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Friday, November 15, 2002


Offside: Greek-Turkish Soccer Diplomacy

Alexander Kitroeff wrote the following report last week upon returning from Istanbul on special assignment for

“We had better let the coaches and players go off and prepare for the game,” said George Papandreou in a rare moment of common sense in what was proving to be a torrid evening in Istanbul. The Greek foreign minister was speaking at a ceremony during which two soccer clubs, Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos, pledged their support for the Greek campaign for a worldwide Olympic truce in 2004 during the Athens Olympics, as well as for the joint Greek-Turkish bid to host Euro 2008, the European equivalent of the World Cup.

An Olympic truce…
Anyone with a rudimentary sense of sentiments in both Greece and Turkey knows that public opinion in both countries is dubious about the current thaw between them. With both governments lagging in efforts to educate the public about the value of rapprochement, the idea of promoting it in the context of an important soccer match – traditionally a volatile affair on either side of the Aegean – beggars belief. And yet, it happened – and, yes, the outcome was a public-relations disaster.

As Papandreou spoke, Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos were minutes away from playing each other in the 55,000-capacity Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Istanbul. Against all odds, no Greek team had ever played a Turkish team in an annual European club tournament since they began in 1955. Ironically, when the draw for the second round of the UEFA Cup of 2002-03 finally pitted a Greek club against a Turkish one, the two historic rivals were trying to sweep their differences aside in the wake of the earthquake diplomacy initiated in 1999. Indeed, the most recent effort at a Turkish-Greek rapprochement did involve soccer: as mentioned above, it was the joint bid submitted by Greece and Turkey to host Euro 2008.

How the Olympic truce got involved in the Fenerbahce-Panathinaikos clash is unclear. To be sure, the two sides built up the game in order to showcase their bid for Euro 2008. Large blue and red banners advertising the bid – and proclaiming, “We Can Work it Out” – adorned Istanbul’s Kemal Ataturk Airport. Meanwhile, the committee promoting the Olympic truce is busy collecting signatures of world leaders and personalities pledging their support, with the list of signatories numbering 164 to date. Evidently, this was thought to be the proper occasion for Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos to join the list. In the event, a traveler from the United States coming to Istanbul to cover the game could not help but notice that it was taking place on Halloween night.

Istanbul, for all its virtues, does not automatically come to mind when one thinks of an appropriate venue in which to link soccer with a peace initiative. In April 2000, two English soccer fans were knifed to death a little before a game between Leeds United and Fenerbahce’s great crosstown rival, Galatasaray. In reporting the incident, the BBC noted that games between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray have caused Turkish police to confiscate knives, hatchets, and kebab cutters while fans’ over-enthusiastic use of fireworks has occasionally caused significant damage to stadiums. All this is known only too well in Greece, where games between the two great rivals, Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, often lead to clashes between fans and, ominously, the destruction of plastic seats in stadiums.

Despite all this, many believed that the prospect of Greece and Turkey bidding successfully for Euro 2008 would curb the worst manifestations of fanaticism on both sides. Standing outside the stadium minutes before the Panathinaikos buses were due to arrive, Mehmet Demircan, a writer for Turkey’s leading sports daily, Fanatik, told that he thought cooler heads would prevail. The Galatasaray violence two years earlier was an accident, he said; in any case, he added, winning the right to host Euro 2008 was much more important this time than the outcome of the Fenerbahce-Panathinaikos matchup. From the moment the two teams were drawn against each other, the Turkish press had stressed the importance of upholding the values of fair play when they met on the field.

Dermican’s voice was barely audible thanks to the loud singing of Fenerbahce’s fans, who were taking up their positions across the street in anticipation of the arrival of Panathinaikos’s buses. Asked whether the fans shared his sentiments, he answered affirmatively, adding that the British and Italian press depicted them as hotheads but that, in reality, no Turkish team “had ever been punished for player or fan trouble by the European soccer bosses.” Demircan listed the international tournaments in which Turkey had played recently and, while he cited the problems that British and German fans had created, he stressed that there had been no comparable incidents involving Turkish fans.

A little later, as the Greek delegation led by Papandreou and the Turkish delegation led by Turkey’s foreign minister, Sukru Sina Gurel, gathered in the plush conference rooms underneath the stadium’s stands, Turkish riot police were busy clearing the road outside. They were making way for the buses carrying about 1,500 young men in their teens and twenties clad in Panathinaikos’s green and white colors. The buses pulled up as close as possible to the gate through which the visiting fans would enter to take their places in an isolated section of the stadium. These are standard procedures for soccer games in Europe, where hardcore fans follow their team on the road even when it is playing in a foreign country.

…But not necessarily one between Greek and Turkish soccer fans
Turkish riot police wielding plastic shields standing four deep threw a cordon between the buses and a swirl of home fans who offered their own welcome to the visitors. It began with a red flare bouncing off the side of the first bus, followed by stones, soda cans, and a water bottle. Undaunted, the Greek fans responded with rude gestures from inside the bus. As they got off and made their way to the entrance, they began singing the Greek national anthem and chanting Panathinaikos songs.

  From across the street and behind the wall of riot police came a thunderous response: Tur-ki-ye! Tur-ki-ye! Fe-ner-bah-ce! Fe-ner-bah-ce! Slowly and patiently, stadium security funneled the Greek fans to their seats, from where they would continue their “dialogue” with their Turkish counterparts from the safe distance of a cordon sanitaire provided by Turkish riot police. Meanwhile, under the main stand, the dignitaries gathered for the signing ceremony. The Greek delegation included the minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, the deputy minister for sport, Giorgos Lianis, as well as Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, the director of the International Olympic Truce Center. These officials, along with the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, stood behind the table where the actual signatories sat. They were Ata Aksu, vice president of the Turkish football association; Vassilis Gagatsis, president of the Greek soccer federation; and, from Fenerbahce, president Aziz Yildirim, coach Werner Lorant, and player Ogun Temizkanoglu. The Panathinaikos signatories were president Angelos Philipides, coach Sergio Markarian, and player Christof Warzycha.

Papandreou spoke about how games bring peace. Turkey’s foreign minister followed, and despite his reputation for being less than enthusiastic about the Greek-Turkish thaw and advocating a hard line over Cyprus, he shared the sentiments of his Greek counterpart. Next was Greece’s minister of culture, who spoke of an “excellent moment.” At the conclusion of the event, Deputy Minister Lianis confidently told that even if the hardcore fans were singing nationalistic songs outside, he believed that the signature ceremony represented a very good start in bring the two sides closer together.

To get from the press-conference area to the VIP seats, the dignitaries had to walk from one side of the stadium to the other. Instead of taking the quickest route by cutting across the playing field, however, they chose to walk around the sides, waving to the fans. Deafening noise welcomed the officials and the press as they emerged from under the grandstand. Fifty-five thousand Fenerbahce fans stood up and cheered, banging yellow plastic noisemakers. The earsplitting sounds cascaded down from the terraces mingling with the martial music blaring from the public address system and the large speakers ringing the playing field. Timeworn phrases used by sportswriters such as “hellish cauldron of noise” did not seem so hyperbolic now after all.

As it turned out, Fenerbahce’s fans were saluting their hero, club president Aziz Yildirim, who has rebuilt both the stadium and their team at great cost. The Greek and Turkish politicians evidently assumed it was they who were being honored, however, and so waved back enthusiastically. Caught up in the euphoric moment, instead of getting off the field at the entrance to the VIP section, they decided to walk over to a corner of the crowd were the 1,500 Panathinaikos fans were sequestered.

By that time, the Greek fans had spent well over an hour doing verbal battle with the Fenerbahce fans, waving flags at them, including a Greek flag with Cyprus on it, a Byzantine flag, various Greek and Panathinaikos banners, and – the ultimate insult – a Galatasaray flag. The home fans displayed their own assortment of flags, including one representing the illegal Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus. Best of all, across the field and facing the visitors from Greece, they had unfurled an enormous 15’x20’ banner that read, “Istanbul Since 1453,” with a depiction of what was supposed to be Mehmet the Conqueror entering Constantinople.

Having reached a fairly high level of frenzy, the Panathinaikos fans did not take kindly to the smiling approach of the posse of potentates that included the Turkish foreign minister and George Papandreou, the architect of Greek-Turkish friendship. They ripped out the plastic seating bolted to the cement stands and flung it in the direction of the officials. The broken plastic seats fell just short of their target. Not so in the case of at least two cartons of ayran, the liquid yogurt drink one finds in Turkey. Both landed on members of the official party, who were already turning away in haste. As it was beating a retreat, somebody from the group muttered in Greek, “I said we should not have come over to them!” Meanwhile, even greater numbers of Turkish riot police surrounded the fans.

Panathinaikos president Angelos Philipides controlled his anger and stayed behind briefly, trying unsuccessfully to reason with the fans. When asked about fan violence after the game, he told the Greek media that his back was turned the moment the seats were thrown, adding that he thought that they had behaved fairly well during the game. It was only two days later in Athens that Philipides announced that he would disband the unruly supporters’ clubs that had traveled to Istanbul.

Onur Belge, the secretary of the Turkish sportswriters association, was a paragon of calm amid what was considerable agitation, as officials and press retired to the safety of the grandstand. Dapperly dressed in a way that would have been appropriate for the San Siro, Milan’s soccer stadium, Belge, smiling, reassured all those around him that the worst was over. “Fanatics are fanatics the world over,” he told Asked how sportswriters should react to what had already become a bizarre sequence of events, he said that even supporters of the joint bid for Euro 2008 had to write the truth about fan behavior. Nevertheless, he added, “It should be done carefully because even one wrong word can destroy everything.”

Up in the press box, Belge’s Greek colleagues seemed less concerned with the dialectics of text and context. The 50-strong Greek press corps had managed to miss both the press conference and the walk around the playing field because they had gone straight to the press area upon their arrival. These lapses did not keep them from relaying information to Athens, however. “Papandreou condemned the incidents and said it was the work of a small minority of 20 fans,” shouted one reporter into his mobile phone. Next to him another voice was heard saying in unctuous tones, “it was only a couple of troublemakers and they [the Panathinaikos fans] themselves found them, beat them up, and ejected them from the stadium.”

And then there was the game…
Finally, the game was ready to begin following the announcement of the starting lineups. (It should be added that, in Fenerbahce’s case, the announcer provides only a player’s number and first name, and then pauses, allowing the entire stadium to bellow out the last name.) The teams then came onto the field, carrying a banner advertising the joint bid for Euro 2008. One could make out the words with difficulty because the air was filled with the smoke emitted by several flares in the hands of the home crowd.

Following the team introductions, the loudspeakers played a song whose title roughly translates into “twelve big men.” It is the anthem of the Turkish national basketball team that reached the European final in 2001; in a soccer context, however, the “twelfth man” is actually the fans who vocally assist the physical efforts of the eleven players on the field. The next song was the Fenerbahce anthem, sung to the tune of Eviva Espana! The stadium shook, transformed into an undulating wave of yellow as 55,000 “twelfth men” jumped up and down in the stands while singing at the top of their lungs. Earthquake diplomacy anyone?

There was one final announcement before the game got underway. The observer from the European soccer union asked that the “Istanbul Since 1453” banner be struck. The home fans complied and, at long last, soccer, not politics, took centerstage. The Greek players seemed utterly unfazed by the torrent of noise produced by the home fans. Goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis casually kicked back the water bottle that hurtled through the air and burst in and around his eighteen-yard box. In midfield, Fenerbahce’s Argentine playmaker, Ariel Ortega, displayed his ball-control skills. Panathinaikos went ahead first, against the run of play, thanks to a well-taken long-range shot by Angelos Basinas. A little before the end of the first half, Fenerbahce’s Brazilian striker, Washington, tied the score, which, at 1-1, remained the final tally.

The teams meet for the rematch in Athens next week. Greek authorities plan heavy security to deal with any troublesome fans. If nothing else, surely the misguided attempt to involve soccer fanatics in Greek-Turkish diplomacy and the campaign for an Olympic truce will not be repeated.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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