Recently, fresh from five days in Europe’s biggest metropolis, Istanbul, myself and my traveling companion decided to stop off in the Turkish capital Ankara for a couple of nights in advance of a plunge into deepest Anatolia.
With floodlights punctuating the central skyline and flags and pennants emblazoned across shop and market stall windows, it was clear that this was yet another football-worshipping hotbed. Closer inspection, however, revealed the banners, as well as the numerous replica shirts on display to be the black & white, redcurrant & amber and blue & yellow of the Constantinople clubs.
It was as I had expected of course – Ankara is a modern creation to place alongside the likes of Washington DC and Ottawa and if it lacks, at four million, the anodyne blandness of Brasilia or Canberra, it’s a town the charms of which take a while to reveal themselves.
Designated the capital in the wake of Kemal Atatürk’s revolution from above, the decision was initially met with widespread dismay – not least the scores of embassy apparatchiks who would henceforth be consigned to the windy and arid Turkish steppe, a world away from the fleshpots and grandeur of Istanbul.
Less than alluring surrounds are no barrier to a football culture of course – just ask the denizens of Donetsk or Wolverhampton – but to expect a love for the game to develop in the face of such flamboyant loyalty and competition in a city where many of its inhabitants originally hail from other parts of Turkey would always be a tough ask.
For the country is an intensely patriotic one. As the traditional standard bearers of Turkish football, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş have long since captured the nation’s hearts and it’s within the context of this acute nationalism that an understanding of such apparent glory-hunting lies.
Quite simply, achievements on a countrywide scale will always trump domestic rivalries – so Galatasaray’s 2000 Europa League win alongside the numerous Champions League exploits of the trio and the arrival of the likes of Taffarel, Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Didier Drogba provide one with far more reason to be proud than a little local parochialism.
That goes back to Atatürk himself of course – ironically given his sponsorship of the new capital. To many, being Turkish is to subscribe to a fierce secularism, a proud re-assertion of identity and if the internecine battles within Istanbul remain fearsome, the level of interest in the nation’s other clubs drops off a cliff once you proceed eastward of the Istanbul Park Grand Prix circuit.
Crowds are lower, tickets cheaper and matches not involving the triumvirate are scarcely afforded a raised eyebrow – there was a cover charge for the privilege of watching the recent battle between Galatasaray and Beşiktaş in one bar in Ankara’s lively Kızılay neighbourhood – and ‘battle’ is an apt description as fans hurled plastic chairs across the pitch, Charleroi-style.
Such a tariff would be unthinkable were any of the capital’s three main clubs involved and Gençlerbirliği, Ankaraspor and Ankaragücü must be content with obscurity for now.
Currently, the former are stationed highest in the Turkish footballing pyramid and ‘Gençler’ have also brought the most success to Ankara’s footballscape; national championships having been carried off in 1941 and 1946 and Turkish cups in 1987 and 2001.
Most notable, however, was a 2001-2 UEFA Cup run that saw the dramatically nicknamed ‘Wind of Ankara’ knock out Parma, Sporting Lisbon and…er…Graeme Souness’s Blackburn Rovers before submitting to Valencia after extra time – an unlikely and historic run which unfortunately still pales into insignificance beside the accolades collected by the Istanbullu.
Having finished eleventh in the Süper Lig in 2012-13, Gençlerbirliği currently have started the new season poorly and currently lie in bottom place after a spell of five games without a win culminated in defeat at Sivasspor on Sunday.
The club share the 19 Mayıs Stadium with the city’s other premier team, Ankaragücü, curiously formed in the Istanbul district of Zeytinburnu back in 1910 when Atatürk was yet to make his name in the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign.
While not matching the trauma of that fateful episode, Ankaragücü’s recent history has been truly troubling in footballing terms with relegation from the top flight in 2012 followed by them ‘doing a Wolves’ and plummeting into the third tier last year.
This follows on from a period of dodgy dealings behind the scenes which saw chairman Ahmet Gökcek accused of engineering a merger with the city’s third representatives Ankaraspor – the son of the mayor of Ankara took charge in 2009 and with his dad at the helm of their rivals at the time, the smell of double ownership proved too much for the Turkish FA.
Ankaraspor were forcibly relegated with all their results converted to 3-0 wins for the opposition and it’s in the PTT 1. Lig that they remain, one level above Ankaragücü. With such dodgy dealings, accompanied by the occasional forced stadium closure, far from the norm, the political backcloth of a city not wholly unfamiliar with corruption has too often seeped onto the field of play.
So - and despite the encouragingly stable new chairmanship of Mehmet Yiğiner and the sale of a quietly impressive 12,700 season tickets - the folks at Ankaragücü are far from role models – so no wonder the preference for the fancy dans from the long deposed capital.
Besides, glory hunting as defined in the English context is a cultural comparison too far – attempts to engage with Turks along the lines of ‘support your local team’ were met only with bemusement – one would expect the citizens of the northern Anatolian steel town of Karabük to be gushing over their heroes, currently punching above their weight despite the presence of Ryan Babel among their number – but not a bit of it; it being all about ‘Fener’ for the waiter serving us our tea during our subsequent visit to the town.
But with the cost of attending a match at Galatasaray’s TT Arena, its soulless location on the edge of a flyover, the transformation of Istanbul into an expensive playpen for tourists jammed with the worst traffic imaginable and the lofty hauteur of its johnny-come-lately fans, there is perhaps hope that Ankara can finally challenge the top dogs – if not now, a little way into the future.
That will require some resolve of course but in a Süper Lig firmly established as one of Europe’s best, who’s to say that the tangible trade links between Russia and Turkey might not tempt an oligarch into action and a financial challenge to be made.
In a city that is still affordable, where districts such as the aforementioned Kızılay and Kavaklıdere offset the duller diplomatic quarters with lively bars and restaurants and a go ahead university which houses an economics department that is far more innovative and creative than anything Istanbul has to offer, inward migration continues and the economy continues to boom. Four million souls might just be ready for a major level club.
Rob is one half of the simply wonderful @twounfortunates.
Picture - 'Playing Football in Ankara' - comes from SeraTJ.