Soccer game mirrors Kurdish struggle in Turkey

Mostly Kurdish side Amedspor’s clash with Fenerbahce ‘much more than a game’

Amedspor fans cheer outside the stadium before the Turkish Cup quarter-final  soccer match between Amedspor and Fenerbahce in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photograph:  Sertac Kayar/Reuters

Amedspor fans cheer outside the stadium before the Turkish Cup quarter-final soccer match between Amedspor and Fenerbahce in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photograph: Sertac Kayar/Reuters

 

Tear gas hung in the air and an F-16 fighter jet roared overhead, as the two teams took their places on a football pitch in Diyarbakir, the unwilling home of a two-month old war between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military.

At one end were the players from Istanbul giant Fenerbahce, one of Turkey’s richest and most famous clubs, with a war chest that allowed them to buy up Robin van Persie from Manchester United last year and counting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a fan.

On the other, Amedspor, minnows on an unlikely run to the Turkish Cup final, a mostly Kurdish team in a mostly Kurdish city, stripped of a star midfielder who tattooed Azadi – Kurdish for “freedom” – on his arm.

With both teams’ fans banned from attending, there was no crowd to cheer them on – the only spectators were from the clubs and the Turkish Football Federation as well as scores of balaclava-clad policemen, fingers twitching on their machine guns. The stadium, if it can be called that, was smaller than a high school football ground, and had neither a scoreboard nor floodlights.

If football is an allegory for war, Tuesday’s match was ripe with metaphor. For many Amedspor fans, the game represented not just football, but the decades of rivalry, warfare and death that has cleaved the country between Turkish and Kurdish ideals of nationhood and citizenship.

“It is much more than a game,” says Hay Yanarocak, a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center who has studied Kurdish and Turkish history and is a football writer. “Fenerbahce was the Turkish representative and Amedspor representative of the Kurds and – from the Kurdish point of view – the oppressed.”

A 10-minute drive away lay the now devastated city of Sur, where Turkey’s military is fighting a ragtag band of youthful Kurdish militants tied to the PKK militant group. Weeks of nonstop street battles had killed, by various estimates, hundreds of militants and dozens of civilians and Turkish soldiers.

The resumption of violence in the region, which erupted after a Kurdish peace process fell apart last year, has polarised an already divided nation.

For Mr Erdogan, the militants are a terrorist threat that must be eradicated – he has lambasted anyone who he feels does not go far enough to condemn the PKK as terrorists. For Amedspor fans, supporting a Kurdish team without being labelled as Kurdish separatists has proved an impossible task.

Earlier this month its offices were raided by an anti-terror unit after supporters posted critical comments on social media, while the football federation also fined the club for political messages it deemed propaganda. Amedspor was also denied the services of Deniz Naki, its German-born Kurd star midfielder, banned for 12 games for criticising the military operations.

The players from Amedspor came on to the pitch holding a giant banner that read “Children Shouldn’t Die, They Should Come to The Match”.

For the first minute of play they stood still, hands folded and facing the officials who banned their fans from attending for chanting the same words at previous games. The opposition Fenerbahce players passed the ball idly among themselves, and looked to the sky as a fighter jet roared above.

Further surreal moments abounded: policemen watching over a high wall a crowd of supporters kept away by fences, water cannon and tear gas; a moment of panic when a chair in the VIP enclosure toppled over with a loud bang, followed by nervous laughter.

Outside, despondent fans swarmed a police barrier, hoping to be let in despite the ban. “If we were Turkish, we could watch this match, but because we are Kurdish, we can’t,” lamented Ahmet Aksu, a 19-year-old student. “In England, if you say ‘Freedom’, it’s fine, but here, they just send us to jail.”

On the field, the teams were matched, if not in skills, then in passion. The match tilted in Amedspor’s favour, then in Fenerbahce’s, then back to end in a 3-3 draw. “It was a very evenly balanced game,” says John McManus, who has a University of Oxford doctorate in Turkish football. “They were complete equals, for 90 minutes at least.”

One moment of drama was omitted from the television broadcast by an artful combination of action replays – after the first goal, striker Sehmus Ozer grabbed a jersey with Naki’s name on it and brandished it to federation officials.

Naki says he turned down better-paying offers from Belgium and Holland to come to Amedspor.

“Football players don’t normally want to get involved in politics, they want their money and their career. But before I am a football player, I am a human,” he told the FT. “When we are playing while there is a war, I should speak my mind.”

He points out that if a Turkish player flashes a sign of Mr Erdogan’s ruling AK Party or a military salute “then he is a hero”. But, he adds, “if you do this as a Kurd, you are a terrorist”.

The rivalry will recommence in March when the teams meet in Fenerbahce’s stadium for the second leg.

(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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