Tales From Istanbul.

Galatasaray vs. Chelsea : 26 February 2014.

I’m a lucky bugger. I’ve always loved travel. I’ve always loved football. Being able to combine these two passions is perfect. I remember scanning the remaining clubs still participating in this season’s Champions League, ahead of the draw for the “Round of 16,” and highlighting Galatasaray as one the teams that I favoured being paired against. Of all the European cities that I was yet to visit, Istanbul undoubtedly topped the list. Back in 2008, I decided not to travel out to the largest and most exciting city in Turkey when Chelsea was paired with Fenerbahce. It was a decision that I immediately regretted as soon as I heard about the city – and the city’s passion for football – from my friends who had decided to go.

Amid their reports of the city’s hustle and bustle, one comment stayed with me; the noise at the Fenerbahce stadium was the loudest that they had ever experienced. I promised myself there and then that should Chelsea get an away in Istanbul, I’d be having some of that.

The extra spice of seeing Didier Drogba confused me a little though. There was a bit of me that would have preferred my last memory of Didier on a football pitch to be of that penalty, in that stadium, at the end of that game, on that night.

That moment.

Would seeing him again spoil the purity of that memory?

Flights were booked, a hotel was chosen and a travel guide to Istanbul was purchased…I then waited and waited.

Eventually, it was time to head off to the very edge of Europe.

As I set off for the airport, there was a short text to a small band of friends on the West coast of North America – the only friends still awake – to let them know that I was on the road –

“Jack Kerouaglu.”

The Turkish Airlines flight landed at 5pm at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday 25 February and I had soon paid for a 3 Lira “jeton” to travel in to the city on the metro. I had been assisted by a young lad – a Galatasaray fan – who had kindly befriended me as I struggled with the local currency and my route into the centre. I was on my way.

Other friends were already in the city. I longed to be with them, for the madness of Istanbul to begin. While I settled in a seat on the packed train, looking out at the grey murk of a drizzly Istanbul evening, and looking too at the faces of the locals inside, I wondered about a hundred different things. The reputation of the city as an unwelcoming hotbed of partisan football fandom was obviously at the forefront of my mind. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried, a little at least, about my safety. But how could I pass up a chance to see Chelsea away in one of the most intense atmospheres of world football?

“It’s what I live for.”

Outside there was rush-hour traffic, tall apartment blocks, neon-lit shops. There was lots of neon, in fact. It contrasted with the rather dowdy and unassuming buildings. Inside, there were locals, packed tightly. I was the only foreigner. At least, I felt like the only foreigner. The faces of the locals fascinated me. I caught quick glimpses of them all. I was wary of my presence amidst strangers and that I was in enemy territory. And yet I clearly did not want to let the city’s fearsome reputation – “Welcome To Hell” said the sign when we played at Galatasaray’s old stadium in 1999 – cloud my interaction with the local Turks. I wanted to forget about supposed preconceived notions of the Turkish race. I kept checking the metro stops; I wanted to make sure that I would alight at the correct one. One chap, with a fantastically huge head, kindly advised me to stop at Aksaray tube station and then take a bus to Taksim Square rather than follow the route suggested to me by the lad at the airport.

I took his advice. However, once I stepped outside into the rainy Istanbul evening, I decided to take a cab instead. The agreed fare was of 25 Lira, or around £8 – and it was worth every penny. Immediately, we zipped through congested and cramped streets of the old city, but then hit main roads which took us over a bridge in the harbour to the headland to the north. Behind me were the illuminated spindly minarets and flattened dome of a large and impressive mosque in the old city.

It was breath-taking stuff.

And I was loving it.

There was minimal conversation with the cab driver – a Besiktas fan – as he climbed slowly up into the city. The steepness of the hills surprised me. My eyes were on stalks. I actually took two large breaths to inhale the city.

“Take it all in, Chris, my son.”

The traffic slowed, and then accelerated away. At the top of a steep ascent, I was deposited on the southern edge of famous Taksim Square.

I had arrived.

Buzzing.

I quickly spotted the Taksim Metropark Hotel , located on a steep hill just to the south of the famous square. I showered and then answered a flurry of text messages from a couple of mates, eager to know of my progress. After getting directions from a helpful fellow at the reception desk – Galatasaray – I set off for the Laviola Café just off the main Istiklal Caddesi shopping street. The streets were busy. There was light drizzle. It was around 7.45pm on a Tuesday night in Istanbul. The fun was about to begin.

I quickly found the small café, hiding in a small side street, and there were many familiar faces inside. Many had arrived on the early-morning flight from Stansted; alongside my usual away day companions Alan and Gary, were around twelve other friends from home, plus a few of the younger element out of sight upstairs.

The first pint of the local Efes lager – 8 Lira or around £2.50 – didn’t touch the sides. While we chatted, we heard of around ten Chelsea being jumped by a far greater number of Galatasaray in a city centre street. A couple of the Chelsea fans were known to us. At least one had been stabbed. And then we heard contrasting stories; maybe Chinese Whispers were at play because we then heard that there had only been the slightest cuts and bruises. Orlin and Rado – part of the sixty-strong Chelsea Bulgaria group – called in.

The Efes were hitting the spot. A few lads tucked into a meal; I was aware that I would need some food at some stage. Mike and Frank from New York and Tim from Philly joined us at around 9.30pm. At around 10pm we set off for the James Joyce Irish pub, a few hundred yards to the south. We gathered together – maybe twenty of us in total – and walked purposefully together. From 10.15pm to around 2am – bloody hell, almost four hours – we enjoyed more Efes in this second pub. There were even more familiar faces in this boozer; it was, in fact, virtually full of Chelsea European Away Loyalists, complete with Lacoste polo shirts, Adidas trainers, Stone Island jackets, Barbour jackets and associated finery. This was a night when club colours were to be left in hotel rooms, or – more to the point – back in Blighty.

The beers flowed. There was, despite the laughter and the banter, an edge to the night. Two of the chaps who had been attacked were in the pub; one had a slight scratch on his face, the other had been slashed in his upper thigh with a knife. During our stay in the pub – I think, it’s a bit blurred – another Chelsea lad was attacked with a bottle outside and ended up with a bandaged hand.

The Olimpiakos vs. Manchester United game was on the TV – kicking off at 9.45pm – but hardly anyone was paying it any attention. Holding court and sharing a few stories with some other fans was the most famous Chelsea “face” of them all.

From The Philippines to Istanbul, he’ll keep the blue flag flying high.

As if out of nowhere, the Canadians Burger and Julie suddenly arrived and I lost count of the number of times that I said to them “what the hell are you doing here?” Burger then pulled a trick on me and bought me a raki, which I then proceeded to attempt to knock back in one.

“Whooooooooaaaaaaaa – slow down. Need to give that a bit more respect, Chris.”

Ah – good times.

At 2am, others wanted to continue the night elsewhere, but Alan, Gary, Burger, Julie and I decided that we would curtail the carousing. We stopped off for a kebab – what else? – and then made our way up the hill to Taksim Square. I was still starving, so dived into the Pehlivan fast food restaurant where I had a confusing concoction which resembled a vegetarian version of a haggis. It wasn’t unpleasant. I wolfed it back.

I was on a roll now. I was tempted by one last local delicacy; 10 Lira worth of hot roasted chestnuts.

I’ve never had roast chestnuts before.

“When in Istanbul.”

I eventually walked – in a zombie-like state – back to my waiting hotel room at around 2.30am.

I slept well. I probably dreamed of roast chestnuts.

It was only the knock on my hotel room door which awoke me on Wednesday; my phone‘s battery had inexplicably run out and the ever hopeful 8am alarm call never materialised. I didn’t feel too ropey in the circumstances; I made breakfast at 9.45am. A few other Chelsea – Brighton Tony and his mates – were staying in the hotel too. I quickly demolished some smoky sausages, scrambled eggs and a few other choice items. I didn’t touch the salad, though.

Never trust a nation which eats lettuce for breakfast.

As the kick-off for the game wouldn’t be until 9.45pm, there was no need to begin my day of sightseeing too early. There would be time to pace myself. With this in mind, and with me being sleep-deficient over the past two nights, I decided to grab an extra hour of sleep. When I finally awoke, the merest hint of a hangover had gone and I was ready to explore.

Out in Taksim Square, there was a political protest taking place and the area was swarming with armed police.

“I just hope you buggers don’t disappear if we need you later on tonight.”

The wind was swirling on top of the hill and a flock of birds, perching on electricity wires and also scavenging for scraps, gave a Hitchcock-esque feel of brooding menace to Taksim Square. As I consulted my map and got my bearings, I realised that Taksim Square was a messy, rambling area, lacking a focus. It had uneven paving stones and the one statue was pushed away to one corner. The square was where two visiting Leeds United fans were stabbed to death before a game against Galatasaray in 2000.

This sad incident was held strongly in the forefront of my mind throughout my stay in the city. A local approached me in the square and asked where I was from; for the first time that I can ever remember, I didn’t say England.

“Brooklyn, New York” came into my head. It was an easy way to dodge any possible nastiness.

“OK. My brother live in California. I have carpet shop over here.”

“No. You’re OK mate” I replied, in an accent that plainly wasn’t that of a Brooklyn native.

I took the funicular railway down to Kabatas. If only I had realised it at the time, but the Besiktas stadium – currently being rebuilt – was only a few hundred yards away. As I waited to catch a tram to the old city, The Bosphorus was within walking distance. Away in the distance, was the bridge to Asia.

My heart jumped.

Asia. Bloody hell.

Of course, Fenerbahce are based on the Asian side of the city of Istanbul, leaving Galatasaray and Besiktas to battle it out on the European side. I remember us losing at home to Besiktas in 2003, but our “away” game was held in Gelsenkirchen due to crowd disturbances in Istanbul. The evening game with Galatasaray would be, therefore, our seventh against Istanbul teams. However, as the tram trundled through the busy streets and then over the Galata Bridge, my mind was full of other worldly things and football was not on my mind.

I alighted at Sultanahmet. Following the rain on Tuesday, thankfully Wednesday’s weather was fine. Within a few minutes, I was heading over to the Blue Mosque – or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – where I spent a lovely time inside and out, pointing my camera at its iconic roof and towers. Thankfully its interior is able to be visited; I was in awe of the vastness of its great internal space and the ornate blue and white roof tiles. It was a stunning building. There was a stillness inside which captivated me.

Outside, I bought myself a little cup of a local delicacy called sicak salep, which was a rich milky drink containing nutmeg, cinnamon, rose water, flour and coconut. It was gorgeous.

The Hagia Sophia – a former mosque which is now a museum – was close to the Blue Mosque, but I wanted to visit another of the old city’s famous landmarks. I walked further west, past bars, restaurants, hotels – and chaps constantly asking me if I like Istanbul, where am I from and do they know that they have a carpet shop nearby?

I kept quiet. I was on guard. You never know. However, my silence was more to do with my dislike of being harangued by street traders rather than a fear for my safety. In the streets, I did notice many Galatasaray scarves and shirts being worn, however. It acted as a reminder that there would soon be a football match taking place later in the evening; at times I was lost in my thoughts and Chelsea was the last thing on my mind.

Just before the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, I stumbled across a Jewellery Quarter. Here was Istanbul in a nutshell; on street level, glittering silver and gold on display in bright shop windows, but above flaking plaster and decrepit buildings.

A city of contrasts? You bet.

Inside the Grand Bazaar, another world.

I slowly walked through the huge covered market and was simply enthralled. At every turn, there were small shops, stores, boutiques, stalls and street traders selling everything and anything; spices, herbs, tea, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, the ubiquitous carpets, lights, lamps, sweets and deserts, Turkish delight, posters, tacky souvenirs. The colours were intense; from vibrant red to deep gold, from a delicate turquoise to subtle cream. The smells of the spices intermingled with the sweet smokiness of tray after tray of roast chestnuts. The traders begged conversation but I moved silently on. Perhaps on a different day, I might have been more willing to haggle and buy; not today.

Outside of the bazaar there was a further labyrinth of cobbled streets, shops, pedestrians and street traders. Occasionally, the tall minaret of a local mosque would appear in view. I eventually made my way back to the harbour by the Galata Bridge. Here, I stayed a while. There was a row of around ten shoeshine stalls – the most decadent I’ve ever seen – and yet more street traders hawking their goods. Over by the bridge were three fast food restaurants – the food was being cooked on small barges, bobbing up and down on the water – while the locals sat at small stools and tables and hurriedly ate various snacks consisting of freshly-caught fish, in bread, liberally doused with salt and lemon juice. The smell was overpowering. Elsewhere, more roast chestnuts, but also sweetcorn too. The smoke wafted around and it was a heady mix of fragrances. Over on the bridge, fishermen were lined up, their lines limply hanging down into the grey harbour.

With some sadness I left the old city – it had been a vibrant, intoxicating few hours. Over the water was the steep ascent to Taksim via the more modern shopping streets. For the first twenty minutes, I slowly walked up the ridiculously steep cobbled path which took me right past the Galata Tower. In a restaurant, I rested and enjoyed a lamb kebab with pistachios, plus a mixed salad. My calves were burning; I needed that rest.

By 4.30pm, the temperature had dropped considerably. Outside, more and more Galatasaray colours. The only Chelsea item I had seen all day was a Fenerbahce / Chelsea scarf from 2008; no doubt which team that lad would be supporting in a few hours.

I met Mike, Frank and Tim in the hotel lobby at around 6.45pm and by 7.20pm, we were on one of the scheduled buses which were being used to ferry Chelsea fans to the Turk Telekom Arena, some eight miles to the north. Thankfully, there had been no hint of trouble on our walk across the square. The bus ride reminded me so much of a similar ride through the sprawling city of Naples in 2012. If anything, Istanbul was even hillier, the valleys deeper, the high-rise apartments mightier, the traffic faster; the journey was certainly quicker.

By 7.45pm, we had parked up outside the stadium, which appeared to sit on a considerable hill, and the boys bought match scarves.

There was still two hours until kick-off. I realised that I hadn’t had a beer all day; I wouldn’t be having one at the stadium either. Once past the relatively easy security check, we slowly ascended the concrete stairs to our entrance. First, another kebab and a Coke.

Inside at around 8.30pm, the stadium was only 10% full. However, the 5,000 ultras behind the far goal were making enough noise for 25,000. I couldn’t wait to hear what it would be like once full to bursting. Our little section, up in the top tier, behind persplex glass and netting, slowly filled. We had 2,500 tickets of which we sold maybe half. It felt like an away crowd of just over a thousand; more than Naples in 2012, for sure.

I noted lots of Chelsea flags – and some new.

Away in the distance were three Chelsea Bulgaria flags.

Around twelve fans were here from Mongolia and they had a large flagged draped on the back fence alongside the New York Blues flag, one from Rayners Lane, a Gothenburg Loyal flag, a Swadlincote flag and that lovely flag featuring a mother who sadly passed away in 2008. Elswhere, a Lebanon flag and the Tim Rice RIP flag.

Then, a monstrosity…a large blue flag, with Mourinho’s face, but the hideous phrase “The MOUnster.”

Fcuk off.

Just as the home fans began to get some songs going, Martin did a loud and defiant “Zigger Zagger.” We were booed, so they must’ve heard us. The minutes ticked by. With around ten minutes to go before the entrance of the teams, the PA system helped orchestrate some activity from the Galatasaray supporters. The music which is used for Atlanta Braves’ fans – I only know it, please forgive me, as a Native American chant – boomed out on the loud-speakers. It seemed every single fan lofted a scarf, swayed quickly from one side to the other, and joined in.

The atmosphere was rising.

We spotted a Millwall flag flying to our right; maybe some Galatasaray stole it and thought it might intimidate us a little.

“Yeah, right.”

Then, a chant especially for us –

“Fcuk you Chel-zeee, fcuk you Chel-zeee, ole, ole, ole.”

We replied –

“We Are Chelsea, Istanbul.”

Then, the teams entered the pitch.

As the teams lined up and the CL anthem played, hundreds of phone lights were switched on.

Then, around ten orange flares were ignited in the upper tier to our right.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ss18H9Pz6EA

The sulfurous aroma filled my nostrils.

Fantastic. This is what European Away Days should be like.

Our team -

Cech, then Dave, JT, Gary, Brana, with Frank and Ramires holding, then Willian, Hazard and Schurrle and Torres up front.

For them –

Number 11 – Didier Drogba, plus ten others.

The game began and the noise was predictably fierce. Every time that we had possession, the whistling began, and only ceased when Galatasaray retrieved the ball. Our first chance fell to Willian who chose to loft the ball over a stranded Muslera, but the ‘keeper headed the ball outside of his area and we watched as the ball bounced wide and the open goal stayed intact. However, our early dominance paid dividends when Azpilicueta exposed Eboue’s failings down our left after a pass from Schurrle. The home ‘keeper again chose to come out, only for Dave to neatly pass inside to Fernando Torres to slip the ball past some covering defenders and into an unguarded net.

The 1,200 inhabitants in the upper corner went into frenzy mode.

YESSSSSSSSSSS!

What a joyous moment.

There was a hope that we could take the home fans “out” of the game with that goal. At an away game in Europe, that’s half the battle. I immediately remembered that the other three English teams had lost their respective games 2-0…positive thinking I know, but surely we wouldn’t lose this one now?

It was our turn to sing now, albeit with a chant dripping with irony –

“Your Support Is Facking Shit.”

In truth, Galatasaray were poor in that first-half. They left vast gaping gaps in their defence and it was only a mixture of poor choices and poor finishing which stopped us from a deserved 2-0 or 3-0 lead. Torres was especially profligate, choosing to run past players when a first-time shot or pass was the better option. Our chances mounted up but the score stayed at 1-0. To be honest, with the crowd getting quieter than ever, it seemed that this would be an easy passage into the quarters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – WE HATE TOTTENHAM.”

Jonesy, standing between Alan and me, made the comment that virtually everyone in the 52,000 crowd was standing.

“It makes a mockery of all-seaters, Chris.”

Then, a bizarre few seconds. A Galatasaray attack broke down and the ball went off for a throw-in. What happened next is still a blur, but two balls ended up on the pitch. However, the Galatasaray number 17 Burak slammed one of the balls past Cech from an angle, while the original ball was still bouncing around the pitch.

Former world boxing champion Darren Barker – Chelsea – stood nearby for a few minutes towards the end of the first-half. Maybe I could employ him as a minder for the bus ride home. At the break, I didn’t want to tempt fate too much, but commented to many that “we’re doing well here, we should be winning this 3-0.”

As is so often the case, the impetus changed in the second-half. Admittedly, Fernando Torres had a gilt-edged chance to double our lead early on, but his firm shot was parried. However,  Galatasaray, buoyed by an increasingly involved home crowd, dominated possession for much of the second period. Didier Drogba appeared to be out of sorts for most of the game and was well marshaled by both John Terry and Gary Cahill. However, just after the hour, he easily won a header from a corner and the downward flight of the ball was knocked against the post by Inan. Then, Drogba won a corner. Sneijder, surprisingly quiet, whipped in a ball which bamboozled the entire Chelsea defence. Cech came and stalled, JT lost his man and Chedjou slammed the ball in from inside the six-yard box.

Although I managed to get a rather blurred photograph of Torres’goal, regretfully the photo I have of their goal is flawless.

Pah.

Our legs were tiring and Galatasaray could smell blood. Thankfully, aided by some substitutions, we defended well. However, since their goal, the noise levels increased. The whistling was intense. Evert time, Chelsea had the ball, the stadium resonated to the shrill piercing sound of whistling.

It must’ve been so difficult for the players to concentrate; it must’ve resembled playing in a hornets’ nest.

It was so loud, it almost hurt.

The Chelsea fans learned fast; rather than compete with this, we chose to sing when they had the ball.

In particular, the old favourite – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” – bellowed out defiantly:

“Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea!”

Despite some hairy moments when Mikel threatened to continually lose possession, we held on. When the referee finally blew up, after five long minutes of added time, we yelled our pleasure.

Just like after Napoli, we waited patiently for the fleet of buses to take us back to Taksim Square after the game had long finished. We eventually reached there at 1.15am. There were many Galatasaray fans exiting the metro station, but we kept together and had time to dip into a McDonalds along with a few other Chelsea before heading back to the stillness of our hotel.

At the end of the game, I almost immediately thought of four scores –

Manchester City 0 Barcelona 2.

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2.

Olimpiakos 2 Manchester United 0.

Galatasaray 1 Chelsea 1.

How I love to be able to sing “One Team In Europe” every spring.

This year might be no exception.

IMG_5204

Photographs From Istanbul :

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152283815067658.1073741837.561202657&type=1&l=474796a83f

10 thoughts on “Tales From Istanbul.

  1. Pingback: Tales From Istanbul. | jose's people of chelsea

  2. Pingback: Tales From Istanbul: Chelsea FC vs. Galatasaray - The Pride of London - A Chelsea FC Fan Site - News, Blogs, Opinion, and More

  3. Great read, I was there by way of Los Angeles after stops in London, Birmingham and Manchester and was blown away by the atmosphere in Istanbul. I was planning to write about my experiences but you may have saved me some time as your experience in that great city so closely resembled my own. I have some great pics and vids of the night as I’m sure you do. My only regret was not meeting up with more Chelsea boys before the match. Cheers for the write up.

  4. Excellent read. Good to see also that quite a few outlets are using social media to push this out to new readers. “MOUnster”? Seriously? Oi vey. And still the “Jack Kerouaglu” gets me every time.

  5. Great write up !!!

    I love reading matchday experiences and this was really amazing. Just one quick question, How do you guys ( traveling fans) connect with each other prior to the travel, Is there any internet forum or some other arrangement?

    – Chelsea fan from India

  6. A lot of the travelling fans are close friends anyway…we usually bump into each other in a select few pubs through meticulous planning…or pure luck, depending on the circumstances.
    ;-)

  7. This beats any Travel Channel program on Istanbul ;)
    A perfect blend of spices, deserts, photos of stalls full of fake football shirts, birds, reading glasses, beer glasses, flares, banners and the travelling Chelsea contingent.

  8. Wow, the Turkish economy has come a long way. Last time I was in Turkey (Antalya on the south coast) the exchange rate was like 300,000 Lira to 1 US Dollar!

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