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In Turkey, Rival Soccer Fans Unite, Join Antigovernment Protests

ISTANBUL -- There are not many bricks left on the Gazhane Bostani street sidewalk, but a small cadre of soccer fans is intent on making sure the few that remain do not go to waste.

They finesse them out of the ground and toss them onto one of the many homemade barricades meant to prevent police – and their water cannons – from approaching Taksim Square, just a few blocks away.

Clashes with authorities are not a new phenomenon for the fans of Turkey's three most popular soccer teams. But the image of them teaming up against a common enemy is jarring to anyone here who has followed the cutthroat world of Turkish football fandom.

On the evening of June 8 they led massive demonstrations up to Taksim Square. They joined forces 10 days ago to help protesters in a battle with police that began in opposition to a development project in the square but which has since ballooned into a massive movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The scene on Gazhane Bostani has become a hallmark of the protest movement. Here, hard-core fans -- or "ultras" -- of Besiktas and Fenerbahce work together toward a common goal.

"We believe Turkey is a dictatorial state and that our freedoms are limited," Burak, 24, a Besiktas fan, said as he helped to construct the barricade. "And that’s why for the future, to have a freer country, we’ve given up the difference in [team] colors. We’re trying to do something here all together.”

Truce Following Death

The vicious rivalry between the three teams dates back to the early 1980s, when Besiktas fans from the eponymous working-class neighborhood created the Carsi fan club. Pitched battles on issues like which fan base could lay claim to which section of a stadium carried over onto the street.

Protesters take cover from water cannons during clashes with police in Ankara on June 8.
Protesters take cover from water cannons during clashes with police in Ankara on June 8.
A 2011 "New Yorker" magazine article about the rivals said the enmity reached a fevered pitch when, in 1991, a Besiktas supporter was kicked to death by a mob of Galatasaray fans.

Afterwards, the teams -- Besiktas, near Taksim Square; Fenerbahce, on Istanbul’s Asian side; and Galatasaray, Turkey’s most successful team, located in the Sisli District on the European side -- agreed to a truce, but the animosity remained and fights continued.
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Cetin Cem Yilmaz, the sports editor at the "Hurriyet Daily News," said the soccer climate in Turkey before the protests had reached a low point and showed no signs of improving.

During a game in mid-May, Dildier Drogba, the star striker for Galatasaray and an Ivory Coast native, was taunted with racist chants by Fenerbahce supporters.

Afterwards, a Fenerbahce fan, Burak Yildrim, was stabbed to death by two people wearing Galatasaray attire.

"Last month was really ugly," Yilmaz says, "and it was getting [uglier and uglier]."

But Yilmaz says the recent union of the three teams' fans, though sudden and unexpected, seems to have happened organically.

Fighting On The Same Side

When news spread that police were breaking up protests on Taksim Square on May 31, fan clubs from each team announced on social networks that they would gather to support the protesters. When clashes moved from the square to Besiktas, the three fan clubs suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side -- all trying to protect the Besiktas heartland.

A demonstrator clashes with riot police in Istanbul's Gazi neighborhood on the evening of June 8.
A demonstrator clashes with riot police in Istanbul's Gazi neighborhood on the evening of June 8.
The three clubs made an immediate unity pact.

"Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce in Taksim together," tweeted Galatasaray. "We are one heart today."

On Taksim Square, where the atmosphere is louder and more festive than on the fortressed side streets of Istanbul, Namik Kemal Bora Gonulluleroglu, a self-described fanatic who dons the red-and-yellow jersey of Galatasaray, says he is proud of the new unity.

"I have never seen this kind of thing -- all the teams being united because of one main idea," he says. "We are losing our rights and there is no chance to even say this loudly."

Of the football clubs, only Besiktas has a long history of political activism. It usually has a distinct leftist bent. In the logo of its Carsi support group, the letter "A" is represented by the common symbol used for anarchy.

'We're All Brothers'

Several fans from different clubs who spoke to RFE/RL said they fear the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who is revered by many here, was under attack by Erdogan, who leads the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).

A group of fans supporting Fenerbahce expressed nationalist sentiment, criticizing Erdogan for attempting to negotiate a peace deal with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.

"Turkey is for Turks," one fan said.

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Regardless of the political motives, fans of each team say they are enjoying the newfound camaraderie.

Yilmaz says the interclub animosity could heat up again when soccer play resumes after a break in August, but the nature of the rivalry may have changed for good.

Back at the improvised fortress Ugur, an 18-year-old textile worker wearing the black-and-white stripes of Besiktas and a Guy Fawkes mask on top of his head, says the new connections are strong.

"We're all brothers," he says. "So even though there’s an ongoing fight, it's a friendship forever."
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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