“The spectators are divided into two sections. Each would encourage the [players] of its own side, and keep swearing at the enemy. Everyone says whatever they want to. Everyone shouts and bawls at will. A freedom of expression, and thought, at full speed… Those who want to understand democracy in a specific sense should go to Taksim Stadium. I, for my part, spent a beautiful and lucid two hours there.”
This account of a football match in the 1920s by the great Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet does not sound much different to today’s spectacle. Taksim Stadium was Turkey’s premier football venue at the time; it hosted Turkey’s first international game in 1923. In 1940 it was demolished and turned into Gezi Park, as the locus of Turkish football shifted down the hill to Dolmabahçe Stadium. Taksim – İstanbul’s most famous square – has always embraced collective emotions, writes the artist Emre Zeytinoglu. Gezi Park, in the north-west corner of the square, is a scrappy mishmash of concrete, patchy grass, playgrounds, fountains, crumbling steps, ad hoc coffee shops, stained and worn benches, half-hearted flower beds, and perhaps more than 600 trees – a rare and awkward and precious green space on the overdeveloped European plateau of the city. Gezi Park’s users represent downtown İstanbul in idling microcosm: office-workers, tourists, refugees, dedicated drinkers, couples, hawkers, families, tea sellers, solitary readers, sex workers.
As mayor of İstanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had supported a decades-old plan for a mosque to be built in Taksim Square. The project ended up being aborted after the 1997 military intervention – many Kemalists had seen it as an attempt to impose an Islamist identity on a symbolically vital square that features a monument dedicated to Ataturk.
In 2012 Erdoğan – then prime minister – announced that the park would be demolished to make space for a reconstruction of the Ottoman-era Halil Pasha artillery barracks. The run-down barracks had been transformed into Taksim football stadium in 1921. In Erdoğan’s vision, the reconstructed barracks was expected to house a shopping mall, luxury apartments and possibly a museum. Historic buildings and green spaces in İstanbul have repeatedly been slated for destruction under the AKP. Any protests were typically dispersed or ignored, and the land was developed.
Protesters at Gezi Park defied this trend, and many of its fiercest foot soldiers were football fans. Football became an unprecedented site of rebellion, triggering a fierce backlash from the government, and a hugely symbolic struggle over the character of Turkish football fandom. As the government wanted to gentrify Gezi, some say they wanted to gentrify football fans.
Click here to read the rest of this edited book extract published by Box to Box Football.