“The hot summer months symbolised the notion of freedom without school days. In such an atmosphere, football and intellectual writers were among the biggest passions of me and my friends. We used to spend time mostly with a football and books.” Like so many in Turkey in the summertime, Hüseyin Serbes was simply a carefree teenager. Then, in the early hours of 17 August 1999, everything changed.
“As usual I was together with my friends until late the evening before. In the middle of the night, I woke up to intense noise and shouting. As someone who had never experienced an earthquake before, I could not understand what was happening. After strong shocks, we escaped into the street. With the first light of day, destroyed houses and lifeless bodies appeared.”
Situated at the easternmost point of the Kocaeli Peninsula, some 100km down the coast from Istanbul, İzmit is a city that certainly knows hardship. “Kocaeli is really unique,” Ertan Aslan tells me. “People from different ethnical and religious backgrounds come here to work or study. This cultural diversity is the biggest obstacle to create one identity. Because of its social or economic structure, Kocaeli is not big enough to create an identity based on cultural diversity. So we have one thing in common: Kocaelispor.”
Founded in 1966 as part of a drive by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to create singular teams for provincial cities, Kocaelispor have always been a special club. They first reached the 1. Lig in 1980, quickly garnering a reputation for their fanatical supporters. Such backing always made İzmit a difficult place to visit, and throughout the 1990s the club achieved several notable highs.
In the 1992/93 season, on the back of promotion, Kocaelispor led the league for the majority of the campaign under legendary coach Güvenç Kurtar. Unfortunately, they won just one of their final five matches to end in fourth. Things later took a sinister turn when striker Bülent Uygun, who joined Fenerbahçe that summer, revealed Istanbul clubs had offered transfers to the best Kocaelispor players provided they didn’t injure themselves in the remaining matches.
Despite this, in 1997 the club achieved their first major honour by defeating Trabzonspor in the final of the Türkiye Kupası. The club had assembled one of the best squads in its history, possessing international stars such as South African international John “Shoes” Moshoeu and Romanian goalkeeper Dumitru Stângaciu. In 1998/99 Kocaelispor finished fifth, but just a few months later life in the entire city would be turned upside down.
Just after 3am on 17 August 1999, a strike-slip tremor occurred along the North Anatolian Fault. The resulting shockwave lasted for over half a minute, shaking the foundations of İzmit and later causing a two-metre-high tsunami. Approximately 17,000 people were killed, with up to half a million left homeless. Combined with extensive damage caused to poorly-constructed buildings, İzmit was devastated.
Following the disaster, the TFF and government enacted new laws that applied to teams in earthquake-prone areas. Two articles were of particular importance. Firstly, players of affected clubs were free to cancel their contracts in fear of their safety and move to another club. As a result, the club lost several key players in Mert Korkmaz, Tarik Daşgün and Zeki Önatlı.
The other important clause allowed teams to withdraw from the current season, being placed back in their respective league for the following year. This was something taken up in the second division by Düzcespor and Kocaelispor’s fierce rivals Sakaryaspor, but not in İzmit.
Defiant, Kocaelispor president and city mayor Sefa Sirmen issued a rallying cry. “We won’t withdraw because the people who live in İzmit need happiness, there is only one way for that; Kocaelispor.” Ertan adds: “I think everyone knew that Kocaelispor was the biggest symbol of the city and in a situation like this, people need something to follow.”
Unfortunately, the impact of the earthquake ran deep. “Fears remained,” Hüseyin says. “We could not enter our house for a long time. We spent a few months on the street. Freud talked about a free-floating quantum of anxiety. The anxious waiting is one of the main symptoms of this neurosis he spoke of. That waiting followed me everywhere I went.”
The resulting damage to İsmetpaşa Stadyumu meant fixtures had to be drastically rescheduled. Kocaelispor played nearly all their away matches during the first half of the campaign. Sorely missing the atmosphere generated by their fans, at the halfway stage the club were bottom. Returning home with fresh optimism brought on by the new millennium, Kocaelispor miraculously rose from the ashes to finish three points clear of relegation.
A 13th-place finish the following season signified consolidation, but few expected what was to happen next. In pre-season for the 2001/02 campaign, Kocaelispor beat an Arsenal line-up containing the likes of David Seaman, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pirès 4-1 in a friendly in Austria. In the league, the club again finished in mid-table, however it was in the Kupa where the dream was to be realised.
Türk Telekom, Gençlerbirliği, Erzurumspor and Adanaspor were all dispatched of as the 1997 winners set up the possibility of another trophy. Standing in their way in the final were the might of Beşiktaş. Coached by Christoph Daum and with a squad led by İlhan Mansız, who would star at that summer’s World Cup, Kocaelispor appeared to have little hope.
“I was at one of my friends’ houses and his father was watching the game with us,” Ertan tells me. “Cihan Haspolatlı scored the first goal (just before half time) and a few minutes later the phone rang. The friend on the phone said that he named his newborn son Cihan.” In the second half, Kocaelispor would score three more without reply to cap the unlikeliest of triumphs.
“As a kid, I thought that was a clear message to the city: we’re still alive.” Ertan continues. “The diversity that we have in the city could tear us apart. But just like Mandela’s Springbok rugby team, Kocaelispor were there to keep us alive. They started the fire; they convinced the city to go on.”
Their success was one felt across Turkey. With the final held in the neutral city of Bursa, supporters of local side Bursaspor came along to cheer on Kocaelispor. Meanwhile, in the first game of the new season, fans of capital club Ankaragücü brought along a banner to wish the side luck in the UEFA Cup.
Sadly, the result of that tie – a 5-0 aggregate exit to Hungarian runners-up Ferencváros – brought an abrupt end to the European adventure. Domestically Kocaelispor would finish 14 points off safety to end their 11-year top-flight stay. Barring one season in 2008/09, they haven’t been seen since.
That relegation perpetuated a fall few could have ever imagined. Debts of over ₺100m meant city officials wanted to close the club down. In the summer of 2011, water and electricity were cut off from Kocaelispor’s training ground over unpaid bills. Meanwhile, attempts were made to change Körfez Belediyespor into Kocaeli Futbol Kulübü to give the city a new club.
Despite the TFF vetoing this over the similarity of names, this didn’t stop club colours being changed to feature the green and black of Kocaelispor. Their matches were moved to İsmetpaşa Stadyumu, and the entire Kocaelispor first-team transferred to Körfez. Kocaelispor may have survived an earthquake, but it now looked as if they were about to die at the hands of officials.
Fans, however, refused to watch what they termed “çakma Kocaelispor” (fake Kocaelispor). They stayed loyal to their floundering love. Under a transfer embargo and forced to field their youth team for the entire season, the “high school team” conceded 130 goals and won just two games. But this was irrelevant. What mattered was they hadn’t given up hope, they hadn’t stopped fighting. They were symbolising the essence of İzmit.
A further relegation in 2014 meant Kocaelispor sunk to playing in the self-explanatory Regional Amateur League. Regardless, fans continued to recognise the importance of the club to the spirit of the city. In January 2015, over 20,000 spectators came to watch a match with Büyükçekmece Belediyespor, a record for the fifth tier. Spurred on by such support, the following 2015/16 season saw Kocaelispor win the 12th group.
With last season curtailed early owing to COVID-19, they were confirmed as champions of the second group of the 3. Lig. Despite this only meaning promotion to the third division, Kocaelispor fans still celebrated with as much passion as 2002. A boat was hired to take club officials and players around the harbour, and upon docking they were welcomed by thousands who followed a bus through the city.
For these supporters, their team is so much more than just a football club. As they say here, “love does not have a league”. Even in the time of a global pandemic, Kocaelispor is still there for the city. It is just the latest example of how, whatever the circumstances, those in İzmit refuse to surrender.
By James Kelly @jkell403