REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN @paulmcparlan
Turkey as a footballing nation has been unforgivably neglected by the soccer literati during the course of its rich and diverse history. Thankfully this situation is being remedied. To paraphrase a popular maxim, “you wait ages for a book about football in Turkey and then two come along at once!”
The excellent “Welcome to Hell” by John McManus was also released in 2018 and this is now matched by an equally impressive offering “The Passion – Football and the Story of Modern Turkey “ by Patrick Keddie.
Patrick Keddie is a well-established authority on both politics and football. He has written for many prestigious outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Guardian and the Huffington Post and as a long-term resident of Istanbul he can offer a personal insight and informed analysis of the rich tapestry of the machinations of sport and government in Turkey, and provide the reader with the information to draw their own conclusion. Within the world of football journalism, he clearly has friends in high places as not many embryonic authors have their offerings recommended by the likes of the highly regarded football commentator Simon Kuper.
The issue for any author writing about the behemoth that constitutes Turkey is to decide if politics or football is to be the main apex of the work. Too much detail on the historical and political background can deter the myopic football fan whilst a bias towards the sporting agenda may deter those who seek a thoughtful analysis of the country’s background. Undoubtedly, this can be a difficult balance to achieve. Nonetheless, Keddie strikes the right chord and by providing thirty-five pages of additional notes at the end, allows you to follow further your own particular area of interest.
One figure looms large throughout this account. A man who has certainly embellished his footballing credentials as a player to establish himself as the leader of the country. His name is Recep Tayyin Erdogan and he is the most powerful man in Turkey, becoming President in 2014 as leader of the AKP party. He is adored and hated by football supporters in equal measure. He has overseen a programme of extensive modernisation of football in Turkey, which has seen the emergence of new purpose-built modern stadia across the country. However, many fans have bemoaned the loss of their traditional inner-city sanctums to soulless arenas on the edge of suburbia and suspect that many friends of Erdogan have profited excessively from creating shopping malls and executive housing developments on the land vacated by the clubs.
Keddie has travelled extensively across Turkey, at times placing his personal liberty at risk in order to assess the current state of the nation. Many fans groups, such as those of the Istanbul team Besiktas, are fervently anti–Erdogan, not solely due to him being a Galatasaray supporter, and often argue amongst themselves as to whether they should be actively involved in the political protests or just concentrate on supporting the team. One cause that unites fan groups across the nation is the detested Passolig card system, introduced by the government in April 2014, allegedly in response to mounting crowd violence, without which you cannot gain entry to a stadium. Supporters are now forced to use the Aktif Bank, which was owned by Erdogan’s brother-in-law to buy the card and their personal information is shared with government ministries. One can understand their concern. This has precipitated a dramatic decline in attendances in the Turkish Supa Lig where even the big Istanbul three of Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas can sometimes struggle to attract crowds of over 10,000. A far cry from the “Welcome to Hell” crowd scene photographs which are often splashed across the back pages of the tabloids.
Although some might find the opening section somewhat weighted in a historical/political perspective, it is a very worthy attempt to place Turkish football in its context. Each subsequent chapter however is crammed with interviews and analysis to make you want to find out more about the background to the teams and individuals portrayed.
The issue of endemic homophobia in Turkey is seen through the eyes of a gay referee who suffered extensively for his sexuality at the hands of the football authorities. The difficulty that displaced refugee Syrian players have in gaining acceptance in both a footballing and societal sense are compelling. The hostility faced by Kurdish side Amedspor as they progressed to the quarter finals of the Turkish Cup to face Fenerbahce when they were forced to play the home leg of the tie behind closed doors demonstrated how numerous hurdles were placed in their way at every stage as the government regarded them as a symbolic force for Kurdish independence and an apparent threat to state security.
The plight of young African footballers trying to eke a formative football career in Turkey having been promised riches by unscrupulous agents is heart-breaking at times. Most football fans would be unaware that each summer, a so–called African nations competition is held in Turkey to offer these displaced and unsigned players a final opportunity to be spotted by some lower ranking Turkish league side. The struggle to establish women’s football against ingrained attitudes of their expected role in Turkish society is finally starting to gain ground, especially now that one of the big three, Besiktas, has a women’s side. Nonetheless, any aspiring female footballer has to overcome deeply rooted cultural barriers which are no longer considered the norm in Western Europe.
The depth of research undertaken by Keddie is laudable and what could have easily have turned out to be a dry, academic, turgid tome is thankfully anything but. The book is well thought out and structured and commendably offers a voice to parties who would otherwise struggle to be heard outside of the country.
There are several hidden gems here, especially the background to the storyof how the president of Fenerbahce was prosecuted for match fixing at the end of the 2010/11 season. The fans of Trabzonspor are still convinced to this day that they were cheated out of the title by Fenerbahce who allegedly bribed their opponents in key fixtures. Also, the revelation that the Syrian FA apparently offered the post of national team coach to Jose Mourinho in 2016 was news to me. Given his recent travails at Old Trafford, perhaps he should have given this more serious consideration.
In my view the book would have benefitted from some visual additions. The lack of photographs from over 300 pages of text is regrettable and certainly some images of the new stadia, the Passolig card, the struggling African players and even Erdogan himself would have added to my enjoyment of this book and added another perspective to my understanding. The maxim ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ is certainly applicable here.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent depiction of both the modern-day Turkey and Turkish football and certainly Keddie has produced an impressive account of how soccer is at the heart of Turkish life and how it faces the complexities of political life in the country. Simon Kuper states on the rear cover that the book is “an energetically researched history of Turkey through football” and I can wholeheartedly concur with that view. If you want an insight into the miasma that constitutes Turkish society and football , then this ,emphatically, is the book for you.
The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey by Patrick Keddie is available to purchase online from Amazon HERE