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Istanbul United: Unity In Discord

by Helmy Sa'at

Istanbul United’ is available to watch on Qalbox. We are currently running a limited time promo (more than 60% OFF) for you to enjoy unlimited access to Qalbox and Muslim Pro ad-free! Claim it now!

Besiktas. Fenerbahce. Galatasaray.

No these are not new names of houses at Hogwarts, the imaginary wizarding school popularised through the global phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series. These are football teams. The three biggest football teams in Istanbul, Turkey to be exact.

Istanbul United would make anyone forget about the serenity of the Hagia Sophia mosque or the majestic Topkapi Palace typically printed on glossy travel brochures and on full display as top attractions to visit on travel websites as one is scrolling and planning his or her revenge travel. This documentary offers an intimate look into a whole different face of Istanbul through the powerful subculture in football. Based on the legendary mutual rivalry, which has generated fanatical fandoms also known as the ‘Ultra’ fans.

A still from Istanbul United, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

Football Is A Serious Business Everywhere

“I never had my uncle running to me or hugging me or throwing me around or kissing me other than the times Galatasaray scored. As a kid I remember, even without noticing what football was or what it is about, I would wait and expect Galatasaray to score, so we would have a party atmosphere at home.”

Kerem Gurbuz, Fan of Galatasaray or better known as an Ultraslan

Loud, crowded and sweaty. All of it before even watching any matches in the stadium. Is it authentic zeal based on undying passion for the sport? A form of escapism for the many supporters who seek to feel a sense of belonging through such extreme allegiance? Or, truth be told, just another distraction from real world issues by making these groups of men succumb into delusions that they are making their voices heard when their chants are heard roaring and echoing in the stadiums?

There are many reasons for such voluntary fandom to have such supporters. As evident in the frank and chilling sentiments expressed and shared in the following:

“Being part of the supporters … to me it means creating banners, helping with the organisation and creating special choreography on match days … To develop slogans that represent the Ultra movement and anti-industrial, anti-capitalistic football. To publish fanzines and write articles on the topic. To live my idea of life inside the fans’ curve as well. That’s my understanding of being a real fan.”

Cahit Binici, Fan of Fenerbahce

“I have spent my whole life in front of stadiums, at away games, on the streets. In every bit of mortar, in every bit of mud in Besiktas, there is a bit of me … I constantly think about how we can develop Besiktas and Turkish football further … Our biggest weapons are still our pens and our words.”

Ayhan Guner, Fan of Besiktas

“When I see someone wearing a Galatasaray jersey outside, of course I automatically sympathise. Feel some familiarity. We sometimes would smile at each other. And, you know like maybe back then I would be more willing to [give] help to that person just because he has the jersey.”

Kerem Gurbuz

From the outside, peering in as part of the audience, we would be at a loss to really pin the reason for their fanatical loyalties. Loyalties that extend outside the parameters of the football pitches, the stadiums and out into the public spaces. It is mind boggling to say the least. At the end of the day, it is apparent that there is a blurring of distinctions between love and hate. The question: Which is a more powerful impetus for driving such fanatical zeal that sets such football passion on the surface into overdrive thus bubbling over, at times, into ugly acts of violence?

“My first name is Black and my last name is White. I love the Black in Besiktas most. Black and White for us is like life and death without distinction. For us, there is nothing in between. There is no grey … When we love or hate, we do it to the death.”

Ayhan Guner sharing what the team’s colours represent and mean to him and the fandom.

Are they truly driven by love for the teams, and the game by extension or, immense hatred for the competitor alone? Ironically, football here has morphed into some sort of religion, into something black and white with no grey areas, for these fandoms.

Building Unity In Discord

“I would have never thought to see Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray fans next to each other… And when I saw these groups together I thought, if they can come together, then we can really accomplish anything.”

Bilgesu Kaya, Gezi protester

A still from Istanbul United, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

Interestingly, hope reveals itself during one of the most distressed period of Turkey’s recent political history. The mass protests around Taksim Square, in 2013 organically created a united front. Also known as the Gezi Park protests, it was a pivotal moment for these fanatical fandoms to face their biggest challenge yet.

“It is connected to our different political views and opinions. When the match begins, nobody cares about ideologies or religion. Everybody is united under the Fenerbahce flag or whatever other flag and shares the same colours and euphoria with everybody else.”

Cahit Binici

A still from Istanbul United, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

Amid the continual hissing of gas canisters, water cannons unleashed on the people emerged an alliance among the three biggest football fandoms – Istanbul United. Their iconic chants echoing mighty loud in every direction with a clear message: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” That collective dynamic injected energy that earlier was almost drowned out by screams of pain and agony in the middle of widespread chaos and police brutality that escalated the domestic political unrest then. For a brief period, they put their eternal rivalries on the back-burner for an even bigger calling – democratic freedom.

A pivotal point to contend with remains ambiguous and blurry, literally and figuratively, akin to the foggy air caused by the release of gas canisters in an effort to control, intimidate and disperse protesting crowds: Who was the real enemy and did the short-lived alliance, Istanbul United, deserve to be revered and judged to be on the right side of history no matter how fleeting?

The final verdict: You decide; for better or worse.