When I told my friends that I was moving to Turkey, almost everyone one of them congratulated me on the move, before quickly moving the subject onto football and the rather frightening reputation of the Turkish fans. They would refer to the giant banner inscribed with the words 'Welcome to Hell' unfurled by Galatasaray fans to welcome visiting English teams and, of course, they would mention the fate of two Leeds United fans who were stabbed in a fight in central Istanbul when the two teams met in the UEFA Cup around ten years ago.
Since I left the UK in 2004, I have lived in Mongolia, Korea and China. None of these are countries with too much footballing pedigree. Despite this, I went to games in these countries just as I used to when I was back home in England. Sadly, both the quality of the football on show and the atmosphere in the stands was pretty poor. Therefore, when I moved to Turkey, I was excited by the prospect of some 'proper; football. As my opening paragraph suggests, Turkish fans have a reputation as some of the most intense in the world. Therefore, I was keen to get a taste of this first hand.
As it turned out, I was in luck. Just a few days after arriving in Ankara, the Istanbul giants Galatasaray would be in the capital city to play the local team, Ankaragucu, in a Turkish cup game. One of the students to whom I taught English told me he would be going to the game with his friend and asked me to come along. I could not have been more excited at the prospect.
I was pretty excited to be going to the game. Primarily, this was for the atmosphere. Galatasaray's reputation certainly proceeded them, but I also discovered that the Ankaragucu supporters had a reputation for being slightly rowdy. However, I was also keen to see some quality football. Galatasaray can boat a host of international stars in their line-up. These include Brazilian stars Jo and Elano (both formerly of Manchester City in England) as well as Australian international Harry Kewell. Ankaragucu also had former England International Darius Vassel
Unfortunately, it was not until my student picked me up to drive me to the game that I learned I was unlikely to see any of those players. The game was the last in the round-robin stage of the cup. Galatasaray had already qualified for the next round and Ankaragucu were out. Therefore, it was unlikely that either manager would risk any of his top players for a game of no consequence as they needed to ensure they avoided injury. Galatasaray were involved in the title race and Ankaragucu were fighting to avoid relegation. Never mind, I thought. At least I would be able to savour the atmosphere even if the football was not so great.
As it transpired, the football was awful. The game finished in the dullest of goalless draws, with neither team appearing remotely concerned with scoring. However, the atmosphere was certainly incredible. We got into the stadium just before kick-off and made our way to the our seats at the very back of the stand. To do so we had to cut through 1,000 Galatasaray fans who were bouncing up and down in synch and screaming at the top of their lungs. It was quite a sight. I was on their side and even I felt intimidated. At no point during the game did anyone sit down. I spent the full ninety minutes stood on my seat.
The passion and determination of the fans was incredible, even though it was as though the game we were watching had actually been organized to test their resolve. Not only was the football terrible, but 20 minutes into the game it began to snow and temperatures dropped to eight degrees below zero. Despite this, they still kept bouncing and still kept singing. (In retrospect, it could be that they were bouncing simply to keep warm) In the second half, things got so bad that Galatasaray's Dutch coach Frank Rykaard did not even leave the bench to shout at the players or orchestrate tactics. Yet, even though the game drifted into pointless apathy, the fans kept singing.
I left the ground feeling immensely cold. I was almost continuously blowing on my fingers for warmth despite the fact that I was wearing gloves and the feeling in my toes had long since disappeared. As we left the ground, the fans continued to sing as they began the long journey back to Istanbul. I knew I would be back for another game, I was just hoping that the standard of football would be better.