When the day came for my meeting with Turkish Reds, it was no longer an ordinary day in Istanbul. No other match is given as much importance as the Fenerbahce-Galatasaray derby and the streets of Beyoğlu were filled with soccer fans. When I arrived to the James Joyce bar, there were already hundreds of Galatasaray fans singing chants in pure excitement alas the two soccer teams’ rivalry is attached to strong strings in time and quality.
The second floor was equally energized with fans wearing red all around but they were not for the Turkish team. They were fans of Liverpool. They even did not care about the derby at all. They were waiting for the Liverpool – Chelsea match which was about to kick start on Anfield Road.
When they realized me, they immediately surrounded my table. It was an interesting moment; I could have joined the crowd on the first floor but here I was – on the second floor – among the fans of Liverpool.
Liverpool has 280 official fan clubs in 90 countries. Istanbul branch is one of them. They were officially recognized in 2014 and have been watching each Liverpool match at this club ever since. What Anfield Road in London is this place in Istanbul stands for for the fans.
One of the founders of the Liverpool fan club in Istanbul is Mehmet Can Pulat (27), a geography teacher. He explained their progress:
“I have a friend named Ulfan Ismihan. He first opened a Liverpool fan page on Facebook. I started to make comments on that page and became friends with Ulfan. I was already a fan of Liverpool. When the interest in the page increased, we got support cards for 20 people and we had more than 50 members. We applied to Liverpool FC and the club formalized our support group in 2014.”
Over time, they grew stronger in number both on social media and in real time get togethers at each Liverpool match. There are 8.447 followers on Facebook Liverpool fan page and 22.600 followers on Twitter. And they seem to be getting crowder and crowder at each match time at the James Joyce bar.
There are also non-Turkish Liverpool fans in the crowd. The Ukrainian Aleksander Zemlyk (29) came to watch Chelsea match with his girlfriend. The young man said he didn’t know whether he would be a fit in this crowd but soon happily relieved with the atmosphere here among the Liverpool fans all in red and white shirts.
Tahir Karabaş, a 46-year-old brother of the group, produces textiles and runs a hotel in Balat, one of the historical districts of Istanbul. He explained how he became a Liverpool fan:
“Everything started in 2005, before the Champions League Final match with Milan in Istanbul. I received a phone call checking to see the rates at my hotel for a Liverpool fan group. Hotel prices were very expensive during those days. I told them the best offer I could make was $40 single room and that started a friendship. We watched the match together. I admire their sport culture. Liverpool started bad and was losing the match 3-0 while in Istanbul. But not a single Liverpool supporter acted out of turn. Then the match took a sharp turn and the score became 3-3 which ended by Liverpool taking the trophy with penalties. From that day on, I became a Liverpool fan.”
Tahir Karabas made many Turks a Liverpool fan. But it’s not just his charm to appeal to the new fans. Players Steven Gerard and Micheal Owen and the overall Liverpool football culture plays an important role in people’s perception. Mehmet Ali Ünveren (25) says:
“The love of Liverpool started with the match between Milan and Istanbul in 2005. I was very impressed by the fact that Liverpool was a socialist group, not loving the Queen, or her stance against life. They’re no like England. They have a very different sport culture, and that attracts me.”
Ahmet Saral (44) said Liverpool was a team of working people like him.
“People like me admire those who value hardworkers. I’m a laborer too. My uncle was a student of the Medical School and had the Beatles’ albums. I learned the Beatles’ music band from Liverpool. I love music and the the team. At that time, it was a love for our hearts, Liverpool.”
Saral has never been to England. His biggest dream is to watch a Liverpool game on Anfield Road. This dream echoes in all Liverpool fans in Istanbul.
Fatih Kuroğlu (22), a student at Marmara University Faculty of Law, said:
“I have been a Liverpool Istanbul fan group for four years. Steven Gerard’s shirt is the first uniform my father bought me. Then I joined the group of fans and was even more impressed. I’ve never watched Liverpool live. We’re watching them on TV here as always. My biggest wish is to watch a match in Anfield or go to one of their match with fans wherever they play.”
Liverpool fans in Istanbul know all about the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 and the sad Hillsborough disaster that took place in 1989. They know everything about the history of Liverpool, and they talk about them. Tahir Karabaş explains:
“The Heysel disaster completely transformed Liverpool. They created a great football culture. The hooligan is no longer. These are all good things. Liverpool fans do not create any flooding. We’re like a family. We watch the matches all together. We build a bond amongst us. We know our families. Being a Liverpool fan is something different. Wherever you go in the world, a Liverpool supporter will help you. You’re not alone. Liverpool is a different culture, more than a football. I love it and I’m glad to be part of it.”
They do other than watching the match on TV. Sometime ago they visited the animal shelters in the city. Mehmet Pulat mentioned other projects:
“We want to help the village school in Turkey. We want to distribute Liverpool jerseys. This requires money support. Perhaps we can form an association as Liverpool fans. Our goal is to grow strong all across Turkey. We reach out to everyone through social media. We have Singaporean, Kazakhstan, Egyptian and Irish friends who reach us via the internet. We want to help them all.”
Liverpool won Chelsea 2-0 that day and keeps the chances high for a Premier League championship.
Each time they scored, the bar turned into Anfield Road. By the time their match ended, the derby match was just about to start and a concerted quietness were all around Istanbul.
Yet the happy fans of Turkish Liverpool were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the second floor of the bar just as I took out going home…