Football is a game that comes in many guises – and a word that arouses strong emotions. In much of the world it is played with a round ball, propelled, as the name suggests, with the foot; and rules that seek (at least) to prevent players engaging in bodily contact and injuring each other. In American football by contrast, the primary aim seems to be exactly that – launching yourself deliberately and with maximum force at an opponent so that players only survive by suiting themselves in helmets and body armour – and activity involving the egg-shaped ball seems largely incidental. In between these extremes are varieties of rugby football, union and league, preferred in outposts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, former industrial regions of Wales and Northern England, and the playing fields of public school purveyors of education to English aristocracy and sons of Arabian sheikhs. Here pretty much any part of the body can be employed for pretty much any purpose, but rules of fair play demand that you don’t deliberately set out to maim someone who doesn’t actually have the ball in hand. Then there is Gaelic Football; and that peculiar mix of basketball, football and pro wrestling played almost exclusively in the Australian State of Victoria.
In my school days in New Zealand, ‘footie’ was very definitely rugby, and the round ball game was for ‘girls’ – by which was meant, not the female of the species, but males whose actual manhood was open to question. A common feature of the ‘girls’ game seemed to be players throwing themselves to the ground for no apparent reason and carrying on as though some medieval Spanish inquisitor was applying hot coals to the soles of their feet. In rugby, on the other hand, it is considered bad form to show any emotion whatsoever even when suffering the effects of the most heinous foul by an opponent. Correct protocol requires that you store the memory and exact on-field vengeance when opportunity arises – thereafter repairing to the nearest pub and forging lifetime bonds of brotherhood over oceanic quantities of ale.
Well, boys will be boys, and violence in one form or another seems to be an integral part of our biological makeup. Perhaps one of the advantages of the semi-licensed in-match carnage of rugby is that it lessens the need for off-field acts of aggression. Soccer football has always seemed more prone to post-match riots, mass tramplings of spectators and street hooliganism – for the very reason, perhaps, that the game itself offers so little opportunity for that kind of masculine self-expression.
I recall being mildly shocked at my first experience of a football match in Istanbul. It was a derby between two of the city’s big three clubs, and squads of police were ensuring that supporters of the two sides were ushered to viewing areas separated by high walls and razor wire. When all were seated and the match began, police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles ringed the pitch with eyes focused on the crowd. I was impressed, truth to tell, by the fact that, far as I could see, not one turned at any stage to see what was happening on-field. After the final whistle, joyous fans of the victorious local lads were obliged to remain in their area while visitors were escorted safely off the premises and sent mourning and rampaging on their way.
More recently, in the street demonstrations that continued for a month or two after the Gezi Park incident of May/June 2013, many of the participants identified themselves as followers of one or other of the Big Three Istanbul football clubs, perhaps the most prominent being the Beşiktaş group calling themselves Çarşı. It’s an innocuous enough name, meaning ‘market’ in Turkish, referring, I guess to the retail shopping precinct near the Bosporus waterfront where supporters congregate en masse on match days in club colours, knocking back cans of Efes Pilsen and psyching themselves up for the big event. The apparent innocuousness of the name Çarşı belies the intent of its members: the stylised version seen on banners having the ‘A’ of Anarchy as its second letter, accompanied by the slogan, ‘Çarşı, her şeye karşı’ (‘We’re against everything’). Over the summer holiday period, of course, players get a break from their weekly grind of night clubs, fast cars, beautiful women and football – leaving hordes of loyal supporters at a loose end.
The Gezi Park business, it might be said, erupted at a fortuitous time, providing off-season training opportunities for sports fans who joined forces with battle-hardened left-wingers, middle-class youth and head-scarved aunties, united by a common hatred of Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan. There was much talk in news media, at home and abroad, of peaceful tree-huggers confronted, gassed and beaten by faceless hordes of government enforcers. Undoubtedly there were a few genuine nature-lovers amongst the protesters – but political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful, and it’s not easy in the heat of the moment to distinguish a peacenik from a Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchist. I have just received another of the regular mailings sent out by my compatriots in the NZ Embassy in Ankara reminding me: ‘New Zealanders in Turkey are advised to avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as even those intended to be peaceful have the potential to turn violent. Police may use tear gas and/or water cannons to disperse demonstrations.’
And you’d better believe it. I’ve been living in this country for a few years now, and I can tell you, those ‘Gezi Park’ protests were no new phenomenon. I remember George W Bush visiting Istanbul for a NATO summit in 2004. The whole city came to a standstill; public transport including Bosporus ferries was put on hold, and the waterfront at Kadıköy turned into a battlefield. The first ever ‘May Day’ rally held in Taksim Square in 1977 became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after around 40 demonstrators were killed and up to 200 injured by security forces.
Violent public demonstrations against the government have a long pedigree in Istanbul. In fact, the tradition can be traced back to ancient times when the city then known as Constantinople was capital of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the connection between sports fans and political protest was a factor in those days too.
Visitors to Istanbul these days inevitably gravitate to the Sultanahmet area within the walls of the ancient city where many of the most famous tourist attractions are to be found: the cathedral/museum of Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern and several of the important museums. Just in front of the main gate of Sultan Ahmet’s mosque can be seen three intriguing columns that once stood in the centre of the hippodrome – an immense stadium where up to 30,000 singing, chanting, screaming supporters urged on their favourite teams in the chariot races that were one of the main forms of entertainment. Where the Blue Mosque now stands was the Great Imperial Palace with a connecting passage to the kathisma or viewing box where the emperor and his retinue sat to observe proceedings.
In Rome itself there had been four teams competing in the races, identified by their colours, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites – but when Constantinople became the centre of empire, just two remained. The Blue and Green charioteers divided the city into two mutually antagonistic bands of fanatical supporters drawn from all walks of life, extending their influence far beyond the confines of the hippodrome into activities normally associated with street gangs and political parties. Betting was, of course, an important feature of the competitions. Drivers, though their lives might be short, could also make good money, and the most successful were enviably wealthy.
Members of the aristocracy generally took an interest in one or other of the teams, and were not above manipulating supporters to exert pressure on an unpopular emperor by street demonstrations and riots. Such activities seem to have been fairly common, but by far the most famous is the event known as the Nika Riots of January 532 CE.
Emperor at the time (from 527 to 565 CE) was Justinian I, who seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure. Most of our knowledge of this period comes from the writings of a scholar known as Procopius of Caesarea. His official works on the wars and the buildings of Justinian depict an emperor deserving the epithet ‘Great’, despite his humble peasant origins. Justinian, with his general Belisarius, recovered some of the western territories lost to ‘barbarians’ in the previous century. His ambitious building projects included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia cathedral which still stands today. He is renowned for his complete revision of Roman Law and for being the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor; is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Procopius was fulsome in praising the beauty of his wife, the Empress Theodora.
In addition to his official histories, however, Procopius also produced a work known as the Secret History, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library. Here, the historian tells a different story. Justinian and Belisarius were hen-pecked and incompetent, manipulated by ruthless and ambitious wives. The Emperor himself is described as cruel and amoral, fleecing his citizens rich and poor alike, and killing without hesitation any who opposed him. His wife Theodora may have been beautiful, but in her previous life she had been one of the city’s more spectacular harlots, engaging in public displays of obscene exhibitionism, and entertaining a significant sampling of the male population. Which may go some way towards explaining why Justinian missed out on beatification by the Roman Church.
But back to the Nika Riots. In an attempt to curtail the political activities of the Blues and Greens, the Emperor had arrested several of the ringleaders and had them sentenced to death, much to the chagrin of supporters who demanded their release and Justinian’s resignation. Rioting broke out in the hippodrome and spilled out on to the streets, with rioters holding the Imperial Palace in a state of siege for five days. Fires were lit and much of the city was burned to the ground, including the previous church of Hagia Sophia. Members of the Senate joined in the anarchic activities and declared a replacement for Justinian, Hypatius, nephew of a former emperor.
Justinian, apparently, had pretty much given up hope of hanging on to his throne, and was getting ready to abandon ship. His good lady Theodora, however, was not ready to give up the life of power and luxury she had worked so hard to attain, saying she would prefer to die. Shamed into action, her husband, by a cunning mixture of double-dealing and brute force, turned the tables on the would-be usurpers. His generals, Belisarius and Mundus led a company or two of regular soldiers into the hippodrome and the resulting punitive slaughter left some 30,000 rioters dead.
Justinian ruled for a further 33 years, rebuilt the city and secured his reputation – at least in the eyes of the Eastern Church. But as far as we know he never played football.