The Plague of Hooliganism in Turkish football

Turkey is home to some of the world’s most fanatical football supporters. Their culture is so strongly based on honour that people are seemingly prepared to kill to defend it.

The country’s two biggest clubs are Fenerbahce and Galatasaray– fierce Istanbul-based rivals separated by the Bosporus Straits, with Galatasaray on the European side and Fenerbahce on the Asian side of the city.

In April, five shots were fired at Fenerbahce’s team coach after an away win at Trabzonspor, seriously wounding the driver.

Fenerbahçe’s most notorious hooligan ‘firm’ are called GFB or Genc Fenerbahceliler, which translates as Young Fenerbahçe Fans. They have a passion for the club which often manifests itself in ugly violence and unrest.

“Until the government, football authorities and clubs come together to formulate a meaningful plan of action, the passion for the beautiful game in Turkey will continue to have a distinctly ugly side to it.”

Galatasaray’s most infamous ‘ultras’ are known as UltrAslan, and they have members from all over the world including England, Germany, Holland and France.

The UltrAslan brand has become so successful they have sold more tops than the club have sold team shirts. In 2003, money raised through the brand was donated by UltrAslan members to their debt-stricken side to prevent it going out of business.

However, sometimes too much passion can lead to disaster. In 2000, Galatasaray were involved in a violent clash which resulted in two Leeds United fans being stabbed to death.

Turkish newspapers claimed that drunken Leeds supporters were inflicting their rowdy behaviour on passers-by; other people insisted the two killed were innocent parties in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case, the English fans were attacked with iron bars, hatchets and knives.

In the aftermath, there were many calls in the UK for Galatasaray to be banned from European football, but they were allowed to continue and went on to win the UEFA Cup, beating Arsenal in the final. There was more trouble after the match, with four fans injured in knife attacks.

Code of honour

Despite having a bad reputation worldwide, Galatasaray fans have been less disruptive over the past two or three years as their leaders in the stands have acted to curb their excesses.

Many people make a connection between Turkey’s poor record both in European club competition and at international level and the havoc caused by Turkish fans. At a practical level, this can result in stadium closures and heavy financial fines.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) has been trying to stop the rise in hooliganism with new rules aimed at excluding fans who perpetuate the negative image created by hooliganism.

“Hardcore fans will always find ways to get into stadia.”

One is the ‘Passolig’ system which simply means tickets will not be on general sale. Fans need a club identity card to purchase them, which then helps the authorities to identify those intent on causing trouble.

TFF chairman Yildirim Demir Oren said: ‘We intend to kick those out who use football as a way to terrorise other individuals and give Turkish football a bad name.’

Some hooligans have reacted to the Passolig scheme by not attending matches and rioting in protest against the TFF.

However, the scheme is not foolproof and determined troublemakers can bypass it. A recent match between Fenerbahçe and Trabzonspor was abandoned because objects such as coins, lighters and mobile phones were thrown onto the pitch.

The job of the police in preventing this kind of behaviour is made tougher by the hatred hooligans have for them. Their attitude has been hardened in part by Turkey’s Special Forces who show no mercy when dealing with errant fans.

For example, in 2009, Fenerbahce fans making noise outside the hotel of an opposing team were dispersed with tear gas and and iron bars. Confronting the forces of law and order is part of the hooligans’ code of honour.

Dr Geoff Pearson of the University of Liverpool, who has written several books and academic papers on the subject of hooliganism, says: “At a game, there’s three parties involved – two sets of fans and the police – and the fans get something out of challenging the police.”

It’s clear that something has to change. Whether measures such as the Passolig rule can have a major effect is debatable as hardcore fans will always find ways to get into stadia.

Until the government, football authorities and clubs come together to formulate a meaningful plan of action, the passion for the beautiful game in Turkey will continue to have a distinctly ugly side to it.

Featured Image by Miguel Vidal/Reuters