Istanbul, May 2005

Another airport again, sitting looking out at concrete runways through characterless glass panes. The check-in and passport controls and security checks and duty-frees and toilets could be at any airport on any continent. There’s something both comforting and frightening about this: the processes become familiar, the environment spookily déjà vu. You’ve done all that travel planning and timing and organizing and individual stressing out to get ready for that unique holiday experience and special adventure, and you’re surrounded by thousands of people telling the same travellers’ tales, having the same predictable and banal conversations, exchanging the same snippets of pidgin English or French or Spanish or Arabic.

And then you want to do something useful, like buy a deodorant stick and some plonky good-value aftershave. But all there is are Helen Rubenstein, Coco Chanel, Issi TakeyourEuro. There’s money in your pocket, though – a mixture of new Gatwick-issued notes, crumpled old Turkish lire notes and some inevitable shrapnel, and when a pint or two are coughed up for in millions of old Turkish lire, 14.50 Euros suddenly sounds ok for a small stick of Hugo Boss. The Ballantine’s (Finest) Scotch whiskey comes in at just 23 New Turkish Lire. So a stick of Hugo – ‘Man’ – it is, a quick rub of the sweatening armpits in the departure lounge and it all seems like money well spent. The Ballantines will be ok in the Tokyo bedroom, or as a gift for the Waseda University hosts on the next stopping-off point in Tokyo.

On this Saturday morning, Gate 308 at Turkey’s airport has a mixture of backpackers, businessmen, family tourists and some straggling Liverpool supporters two nights on from the epic Champions League (or European Cup) Final in Istanbul. At the departure gate I sit next to a group of three young women. One of them’s reading The Mirror final special. Will you ever tire reading about it I ask. She looks up with a jaded but sated smile. Only one word is necessary. Never. They’d got back from the Ataturk Olympic Stadium at around 2 in the morning, and found a friendly bar and drank and talked and laughed and talked again and went over the gloom and the comeback and the ecstasy until the dawn broke over the Bosphorus and the morning light beckoned them to their hostels and hotels and backpacking dormitories. They’d be silent at times, groups such as these, but like war veterans who know others cannot understand and lovers who can make as the great John Donne said ‘one small room … a world’, they now share something special. They were there in Istanbul on that May 25 Wednesday. In the backpacker’s suburb around the corner from the Blue Mosque on the Thursday, replays of the match had to be booked. Improvised cardboard signs announced afternoon and 9pm screenings. These fans weren’t bothered about the Aya Sofa’s 1,500 year old splendours up the hill, or what Byzantine emperors watched on sports days up at the Hippodrome. Steven Gerrard’s 54th minute goal was of more import than the doings of Constantine the Great or Ibrahim the Mad. A grinning group caressing the pints of lager lined up like winner’s medals sat under a red backdrop banner lauding the Spanish Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez: ‘RAFA – YOU ARE THE BOS-PHOR-US’. The metaphor was a bit dodgy, the pun irresistible.

In the elation of the victory the fans could forgive the Turkish hosts for the memorably awful journey to the Olympic Stadium. Turkey had been ditched from the Olympics 2012 bidding race the previous year, and you could only conclude that work had stopped on useful little things like transport access. There was no rail link from the airport or the city. The 150 million viewers of the match wouldn’t have seen much of the trek of the 70,000 to the stadium. It might only have been 20 miles or so out of Istanbul and all big cities lie about access and proximity (London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted – come on!). We’d gone out to the stadium on the morning of the match, to collect our accreditations at an annex to the ground. The stadium was like a wedding cake poised on top of a municipal tip, in the centre of a bombed out crater that was more like a moonscape than a built environment on Planet Earth. One of our cabbies had worked in Istanbul for ten years and the day of the match was his first fare out to Ataturk Olympic Park. Our first cabbie hadn’t been able to get through the police blocks on the periphery of the moonscape. He tried valiantly, indicating our waving arms and hands clasping our passports and press accreditations. But the policemen were getting stuck in on this day in the limelight, and he came back with a fistful of papers, a face like a thunderstorm, accelerated his jalopy away from the police block and dumped us by the side of the road. We’d been round the blocks three times, he’d done his best. Our next cabbie spotted us waving from the roadside where we were wandering stadiumwards and met some English journalists. Get a cab whatever, they said, you might think the stadium’s just round the bend, but it’s a seven or eight mile walk. Journalistic arithmetic was getting a mite Falstaffian now, but it proved good advice. There was no direct road, a mazy mystifying mix of new roads, expanded roads, access roads criss-crossing the moonscape. Our driver, calmer and more urbane than our arrested consort, and veteran of ten years in Germany, guided us through the meandering routes, also telling us that the white-line painters had been at work right up until the day before.

Getting there when no fans were heading to the ground had taken an hour and a half. We thought we might need even three hours to get to the stadium in the evening, so set off early. The first cab picked up outside our hotel was soon immobile in the picturesque slopes of the Old City. So out we jumped, detouring through the former gardens of the Topkopi Palace, reaching the edge of the Bosphorus just as police were closing the gates. It seemed sensible to head for Taksi Square, 5 miles away, where we might find the haven of a centrally-heated media bus with privileged access to the Olympic Park and knowledge of the right carpark for the media entrance. The four of us flagged one down and off we went again, but traffic seemed so dense and this cabbie seemed so good at finding faster throughroutes in the city that we changed the brief – get us to the ground. We’d been en route for 45 minutes and were still only 20 minutes walk from the hotel.

Two and three quarter hours on from leaving the hotel we munched at a sandwich in the media hospitality room at the Olympic Stadium. We’d abandoned the cab (our third failure of the day) and walked the last mile or so, along gridlocked moonscape highways. It was good to stretch out. Four of us in this little cab was a bit much. My spine was stiffening, Brian was constantly crushed by the two sitting on the outside, thrown inwards by the architecture of the seating. John stretched his legs up front, feeling a bit guilty that the thinnest among us had a seat to himself, but in no way willing to alter the chemistry of the farce. A couple of shirtless and helmetless Liverpool fans perched on the back of obliging motorcyclists, roaring the Liverpool theme and brandishing their umpteenth beer of the day. We motored through suburbs and slums, and the further we motored from the metropolis the more we were greeted. Huddles of locals stood on the roadside. Welcome to Liverpool, team of the labour classes, said one makeshift banner. We were hailed like a liberating army, an invasion of relative cosmopolitans.

The day after the match I met Osman, friend of a friend. He walked me through the restaurants and bars of the Taksi district, half smiling half sneering, waving his arm dismissively and muttering ‘touristic’. He then led me past a few student bars – underground, as he labelled them – and on to his favourite, a smelly terrace which served basic but delicious salads and good quantities of raki. Osman had been in jail for 12 years for armed robbery, motivated by his revolutionary politics. He’s now a publisher and translator, putting his own interpretive gloss on his selection of social science books with which he hopes to awaken and mobilize the Turkish public’s revolutionary spirit. For Osman, the Socialist Workers’ Party is still right, capitalism is in deepening crisis, and World War Three began 15 years ago. His comments on the match were as superciliously dismissive as his glance at the tourist diners: opiate, football is an opiate. That’s a line of Marx’s, of course, about religion and the ideological role of religious belief and religious institutions. But he wasn’t surprised that crowds were greeting the fleet of fans. These people – he talked with the classic confidence of the intellectual and metropolitan radical – these people, he said, have no experience of the world; to them, stuck in their poverty-riddled favelas beyond Istanbul’s metropolitan core, foreigners were exotic. Anybody, anything, was interesting for those with little or next to nothing. Football’s one of the most powerful opiates for Osman: the slum’s carnivalesque response confirmed this for him.

Porto won its Champions League title the previous May, at Schalke 04’s ground in Gelsenkirschen. One English journalist wrote that it was a hopeless decision, like staging a big event in Dudley. It’s a good job that the Liverpool fairytale was written in a city of 9.8 million, a place with hundreds of salesmen bar managers and proprietors ready to don red shirts and serve till dawn. Modest little Gelsenkirschen would have been overrun. Istanbul could cope, and the hordes of Liverpool fans crossing generations, classes and sexes couldn’t give a damn about European constitutions, human rights, the excesses of consumer capitalism, or the political analyses of Osman. Roll on Paris and Athens.

© Alan Tomlinson, May 2005