My wife once flew over Istanbul and ever since then she has yearned to go there. Last week we did.
There are dozens of wonderful things to say about Turkey (and I probably will) but first I need to talk about the frustration for a soccer freak of looking down from a hotel window directly into a soccer stadium -- with no game going on.
Hundreds of ferries and freighters and tugs were moving up and down the Bosphorus as we stared into the beginnings of Asia, but in seven days and seven nights I never spotted a single person moving on the lush lawn of Beşiktaş, one of three Super-division teams in Turkey.
One Sunday there was an Istanbul derby at Fenerbahçe, a main rival, based across the Bosphorus, essentially on another continent.
As a foreigner, you could try going there, somebody advised me, but nobody from Beşiktaş is allowed to travel to Fenerbahçe, and nobody from Fenerbahçe is allowed to attend a match at Beşiktaş. The trip involved a 20-minute ferry ride and a 40-minute walk, but there was too much else to do in this amazing city of mosques and museums, ferries and restaurants, hills and water views.
Soccer was in the news. Fenerbahçe was firing its star Brazilian, Alex, for unknown offenses. He had been there seven years, a long stay for any international import, but the owner wanted him gone, and now he was.
Soccer always makes friends. Turks reminded me that Brad Friedel, the durable American keeper, spent a formative time with Galatasaray, the other Istanbul powerhouse. I told Turkish fans how I had covered the 2002 World Cup, when Turkey made its best showing ever, finishing third. People nodded reverently when I praised the great act of sportsmanship, after beating the spirited Reds of South Korea, 3-2, in the consolation match, how the Turkish players invited the Koreans to take a victory lap with them.
But that was a long time ago. Now Turkey is in danger of not qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
One day in the amazing Cappadocia Region (with its unique geological formations and cave dwellings) we were eating in the celebrated Old Greek House in Mustafapaşa, where the popular soap opera Asmali Konak was filmed. Our guide, Gökhan Yaramis, a tall former college basketball player – and a Fenerbahçe man – was joined by his fellow guide Emre Ardik, a Trabzonspor man.
Gökhan and Emre are buddies, who once spent nearly 24 hours driving in a snowstorm to watch their teams in Trabzon, alongside the Black Sea.
“We want our cup!” Emre told me with passion. A year ago Fenerbahçe was implicated in a game-fixing scandal and was bounced from the Champions League. Sounds like Juventus, the perennial king of the 89th-minute penalty kick, amazing coincidences Sunday after Sunday, decade after decade.
Gökhan never argued. Apparently, the punishment stood on its own. He’s a great guy, an educated guide who could respectfully tell us the history of Christians who lived in caves to avoid the Romans, and could also tell us of the Muslim faith that reached the region centuries later. Later he invited us to his lovely apartment in a pleasant town, so we would know more about Turkish life.
Gökhan put on his yellow and navy blue vertical striped jersey – and displayed his matching yellow sneakers – his gamer outfit, for watching matches. On Tuesday he would watch the qualifying match on the huge screen in the town square, as Turkey would score first against Hungary, but then lose, 3-1. By that time, my wife and were flying home. There is so much to remember about Turkey; I will always check the soccer scores.
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.