Mark Godfrey

Book review: Welcome to Hell? In search of the real Turkish football by John McManus

Mark Godfrey
Book review: Welcome to Hell? In search of the real Turkish football by John McManus

REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN - @paulmcparlan

Whilst the Mediterranean countries of France, Italy and Spain have been the subject of numerous football books over the past few decades, the largest nation to lie next to this body of water, with arguably the most passionate soccer fans, has seemingly been neglected by scribes of the beautiful game. John McManus in his first ever book has attempted to address this imbalance.

The author has lived and worked in Turkey since 2008. He is a fluent Turkish speaker and his articles have been published in several arenas such as the Guardian and the BBC Sport website. He has established a reputation as a leading authority on Turkish football no doubt influenced by the fact that McManus earned his PhD from Oxford University with a thesis on Turkish football. He is clearly not your conventional football fan, and this is not a traditional football book.

The book’s title is inspired by the banners that greet opposition European teams when they arrive at Istanbul Airport and are later vividly displayed in the stadia in a cacophonous, cauldron of hostility and apparent murderous intent. To the average English supporter, a visit to watch their team play in Turkey is viewed with varying degrees of fear and apprehension. McManus tries to challenge these stereotypes and provide a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a football fan from the Turkish perspective.

Turkey is a massive country and the book helpfully provides a map indicating where the main teams that the author references are located. Another subsequent plan provides an insight into Istanbul and the locations of the present and former stadia of the three main powerhouses of Turkish football – Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas – and their neighbourhoods which enhances the reader’s understanding of their situation.

The opening chapter deals with the infamous events of April 5th, 2000 when two Leeds United supporters were stabbed to death in Istanbul prior to their match with Galatasaray. This is undoubtedly the most evocative section of the book as McManus portrays the trauma that the relatives of the victims had to endure entwined with the first-hand accounts of Peter Ridsdale, then Leeds chairman as he tried to deal with a situation that he could never have imagined in his worst nightmares. The author does an excellent job in trying to understand the background to the incidents from both a Turkish and Leeds perspective, highlighting the frustration endured by the families back in Leeds as they waited for a day of justice that never seemed to arrive. The writing style is exemplary here demonstrating the right degree of empathy for the bereaved alongside justified criticism of a judicial process that just never seemed accountable or able to deliver. Just as the portrayal of Turkey in the film “Midnight Express” deterred Western tourists from visiting the country in the 1980s , the savage attacks on the Leeds supporters resurrected the stereotype of the wild, barbaric Turkish natives making any cautious English fan think twice about following their team to the country.

The subsequent chapter deals with the big three teams in Istanbul and their intense, vitriolic rivalries. Football, politics and social strata are intrinsically linked here, and the author explains which fan groups support which political parties and the class differences between the supporters. Violent clashes are a regular feature of Istanbul Derby encounters, with Besiktas and Galatasaray playing in the European side of the city and Fenerbahce in the Asian side. Strangely enough, despite their mutual loathing they will support their rivals when they play European opposition.

McManus travelled far and wide across the country in search of his stories. Several recurrent themes emerge during his travels. The struggle of immigrant families from the Balkans, Greece, Syria and the Levante to be accepted as real Turks, despite their younger offspring having lived in the country all of their lives. The ageing foreign footballer and manager coming to Turkey for one last pay day is analysed in depth. Guus Hiddink is a particular hate figure here. Turkish fans consider themselves and their country to be extremely welcoming, but this often depends on their perception of the visitor and sadly as English fans are regularly demonised as hooligans and yobs by the national media then that is how they are greeted.

Integration of the Turkish diaspora is also a consistent theme. European matches involving teams from Istanbul attract a large contingent of Turkish supporters, although the majority are not actually from Turkey or even speak the language as they have lived in western Europe all their lives. Players with a Turkish heritage, such as Muzzy Izzet and Colin Kazim Richards, admitted that they struggled to adjust to the culture when playing for the national team, especially as they could not speak Turkish.

Turkish fans are apparently in awe of the Leicester City side that won the Premier league in 2016 as fans of teams outside of the big three are convinced that the footballing authorities would never allow such an achievement to take place there. The match fixing scandal of 2011 that led to Fenerbahce grabbing the title from Trabzonspor still rankles and a lasting distrust of the Turkish footballing authorities is inculcated into the mindset of Turkish fans.

In contrast to the increasing number of women who watch games in Europe, female attendance at League games in Turkey is still regarded as the exception. However, apparently the fairer sex does have their uses; when Fenerbahce were ordered to close their ground due to crowd violence, they were instead allowed to play in front of an audience comprising just women and children. Women’s football has also struggled to establish itself throughout the country with little apparent support from the Turkish authorities.

The book closes with an equally powerful account of the author’s first-hand experience of the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule in July 2016 and the consequences of the failed insurrection. Yet, despite all the political tension and upheaval that followed, football survived, and McManus soon found himself back on the terraces consumed by his love of Turkish football.

At nearly 360 pages long, this is a meticulously researched and thoughtful insight into the experience of watching Turkish football. However, at times there is too much emphasis on the political and historical background of the country and perhaps a more judicial editing of the source material might have been beneficial. The number of academic source references indicate the amount of assiduous research the author has invested in this project and the reader who merely wants an insight into Turkish football rather than the continual references to the country’s turbulent past may find this information overload frustrating at times. Some may also wonder why the immense achievement of the national team reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2002 and the reaction of the nation was not covered in more depth. Occasionally , McManus does have a tendency to write as though he is delivering a lecture, although this may be an advantage for some.

Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile read and for anybody looking to gain an understanding into the fan culture in Turkey, McManus is an authoritative guide who offers a perceptive and compelling account of how to understand football in Turkey through the eyes of someone who has lived there.  Certainly, my understanding of Turkish football has been enriched and the author deserves every credit for the finished product. A detailed and very informative read, which challenges many of the perceived stereotypes of football and life in Turkey and may encourage you to visit if your particular side faces Turkish opposition in the future.

Welcome to Hell? In search of the real Turkish football by John McManus is available from Amazon HERE