Gezi Park protests and the role of football fans: Long historic preamble, less contemporary comparisons

Lise Joern
University of Southern Denmark

Dağhan Irak
Football Fandom, Protest and Democracy: Supporter Activism in Turkey
183 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-0-367-24971-7

The book Football Fandom, Protest and Democracy: Supporter Activism in Turkey written by Dağhan Irak is a study of the participation of football fans during the so-called Gezi Park incident in Turkey.

What started on May 27, 2013 as a peaceful resistance by a small group of environmental activists against the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality project to destruct the Gezi Park, one of the few green areas in the city centre, turned into a “the biggest anti-government protest in the history of the country” (p. 19) in a matter of days. The protestors stayed in tents in efforts to block the bulldozers from getting into the park. The events turned into a mass outbreak when the demonstrators were violently removed from the park by riot police who used plastic bullets, tear gas and water cannons against them and set their tents on fire. In reaction to police violence, thousands of protesters took to the streets first of Istanbul and later in other cities. The resistance turned into an alliance of individuals and groups who oppose the authoritarianism and policies of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Prime Minister Erdoğan.

In the introductory chapter and chapter 1, Irak provides an overview of the book and places the study in the broader context of football in Turkey. In Turkey, as in many countries around the world, football is one of the most popular sports.The tension is focused heavily in Istanbul, a city home to three of the country’s most popular and successful football clubs, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş. The matches between the so-called “Big Three” teams are considered among the most spectacular derbies in the world. Turkish football history is a story of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the rivalry among the ‘Big Three’ teams. For over a hundred years, the fan identities were constructed in mutual rivalry, in opposition to the ‘Other’.

The opening chapter also introduces the empirical data used. The book is a digital ethnography drawing on Twitter messages posted by 60 football fans that participated in the Gezi protests.

The first chapter offers an introduction to the ‘socio-historical context of football in Turkey’, (p. 8). According to Irak, toget a firm grasp on the world of Turkish football and football fandom, one must first understand its relationship with politics: “Therefore, I ask for your patience, since the story that leads up to the Gezi Park starts at the beginning of the 20th century. We should first explain why football is interwoven with nationalism, modernity or secularism, and then we will be able to explain the reactions of football fans before, during and after the events” (p. 4).

It would probably have been preferable if more attention could have been devoted to the role and actions of the football fans in the pro-democracy Gezi protests.

Hence, the majority of this book, chapters 2 to 6, centres on political history and the history of football in Turkey. Football entered Turkey in the last period of the Ottoman Empire during the rapid modernization efforts. During its history, Turkish football witnessed nationalist, populist and liberal periods and the Turkish state has intervened in the football field in different periods for different purposes.

The remaining 3 chapters focus on the Gezi protest. The participants of Gezi Park protests were very diverse, including leftists, anarchists, young and old, students, bureaucrats, Kurds, nationalists, LGBTI communities, and secularists, but also some Islamists. The most unexpected bond was formed between sworn enemies – the football fan groups of the three major football clubs in the country, which would normally never unite. They formed a coalition and named it ‘Istanbul United’. During the resistance football became more political than ever. The football fan groups, who are used to clashes with the riot police, collectively engaged in anti-government protests and organised barricades to block off the riot police in an effort to contribute to the resistance. They united against the common enemy – Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ruling AKP.

By providing a platform to express frustrations and demands along with the demand for the protection of an urban public space, the Gezi protests turned from a particular struggle into a wider criticism of AKP (Justice and Development Party) policy. The demand for the protection of Gezi Park was articulated with a variety of other demands. Among many others, these included demands for individual rights and liberties; for equality despite class, ethnic, religious, and gender differences; for public participation in decision-making processes; and for protection of the environment and urban spaces. Analysing the Twitter messages of the football fans, Irak shows how the rival fans found a common cause, the governmental attacks against the “urban, secular middle-class habitus in Istanbul”, that allowed them to operate together and coexist.

The historical account provided by chapters 2 to 6 is by no means uninteresting reading and might be helpful to some extent. It is, however, difficult to follow the argument that the large amount of information given in these chapters is necessary for the understanding of football fan activism in Turkey. It would probably have been preferable if more attention could have been devoted to the role and actions of the football fans in the pro-democracy Gezi protests.

Perhaps the monograph could have benefited from comparisons with other cases of football fans and their participation in protest activities to further clarify how this study contributes to the existing body of knowledge on sports fandom and activism. Still, all things considered, the book will be of great interest to academics and students dealing with football fans, collective action and social change.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2020

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