To Hell and Besiktas
“And in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, Feyenoord will play…Besiktas”
With those words from a UEFA representative at a ceremony which had already lasted far too long, I was destined to visit the most infamous place in Europe to be an away supporter. The place where Leeds United supporters Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight tragically lost their lives, and where supporters of Manchester United, Arsenal and many others had been subjected to all sorts of provocation and attacks. A decade on from my first experience as an away supporter at Crewe Alexandra’s Gresty Road, Istanbul awaited.
We were going to Hell.
Sadly the summer had not been kind to Feyenoord, with the great performance of the Dutch team at the World Cup meaning that several players had departed to play in higher profile leagues. Main goalscorer Graziano Pelle had also left to join Ronald Koeman at Southampton, and for a while there was a danger that not only would I be going to Istanbul, but starting at centre back. Thankfully this was not the case, but a lot of the damage had already been done in the first leg. The Feyenoord supporters had created a tremendous atmosphere at De Kuip, by far the best I have experienced in Rotterdam so far, but it was to no avail. Besiktas had won 2 – 1, with only a penalty in the 95th minute to offer any hope of turning things round in the second leg.
The Turkish fans had taken to the internet in their droves to promise a hellish reception in Istanbul, with the following picture widely circulated on social media:
Somehow, this group of Besiktas fans based in Germany had managed to pose with weapons and knives while wearing balaclavas, and still look like they would lose a fight to my mum and her knitting group. Myself and other Feyenoord supporters with a considerable amount of followers were also sent a great deal of tweets, promising everything from being stabbed, shot or raped.
And about 300 more, but you get the picture. Now of course, these days every 15-year-old who has the internet and a copy of Football Factory on DVD regularly takes to Twitter to declare that coming to their town means certain doom, but this was a little different.
The very short amount of time between the draw and the actual day of the game meant that flights were very expensive and prevented thousands of Feyenoord supporters who would usually have travelled from visiting the Turkish capital, but thankfully I was able to find an affordable way of getting there and back by dividing my journey between two different airlines. With roughly 350 others, it was time to see what it was really like to be an away supporter in Hell.
First of all I have to say that Istanbul is truly a great city, truly unique in the fact that half of it lies in Europe, and half in Asia. But exploring it as a tourist and as an away supporter are completely different things. As this website is called Supporters Not Customers rather than Travellers Not Tourists, it is the second we will focus on. From the moment you arrive in the searing heat, it is clear that most people do not want you there. A number of Feyenoord fans were asked for 25 Euros for a visa, when the sign at the front of the counter clearly states that this costs 15 Euros. Other airport officials would speak English to people fluently, and then mysteriously only know Turkish when the person had a Dutch passport or clothing to identify them as an away fan.
Still, the nights before the game were almost completely trouble-free, with only a couple of fairly unremarkable incidents. The day before the game I was walking back to my hotel when I noticed a group of 4/5 people who appeared to be following me. I turned round to see what was going on, and one of them shouted “FEYENOORD IS GAY” before heading off in the other direction. So not really ‘Welcome to Hell’ but more ‘Welcome to primary school insults’. Another more serious incident saw a small group of locals (I don’t know if they were Besiktas fans or not) gather outside a bar and begin banging on the windows and appeared to be gathering stones. The bar was owned by a Fenerbahce supporter, who made a quick trip outside to speak to them, resulting in a big argument in the street but no actual trouble. Still, it had always been the day of the game itself which held the most potential for incident, so I wasn’t regretting my travel insurance just yet.
When you are an away supporter in Istanbul, you are warned by the police not to gather in large groups, not to display flags and not to draw attention to yourselves by chanting. But telling someone from Rotterdam they are not allowed to do something just guarantees that not only will they do it, but they will do it twice as often and twice as drunk. The Red River pub was the scene of the PMDS (pre-match drinking session), and within ten minutes it had been completely invaded by Feyenoord. The traditional Turkish music was switched off, and an iPod full of Rotterdam hardcore was played instead, with the bar staff saying they had served many away supporters in the past, but had never seen any of them do this. Two large flags were unfurled, while the streets reverberated to the sound of club anthem ‘Hand in Hand’, attracting even more visitors from Rotterdam who had heard the chants and come to join in.
Of course, it was not just Feyenoord supporters who noticed what was going on. A crowd began to gather on the other side of the street of Besiktas fans standing with their arms crossed not looking particularly pleased.
The police clearly heard about the potential for trouble fairly quickly, with officers arriving to block off the two sets of fans.
Not that Feyenoord were particularly bothered what was going on, as they continued to chant every song that had ever graced the stands of De Kuip. The atmosphere on the streets was excellent, and from the reaction of the locals you could tell that this was not something which happened here often.
After a few hours of singing and many hours of drinking, it was time to board the buses to the stadium. Sadly the home of Besiktas is currently being renovated, meaning the game would be at the Olympic Stadium instead. This had impacted on ticket sales slightly, but it was expected that there would still be at least 50,000 people inside the arena. With how loud just 2,500 of them had been the week before in Rotterdam, there was no way the noise was going to be anything other than spectacular.
With the stadium the game was being played at some distance from the centre, the buses departed from Istanbul at 5pm. As is traditional with away supporters, they were quickly redecorated with a number of stickers. Here is one such horrifying image that someone who definitely was not me adding a Vak W sticker to the bus window, while there were also stickers for the FRFC1908 website, Vak Y, Vak X, a friendship sticker for Feyenoord and Sunderland and perhaps most suitable of all for this trip, one which borrowed Millwall’s slogan of ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’.
A few objects were thrown at the bus in the early parts of the journey, including an ignited flare which rolled underneath (thankfully avoiding the petrol tank) but the reception was mostly reserved to insults and gestures related to stabbing. I hadn’t seen so many people promising to cut my throat since the last time I went for a night out in Newport, but the windows withstood the occasional missile which was on target, and we arrived at the stadium with every away supporter safe and uninjured. As the buses approached the car park, this banner was displayed by two Besiktas fans:
For anyone who reads this article and does not speak Dutch, the literal translation is ‘Cancer whores Feyenoord’. Not the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, but perhaps to be expected after some of the offensive chanting directed at the Besiktas supporters in the first leg. As someone who regularly travels to fixtures where there is a high potential for violence the journey to the ground was nothing too unusual for me, but I can imagine it would be like stepping in to another world if you are used to quiet days out to Fulham and West Brom in the Premier League.
When we first arrived, it was so early that the main presence in the stadium was the police. While the segregation area was large enough to fit a couple of elephants in, they were clearly not taking any chances.
As the stadium began to fill up, we finally saw just how loud Besiktas could be, as they began a highly impressive display of support. The main group of Besiktas supporters is known as Çarşı, which has a simple motto – “Çarşı, her şeye karşı!” (Carsi is against everything). The stand to the left of the away supporters remained fairly empty, but the other two filled up long before kick off. They had an incredibly wide range of songs, one of the largest I have heard from any club in Europe, but there was one which really stood out as something which I will remember for the rest of my life. It involved the crowd being whipped into a frenzy by a chant leader, waving their arms and holding their ears to get those around them to be louder and louder. At the crescendo of the song it was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think, and just when it gets to the loudest point the chant leader will put his finger to his lips. “Shhhhhhh!!!”. The crowd falls totally silent for a moment, before chanting “BE-SIK-TAS!” “BESIKTAS! BESIKTAS!”. After the third repetition of Besiktas the entire stadium bounces up and down wildly for minutes at a time. In all honestly it did not look like a group of football supporters, but an army preparing themselves to go to war. I’ve seen so many things inside football stadiums that I am difficult to impress, but this was certainly something that will stick with me.
As kick off approached, a huge amount of flags (apparently over 8000) were waved by the home supporters, these flags carefully laid out on the seats by members of Carsi the day before the game.
While the game was all but a formality, the Feyenoord supporters were not prepared to let this simply be a 90 minute Besiktas party. Despite the incredible noise coming from two sides of the home section, the away end was also very loud. On several occasions the visitors from Rotterdam were so loud that the Besiktas fans stopped their own chants to whistle as loudly as the could to block out the songs coming from the south stand.
While Feyenoord played considerably better than they had in the first game (it would not be difficult), Besiktas were still clearly very much the stronger side. The signing of Demba Ba has given them an excellent chance of winning the title in Turkey this season, and the striker who will haunt the dreams of Steven Gerrard for the rest of his life was also proving to be a nightmare for the Feyenoord defenders. After a couple of chances which were well saved by Mulder, the 29-year-old scored his first goal of the game after yet another mistake from a Feyenoord defender. With the season starting in just a few days time, big improvements are needed if the Rotterdam club are to compete with Ajax and PSV this season.
The roar which followed the goal was almost unearthly, the noise made by Turkish supporters when they score is unlike anything I have heard before. While supporters in most countries sound happy when they score, the noise which followed the Besiktas goals was a combination of jubilation and fury, it really is something which has to be heard to be understood. With this goal meaning Feyenoord needed two goals just to take the game to extra time, in reality the celebrations could begin now for the home side. They began chanting between themselves, one stand starting a song which would then be finished by the other. It was a shame that the game was not being played at their true home, but they still managed to create a superb atmosphere. Once their imposing looking new stadium opens next season, there might not be a more intimidating place to go in the world.
The one thing about football is that it will always give you hope, no matter how slight. With around 15 minutes to go and Besiktas still comfortably leading the tie, Feyenoord offered this brief moment of hope to their defiantly loud travelling supporters, who had continued to sing and sing despite the situation being hopeless. After a mistake from a Besiktas player, Elvis Manu was able to smash the ball into the roof of the net. The away section went absolutely crazy, with supporters surging down the stairs to the front of the stand like a drunken Dutch tsunami, roaring their appreciation and urging their boys on for an unlikely comeback. Just for a brief moment, it looked as if it might actually happen. Two corners were won in quick succession, and I remembered a promise I had made to a friend to dance naked on the crossbar if we managed to qualify. While I was working out my dance routine, the world was thankfully saved from this image by Demba Ba scoring two quick goals in succession. 3 – 1 on the night, and 5 – 2 on aggregate. Game over.
Many of the Besiktas players dropped to the turf in celebration and prayer at full-time, they fully deserved their victory and will go on to play Arsenal in the next round with a place in the group stages on the line. As for the Feyenoord supporters, they left the ground without Champions League football, but with the knowledge that they had followed their team in to Hell and survived. After that, what is left to fear? As the song goes, we support the Feyenoord boys, we shall not be moved!
So Istanbul may not have proved to be as hellish as the media (and various Twitter hooligans) would have you believe, but it is certainly home to some of the most dedicated and completely insane fans in the world. The city is partly on another continent, but when it comes to football it is on another planet.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight. Marching on together, always.