Choosing Your Religion: Football in Istanbul

Posted on May 23, 2011


Pressed against each other, billowing out of pubs and meyhanes into the streets, even those who can’t see the TV screens are watching the championship match in the faces of those who can. The last minutes are ticking away, and men, women, and children and holding their breath as Fenerbahçe holds onto their one point lead over Sivas. The championship victory roar is accompanied by explosions, rockets, and sirens. The last time Fener won was in 2007, and arch rivals Beşiktaş and Galatasaray have both won since then. This gives the Canaries 18 Super Lig cups compared to Galatasaray’s 17.

Smoke stings my eyes as I walk back home. Down every street is a plume of smoke and a swirling crowd of people singing and dancing. This is Kadıköy, and we are a stone’s throw away from Fenerbahçe home stadium. The streams of people flow uphill, and finally pool at Altiyol (Six Ways). On the circular median, there is a massive bronze statue of a charging bull which has become a symbol of Kadıköy. Below this very bull are the ruins of a Roman city center. The city made the decision to pave over it.

Now, a pulsating mass dances in circles around the bull statue like worshipers of Baal.

In my apartment, my wife tells me to come to the window. The call to prayer is sounding. It is almost at war with other noises. Two religions being worshiped simultaneously. However, Islam is sure to lose this battle. When the ezan (call to prayer) ceases, the songs, police sirens, rockets, honking cars and barking dogs will last all night.


Well, I suppose you don’t have to. However, if you are interested in assimilating into Turkish culture even a little bit, it’s a good idea. It may be difficult for Americans especially to understand just how important football (soccer) is to Turkey. Imagine that you rolled baseball, American football, and basketball into one national sport. Choosing a team to support gives locals a reason to talk to you. Suddenly, you are exchanging jabs with your grocer or congratulatory pronouncements with the man at the newspaper stand.

If you live in Istanbul, you have a tough choice to make. Three of the top Turkish teams are here. It would be like living in New York and choosing between the Mets and Yankees if the Mets won a few games every once in a while.

Do not take this decision lightly. Here is a video demonstrating the consequences of a poor decision:

Don’t choose poorly and end up like this unfortunate Nazi. I’m going to give you a few tips to help you make an informed decision you can LIVE with.


Fenerbahçe (Lighthouse Garden)

Mascot: Yellow Canaries

Location: Kadıköy, Asian side

Name for hooligans: Genç

Advantages:  They are fresh off a championship win, and they are the only major team on the Asian side. This team has some of the deepest pockets in the Turkish league, so they acquire some of the best players. They have a nice stadium and some of the best fight songs. Here is a Fener chant:

The lyrics are fairly simply as you can see. I believe it goes…lay lay lay, lay lay lay, lay lay lay,…and so on.

Disadvantages: Your wealth will always be used against you. Every win or even goal by your team will be met with an accusation of bribery. Enemies of Fener believe all the officials and even some of the players are on the Fener payroll in a vast conspiracy. Because you can afford the best players, you are expected to win every match. It’s not much of a suprise if you wine but an embarrassment if you lose. People often see Fener fans as preppy or wealthy yacht club types.

Plus, you should be careful on the European side. I was trying to enter the famous Hagia Sofia in the Sultanahmet district when the man at the gate refused to let me through. He demanded that I take off the Fenerbahçe jersey before I enter. Many of the onlookers took pleasure in this man’s blatant misuse of authority. Once inside that breathtaking cathedral, a furtive security guard whispered creepily, “I support Fenerbahçe too.”



Mascot: Eagle

Location: Beşiktaş (near Dolmabahçe palace)

Name for hooligans: Çarşı

Advantages: You have a small but historic stadium right next to a palace. At a match versus Liverpool, Beşiktaş fans set a record for loudest stadium when they reached 132 decibels.  Ironically, the title was previously held by Liverpool. Beşiktaş fans are notorious for their ferocity especially the females. I can say from personal experience that this is definitely true. Beşiktaş fans are seen as hardscrabble working class Joes.

Disadvantages: You are on the European side, and it is hard to find convenient grocery stores there. Your black and white jerseys make it seem as though you have just escaped from prison.



Mascot: Lions

Location: Mecidiyeköy

Name for hooligans: Cimbom

Advantages: You have your own man-made island on the Bosphorous for some reason.

Disadvantages: You have a new stadium, but it is in Mecidiyeköy which generally sucks. Your name is from a prestigious French university, but your tacky uniform colors make you resemble a court jester. Your logo font looks like it is from  the seventies. You haven’t beaten arch-nemesis Fenerbahçe at their home stadium in over a decade!


İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Spor Külübü (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Sports Club)

Mascot: …Istanbul?

Location: Istanbul Atatürk Olympic Stadium

Name for hooligans: None

Advantages: You are known as the big team killer. You lose most of your games, but often defeat the big guys in important matches.

Disadvantages: People will do a double take when you tell them who you support. Then they will ask, “No, really. Which team?”  The name Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality makes it sound like your team is made up of garbage collectors and meter maids. For some strange reason my wife chose this team. The upside is she always elicits laughter from people. It is difficult to support this team because a) it takes roughly 30 seconds to say its name and b) you can’t purchase and jerseys or other paraphernalia. However, if you managed to find a jersey, it would be the coolest thing ever.

Well, there you have it. For safety reasons,  I recommend choosing the team that is closest to where you live.