Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Soccer Mania — Turkey in the European Cup

I admit my tastes in sports are decidedly American. No matter where I am in the summer, I can usually tell you how the Mets did yesterday. Soccer was not really on the scene when I was growing up in New York, and I’ve never followed the sport. But when we arrived in Istanbul, the city was awash in soccer fever, for the European Cup was on and Turkey was surprising everyone. Fatma and Ayhan showed us the highlights from Turkey’s recent miraculous last-minute victory over the Czechs and announced that we all had to go to a large arena in town the next night to join thousands of others gazing up at large screens to watch the national team play Croatia, against whom Turkey would again be the underdog.

It was quite a night, as Riley, Jesse and I found ourselves getting religion real quick, fervently waving the Turkish flags they gave us and seriously thinking it was important that Turkey win. We joined in the cheering, and even the songs and chants, our chests swelling with nationalistic pride. It was great fun, even if a voice in the back of my head kept worrying if rooting for Turkey meant I was in denial over the Armenian genocide or the condition of today's Kurdish minority. Living in the United States, I’ve always mistrusted patriotism, the “last refuge of scoundrels,” as a club used by war-mongering politicians to pound the population into submission.

But I set those thoughts aside long enough to join in the fun, and was rewarded with yet another come-from-behind-victory by Turkey in the final minute of the final overtime. In fact, droves of fans had started to leave the arena, resigned to defeat, when an “impossible” Turkey goal tying the score brought them streaming back in to celebrate. Minutes later, Turkey won the sudden-death, penalty-kick playoff, and the place erupted in singing and cheering that was still going on when we boarded our boat 20 minutes later. The man on the left in the picture below was crying those tears of joy for most of those 20 minutes.

The party continued on the boat with boisterous group singing, and when the leaders noticed that the passengers on the other ferry boat boarding next to us were relatively quiet, they shouted over and were soon leading them in songs as well.

Three nights later Jesse and I were back in the arena again to see Turkey go for another miracle, this time against the heavily favored Germany. The Turks had sustained a series of injuries and their goalie was sitting out a two-game penalty, so they came into this semi-final match badly depleted. Despite that, they played well, outhustling Germany most of the way, and with the score knotted at 1-1 until Germany managed to go ahead with just a few minutes left. Another miracle was in order, and again Turkey delivered with a game-tying goal that was so beautiful even I could recognize its brilliance. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived, as Germany answered with yet another goal and held on to win.

I had of course wondered how this “fanatic” crowd would handle defeat. To beat Germany would have been especially sweet, as Turkey has often found itself in a subservient role to the Gremans. It was the German archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman who plundered the ruins at Troy. Germans are the #1 tourists in Turkey, and many Turks have immigrated to Germany for work, where they are often treated as second-class citizens. So, yes, a natural rivalry.

So I was surprised to see that the fans took it all in stride. They were disappointed, but seemed rather philosophical about it all, more mature than a lot of baseball fans I know. And though Turks do drink wine and beer, and beer was on sale in the arena, there didn’t seem to be that same need to get drunk to root for your team, or any great anger at the other team when they lost. I, on the other hand, was really mad at Germany and glad Spain beat them in the finals.

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