protests. But the government has warned it will stamp out political dissent in the stadiums.

It might sound like a soccer game, but its the new sound of political protest in Turkey. Soccer supporters chant club slogans, followed by anti-government chants.

The latest anti-government protests earlier this month were centered in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district on the city’s Asian side, home to Fenerbahce football club. Many of the protestors are avid supporters of the country's soccer teams, wearing their clubs' shirts to the protests.

Protesting supporters see no contradiction between football and protest.

When the subject is our homeland, the rest is not important; we are conscious of this, one protester said. Winning football cups is temporary, but our country cannot fall into this situation: we are fighting for the future of our country. If we don't get together now, when else can we come together?

From the start, fans of Istanbul’s three main soccer teams have been at the forefront of the protests. But a special group of fans -- supporters Istanbul’s Besiktas club, called the Carsi -- became the face of the unrest.

At the peak of anti-government protests in June, the Carsi laid siege to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Istanbul office, which is housed in a former Ottoman Palace on the Bosphorus waterway and just a stone’s throw away from the heartland of the Besiktas supporters. Such activities quickly drew the attention of the police. In an unprecedented move, 20 leading members of the Carsi group were charged under the country’s anti-organized crime law.

That means the case is being tried in a special court with special rules, according to lawyer Nazif Koray, who represents some of the fans and is also a Besiktas supporter.

"They are talking about 20 years of penalties, this is a really serious. And these courts have very special authorities. We still could not see, for example, the evidences, because this is banned, but you cannot do this in normal courts. Because of this, we still don't know the whole case. This was a warning to all Besiktas supporters," said Koray.

Government in damage control mode

Ahead of the new soccer season, the government tried to take steps to purge the stadiums of political ferment.

The sports ministry blitzed TV with advertisements warning parents of the dangers of political activism. The ads, which carried the message that such activism is a slippery slope leading to terrorism, closed with the image of a suicide bomber. Meanwhile, a ban on racist slogans in sports stadiums has been extended to political chants.

But observers warn that the crackdown appears, if anything, only to be hardening attitudes. Supporters of the football clubs across the country routinely shout protest chants at the 34th minute of games -- 34 being the car registration number of Istanbul. TV channels quickly mute the sound of the protests, in compliance with state regulations.

The unrest appears to be achieving something that most sports commentators had thought impossible, says journalist Yasmin Congar, who writes on Turkish affairs: it is breaking down, albeit temporally, the fierce rivalry, bordering on hatred, between Istanbul’s rival fans.

"There is no love lost between these Istanbul teams and supporters. But these Gezi park protests brought them together. You could see Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galastasray fans marching arm in arm, helping each other against police. There is new energy, solidarity, along the lines of soccer clubs. Watching that, the government has become very wary of what the fans could do," stated Congar.

Analysts said the role of soccer fans in the protests has become quite personal for Prime Minister Erdogan, himself a former semi-professional footballer who always wears the local team’s scarf at political rallies and, until now, considered the game his political domain.

The country’s stadiums now seem destined to become venues for a battle of wills between fans and the government.