A Tale of One City: Istanbul

A Tale of One City: Istanbul

This feature is a part of A Tale of One City

ISTANBUL IS A BREATHTAKING CITY. Locals call it ‘the city that is older than time itself’. The ancient town, formerly known as Constantinople, is home to 14 million people and some of the greatest sights on earth, from the Hagia Sophia to the Topkapi Palace – residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. However, one of its main attractions, to the wider European football audience at least, is its ferocious derby: Galatasaray versus Fenerbahçe.

The Kıtalar Arası rivalry has accumulated legendary status in the pantheon of great football rivalries, growing from an innocuous friendly in 1909 to one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles in European football. There are certain places die-hard football fans just need to visit during their time on this planet; Anfield on a crisp Champions League evening is one, Buenos Aires for Superclásico is another, but arguably the most exhilarating football experience is the Istanbul derby, experienced in all of its boiling intensity in either Gala’s Türk Telecom Arena or in the cauldron of the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium where Fenerbahçe play host.

Then there are the fans. What would those great footballing arenas be without thousands of screaming Istanbul citizens, pumped up by the occasion and fuelled by an unquenchable hatred for their counterparts, expressively demonstrated in the following chant by the more hardened section of the Galatasaray following:

Go wild in the stadiums,

You’ll get the cups,

You’ll be the champion,

People who don’t like you deserve to die!


Kıtalar Arası is roughly translated into English as ‘Intercontinental Derby’, which may seem strange considering both sides are from Turkey and are based in the capital city of Istanbul, but there is a simple reason for this – their genesis lies on both sides of the Bosphorus. Galatasaray were originally founded in the district of the same name, which was the European side of Istanbul, while Fenerbahçe began life in the Kadıköy, the Asian side. Istanbul is not only the cultural centre of Turkey but the gateway to the East. It is an historic city where both cultures and football collide.

Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have 19 Turkish league championships apiece but Gala have the edge in history and overall silverware as they boast a significantly higher amount of domestic cup triumphs and remain the only Turkish team to win a European trophy – the UEFA Cup in 2000. This distinction is a great source of annoyance to the Fenerbahçe faithful. It is one of many undercurrents that intensify this rivalry, but supremacy in Turkish football remains at the forefront of the antagonism shared between the sides.

“There was a real bad feeling between the supporters,” Graeme Souness once remarked. The former Liverpool legend managed Galatasaray from 1995 to 1996, and is responsible for one of the most iconic incidents in the rivalry’s history. After enduring a difficult campaign with Galatasaray – where they exited the UEFA cup at an early stage and underperformed in the league – Souness needed to win the Turkish Cup to save his skin. The team standing in the way of salvation was none other than bitter rivals Fenerbahçe, who were gunning for a double after being crowned league champions.

Read  |  The European obsession of Galatasaray

In the first of two legs, Dean Saunders fired the hosts Galatasaray into a 1-0 advantage via the penalty spot but the Gala fans remained sceptical, aware that Fenerbahçe had been utterly brilliant at home all season. However, Gala managed to make it to extra-time after Fenerbahçe had only scored the one goal. With the game creeping closer and closer to penalties, Saunders popped up once again and netted a 116th-minute winner to send the Saracoğlu stadium into mayhem.

However, Saunders’ celebrations were not the main point of focus in the post-game reaction. Souness, not content with the usual fist pump or embrace of his coaching staff, grabbed a giant Galatasaray flag off a fan and waved it about, before walking straight onto the pitch and planting it in the centre circle of Fenerbahçe’s pitch. Unsurprisingly, Souness’s actions caused uproar, prompting mass riots and brawling in the stands. Although vaulting him to hero status with the Galatasaray supporters, Souness was sacked three weeks later and was warned about “ungentlemanly conduct” by the Turkish FA. The Fenerbahçe fans forever remember him as ‘The Nasty Scot’.

Souness blew the lid off the rivalry that day, in a symbolic gesture that Fenerbahçe perceived as him conquering and claiming their territory. Souness was not acting entirely on impulse, though. When he arrived as Galatasaray manager, the Fenerbahçe president, Ali Haydar Şen, called him a “cripple” in reference to the open heart surgery Souness had undergone. The flag implantation was both a direct retaliation from Souness and a reminder of how this rivalry can run deep into the psyches of everyone involved, from the players to the fans, to the coaches and members of the boardroom.

They reacted in a manner that has become synonymous with the conduct of these football matches – they went berserk. Chairs and flares flew through the air in the direction of Souness and a squadron of police officers rushed around the manager to form a protective shield. It failed in deterring the bloodthirsty Fenerbahçe fans, however, as they attempted to scale the pitch side cages to get at the barricaded Scotsman. At that moment, the rivalry between the two sets had never been so intense. Souness had thrown fuel on the fire and could only stand and watch, enveloped by police in riot gear, as the two fans proceeded to riot in the stands. The fiery passion is arguably the greatest aspect of this game but simultaneously its greatest downfall. The vitriolic hatred shared by the fans at times spills over and produces moments of extreme violence.

For a long period, Galatasaray were very much the dominant force in Turkish football, collecting an impressive haul of trophies and enjoying a wonderful record in the derby. However, with a healthy injection of cash, Fenerbahçe came roaring back to prominence and have revitalised the competitive edge to the derby now that both teams are firmly cemented as numbers one and two in Turkish football. The transition of power has further weakened already fragile relations between the two clubs as they continuously battle to occupy the summit of the Turkish football hierarchy.

Perhaps no match has more effectively captured the simmering resentment on the stands as well as the quality football on the pitch as much as when in December 2006, the two sides clashed in the league at the Saracoğlu. As always, it was a highly-charged and exhilarating event, with some end-to-end football enough to get hearts racing in the stands. Unfortunately, following a quick-fire double from Fenerbahçe’s Alex and Mateja Kežman, the game became dogged with incidents of fan violence. Galatasaray supporters were incensed not only by defeat to their rivals, but also at their team’s faltering campaign. That season, Fenerbahçe raced to the league title, finishing nine points ahead of Beşiktaş in second and 14 ahead of Gala in third.

Read  |  Beşiktaş: Istanbul’s third club but Constantinople’s first

That season, Galatasaray met Fenerbahçe on the final day and the fans of the former were ready to disrupt the match in any way possible. As Fenerbahçe took the lead through Diego Lugano, the atmosphere inside the Gala’s old ground, the Ali Sami Yen stadium, threatened to boil over. When Edu put Fenerbahçe two up before half-time, rumblings of riotous behaviour resurfaced as the fans subjected the players on the pitch to a barrage of broken bottles, dismounted seats and flares. When the teams re-emerged for the second half, it looked like they were walking onto a battlefield suffering constant bombardment.

With no sign of a reprieve, the referee had no choice but to abandon proceedings halfway through the second period. When play resumed, the stadium was half in ruin. The endless fires and scenes of wreckage illustrated a kind of hellish prison as opposed to a football stadium. The arena was rapidly evacuated as fans decided they had enough and fled before they were directly caught in the crossfire. The match will never be remembered as a great footballing event but for good reason. Reflecting on those frightening scenes, it is regretful to say that this rivalry is permeated by fans that, at times, forget about the football and get carried away with the hatred. The match that day finished 2-1, but neither sets of supporters really cared. They were fixated on inflicting pain on each other.

That day was dubbed ‘Black Saturday’ by the Turkish press and it is a telling headline; the vision of a darkened stadium, close to internal ruination is a sorry sight in top-flight football and it is a situation that should never occur. Passion and rivalry are all good and healthy angles of the intense competition football brings to people’s lives, but at times the hatred spills over into ugly scenes of hooliganism and violence. It has no place in football and it is not what the Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray rivalry should represent.

At the end of the day, it is about the football. For better demonstrations of the quality footballing spectacle it can be, one must look beyond the flares and fire and concentrate on the professionals on the pitch. In 2012, the two teams provided the perfect illustration of fine football in a thrilling 2-2 draw. Moussa Sow and Alex de Souza scored for Fenerbahçe whilst Hakan Balta bagged two for Galatasaray.

The game embodied much of why millions tune in to watch this derby year after year: quality football, an emphasis on attacking strategies and a late goal by Balta which ensured it was not lacking in the late drama category.

The Istanbul derby is revered as one of the greatest in the sport and most of the time it justifies its lofty position with good football and first-rate entertainment. However, as history has so gruesomely shown, it has a darker side, which the two sets of fans fail to keep hidden at times. In times that are truly testing for Turkish football, caught in a whirlwind of match-fixing allegations that has tainted its reputation, it is important for this rivalry to remain the shining light.

For most fans around the world, matches between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray are their only exposure to Turkish football and it is important for the health and future of the sport in the region that they witness good football as opposed to the foolish actions of ruffians. Good football, after all, is what truly makes any rivalry great. And a great rivalry can outlast even the hardy constraints of time itself.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11