Football

Is Istanbul the most passionate football city in the world?

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On safari, there’s the ‘Big Five’, the Premier League’s got the ‘Big Four’ And in Turkey there’s the ‘Big Three’.

While membership into England’s so-called ‘Big Four’ seemingly fluctuates with financial investment and on-field form, in Turkey the three largest teams are undisputed.

They are the most popular, most successful and they absolutely despise each other. Oh, and they all come from the same city.

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The ferocious rivalry between this Istanbul-based disharmonious triad transcends on and off-field competition – it comprises an essential part of the city’s recent history.

Since the Süper Lig’s foundation in 1959, there have been only seven occasions when Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Besiktas have failed to claim the Turkish crown. No other city in the world can boast this sort of domestic dominance.

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While Besiktas have watched their estranged Istanbul relatives do battle for the league over the past decade (with their 2008/09 title the only anomaly), this season they are in the driving seat and find themselves at the top of the table, a point ahead of rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce with a game in hand.

Besiktas were the real winners from Sunday’s 1-1 draw between the latter two Istanbul heavyweights.

The game was as cagey and fiercely contested as always and proved a timely reminder of the competitive hostility between both the Fenerbahce and Galatasaray players and fans alike. The noise from every corner of the stadium was testament enough to the intense passion these two sets of supporters have for their clubs.

It was a fair point in the end between two teams who just refused to let the other side win and both sets of fans travelled back across Istanbul content enough with having shared the spoils.

Interestingly, the city of Istanbul is separated by a natural partition called the Bosphorus Strait, which is widely acknowledged as the division between Europe and Asia. Galatasaray are based on the western side, Fenerbahçe on the Asian side. So while Istanbul is the geographic convergence point that unites these two continents, football has historically polarised the city.

Gala was founded by distinguished educational institute the Galatasaray Lycée and has a reputation as being middle-class and western, whereas Fener are seen as the people’s club. The roots of animosity between the clubs are thus deep-set in the city’s geography, history and identity.

The implacable mutual hatred between opposing fans has sadly given rise to violence, not only amongst fans but also directed towards players. Thankfully, Sunday's was one of the more peaceful Kitalararasi derbies in recent years and it appears the Turkish FA have made a significant attempt to improve security and control at football matches since the armed attack on a Fenerbahce team bus in April, which led to a week’s suspension of all football matches in the country.

For too long the brilliant Turkish fans have suffered reputational damage as a result of several isolated incidents of fanaticism and violence from a tiny fraction of fans who attend games in the country.

In their tens of millions, the supporters have been wrongly categorised. Turkey is a country that lives and breathes football like no other, and the people need it, especially in today's climate of political uncertainty.

Perhaps the only semblance of pure passion in football is embodied by the Turks. Football has become a sport of commercial partnerships, millionaire investors and marquee foreign signings, but in Istanbul the fans still rule the roost.

Whichever side of Istanbul you’re from, either Besiktas, Fenerbahce or Galatasaray colours run through your veins. These fans merit our admiration, they worship their own players and they hate their opponents in equal measure, but most importantly, they support their team with absolute passion. After all, isn’t that what football’s all about?

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