BY GEORGE YOUNG
And they say Islam is the religion of Turkey.
No. Ignore the mosques and the minarets. Without doubt, there is something which binds the Turkish people, be they Shias, Sunnis, Christians and all else besides. One moment this unifying force provides elation, the next anguish. It excites, frustrates and dominates its subjects. It is an addictive drug which holds Turkey in the palm of its hand with continual authority.
Itâ€™s football. The Turks are unequivocally the most obsessively passionate fans of the game Iâ€™ve ever come across and believe me, youâ€™d be hard-pressed to find any other nation on Earth which values its football as much as Turkey. They watch the game with the blood-hungry mentality of Celts about to go to war with the Romans rather than a bunch of ordinary people observing 22 blokes kick a spherical object around a pitch. Watching Turkish people whilst they themselves watch football is fascinating and, to be frank, at times pretty shit scary.
Iâ€™ve sat in the away section of the Bernabeu during the Champions League knockout stage, a competition which the demanding Madridistas obsess over winning with a well documented level of fanaticism. The roar which greeted Cristiano Ronaldoâ€™s towering header against Manchester United in February this year was deafening, the sort which makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
But the funny thing is, Iâ€™ve heard louder. Iâ€™ve heard more passion and commitment than even the Madridistas have for their beloved Los Blancos, and Iâ€™ve witnessed more tears of joy than there are from a stadium of 13 year olds with â€˜I HEART HARRYâ€™ t-shirts at a One Direction concert.
Where is this magical place you ask? It was a small cinema in a run of the mill, four star Turkish hotel. The date was the 17th of May 2000 and Galatasary had just made history by being the first Turkish team to win a European trophy.
If youâ€™re ever offered the opportunity to watch football with Turks, then say yes. I was nine years old at the time, banded together along with my dad into an overwhelmed corner of the cinema. The Arsenal supporters who were present, approximately a dozen, were so cowed by the Galatasary support that you could visually see them wilting; staring at their toes like a three year old on the naughty step or a dog which has just been caught squatting in the kitchen with a shit dangling below it.
Now Arsenal fans arenâ€™t exactly notorious for raucously setting off flares in the home section of The Emirates but even so, the watching of their beloved team in a European final was an ordeal to be endured rather than a grand occasion to celebrate. Much of this had to do with the fact that the hotel staff whoâ€™d hours before been pouring their pints, cooking their buffet lunch and fluffing up their pillows had now transformed into a war-painted, bellowing mob.
You half expected to turn around and have a bare-chested barman thrust his hand into your chest cavity, before pulling out your still beating heart as he screeched â€˜KAH LEE MAAAAAHâ€™.
But that was the thing; although these were the most ardent fans Iâ€™ve seen in any sport, on closer inspection there weren’t hostile or aggressive to outsiders, such as the Arsenal fans or impartial observers. They werenâ€™t attempting to intimidate or undermine anyone because the focus was purely on their team. In a match that was goalless after 120 minutes of drum-beating (yes, they had one inside the cinema) and decibel levels that got into the hundreds, there were no confrontations nor was there any genuine bad blood. Perhaps that was due to the one-sided nature of the supporters and the fact we were in a hotel, not a street fight, but despite the ferocity of the Galatasary fans, you could almost sense the pride of a nation which would soon be able to boost a team which has triumphed in a premier European competition.
Football in Turkey can trace its roots to the decaying Ottoman Empire and the introduction of the Beautiful Game into Thessaloniki, now modern day Greece, in 1875. Originally practised solely by Englishmen and Greeks who lived in the area, the Ottomans were remarkably hostile to the popularity of the new sport, going so far as to invade the pitch in an 1899 match to arrest as many Black Stockings players as they could, among them some of the first Turks to ever play the game.
Yet from little acorns, mighty oaks grow; football in Turkey has come a long way since the repressive attitudes of nearly 150 years ago to the extent that the country is arguably the foremost proponent of womenâ€™s football in the Islamic World although, with Qatarâ€™s efforts to modernise ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup, that position is under threat. As of 2013, there are 72 teams as well as 48,691 registered female footballers in the country according to official UEFA statistics.
Despite their ranking of 65th in the world, Turkeyâ€™s efforts to promote womenâ€™s football are ongoing. More than that, theyâ€™re making a genuine effort to provide young girls who may be interested in the game with an opportunity to play, whilst also attempting to eradicate chauvinistic stigmas against females who simply want to take part in the sport. In 2011, the Turkish Football Federation introduced the Football Schools for Girls initiative which allowed a whopping 14,000 schoolgirls the chance to receive specialist training from February to May.
Schemes such as these highlight how far Turkey has progressed as a nation since the downfall of the Ottomans in 1923. As the nation rapidly modernises and democratises even further, with foreign investment forthcoming and wealth flowing into the country, womenâ€™s football will only benefit.
Football in Turkey, whether played or watched by men and women of any religious denomination, is a fascinating prospect. The tribal loyalty to their clubs and the war cries of passion are interwoven with commendable modernisation, especially within the womenâ€™s game.
Go and watch some football in Turkey, I implore you. Whether itâ€™s in Galatasaryâ€™s 52,652 capacity stadium, a back street coffee shop in Istanbul or even a hotel cinema if youâ€™re lucky enough, youâ€™ll be treated to the experience of a lifetime.