Mark Twain’s maxim that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is echoing in the streets of Istanbul. The echo is heard in everything that makes Turkey resemble a sequel to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled assumed President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak. I’m not only referring to the fact that it marks another internal revolt against an iron-booted US ally. I’m not only referring to the repeat of the social equation that neoliberal shock economics plus police repression will equal upheaval. I’m talking about soccer. More specifically, the role that organized soccer fans are playing by the thousands.
Turkey and Egypt are of course two very different countries with different leaders, different political systems and different histories. But the revolt of the highly intense, usually apolitical “ultra” soccer-fan clubs must be noted. As in Egypt, for years the ultra soccer clubs have been places in Turkey where young, alienated men could express aggression without fear of serious retribution from the state. They were places a young man could release steam, get in a brawl with other fan organizations or the police and receive at worst a beating. In contrast, attending a political demonstration—or writing an article about the political demonstration—could land you in prison. For the state, ultra clubs have been seen as ways to channel anger in a direction that doesn’t threaten their power. After the last two years, they may need to revise their playbook on how to manufacture consent.
There are differences between the ultra revolts in Egypt and Turkey. Unlike in Egypt, the Turkish soccer fan clubs have historically been a magnet for people wanting a more liberalized, secular rule of law. Perhaps because they share this connective tissue, there is another critical difference: unlike in Egypt, the Turkish ultra clubs have all united in very rapid order. This isn’t Tahrir, where for days rival ultra clubs would organize on opposite sides of the square, until their hatred was worn down by the necessity of standing together against the police. In Turkey, from the start, the ultra clubs hailing from the city’s most pugnaciously oppositional clubs—Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce—marched arm-in-arm under the slogan “Istanbul United.”
For the people occupying in Taksim, their entry was not only welcome, it was desperately needed. Bagis Erten, a reporter for Eurosport Turkey, was quoted by Middle Eastern soccer blogger James M. Dorsey as saying, “It was a critical moment. Supporters of all the big teams united for the first time against police violence. They were more experienced than the protesters, they fight them regularly. Their entry raised the protesters’ morale and they played a leading role.”
This development must be giving Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan night sweats. The ultras normally interact only when they’re trading chants, curses or blows. Instead, they arrived looking more like mass-street-combat organizations than anything that could be described antiseptically as “fans.” They set up barricades, threw back tear gas canisters and protected the core of protesters from violence. As one 18-year-old ultra said, “We are normally enemies, but this has really brought us together. It’s never happened before.”
The fan group known as Çar?i has reportedly led this uniting of the ultras. Çar?i is also the ultra group most associated with the political left. Just so there is no doubt about where they stand, the "a" in Çar?i is the anarchism is the anarchism symbol and their slogan is “Çar?i is against everything!” Tensions were already extremely high between Çar?i and the security police when a post-match march, after their team Be?ikta? J.K. was victorious, strayed too close to Erdogan party headquarters, resulting in more gassing and violence than the typical ultra/police skirmish.
To be clear, ultras across the globe reflect at best a very mixed consciousness. Although some are explicitly left-wing, others explicitly fascist and most proudly apolitical, they all carry features of hyper-masculine fight-clubs. That can be heard in Taksim in the chants they raise at the state police, like, “You can use you tear gas bombs, you can use your tear gas bombs/ Have courage if you are a real man/ Take off your helmet and drop your batons/ Then we’ll see who the real man is.”
The difference, of course, is that they are directing their rage at the police in the name of basic democracy. The difference is that instead of representing merely their team, they are “Istanbul United." Like the ultras in Egypt, their very existence should be pushing sports writers, academics and sociologists to rethink the very stale conventional wisdom about sports fandom: that its most prominent feature is that it’s devoid of all politics and actually serves to steer people away from struggle. In the case of the Turkish ultras, they are citizens with the same concerns as anyone else. The difference is they bring mass organization and the art of street combat to this dynamic stage in Turkey’s history.
Sports fans—again—playing a leading role in a mass social uprising? Welcome to the twenty-first century, where the revolution is not only televised: it takes place in between games.