Why You Should Read: Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football, John McManus
By Onur Kara
‘Of ya!’ proclaimed Richard Moore, as he faced the trolls of Twitter. Being the British Ambassador to Ankara, he knew the importance of football in his posting. Tweeting a picture from a bustling stadium was bound to draw such attention. Moore, however, did not stop there: he made football a major point of his engagement with the Turkish society, and he did so in fluent Turkish. The response was overwhelming, it elevated Ambassador Moore’s standing to something akin to a social media phenomenon in Turkey when he left for London in 2018.
Football is a defining feature of the Turkish culture, capturing the attention of any long-term visitor. It makes a point to say that you support a team, and it makes an equal point to say that you don’t. Derbies can take over cities, starting with cheerful convoys slowly making their way towards the stadium and all the way to the discussion once the match is over, often with an uproar in the media over some footballer, the referee, or the club president. The passion and controversy are only stronger if the fixture points to an international game. Two decades before Ambassador Moore, Galatasaray fans had counted on the strength of this atmosphere by putting up a Welcome to Hell banner when they greeted Manchester United in Istanbul. The two sides had to content themselves with a 3-3 draw in 1993, but the incident provided a fitting name for John McManus’ book.
McManus’ work reads like an introductory course to contemporary Turkey. Its chapters jump back and forth between the past and the present. One can read about the emergence of the first sports clubs in the late Ottoman era, the match-fixing scandal of 2011, the 1955 Istanbul pogroms, and the 2016 coup attempt. Football matches are what brings them all together, since they are ‘ninety-minute blocks – date, time and location fixed.’ Using football as an anchor for memory helps making sense of the country’s recent history as most of its landmark events seem to resonate in stadiums. When Beşiktaş lost against Dinamo Kiev in December 2006, the Turkish media took issue with the referee decisions and soon decided that it was an allegory to Turkey’s relations with the European Union. Similarly, when swearing was heard from a female-only audience, the football federation of Turkey suddenly found itself in the middle of a debate on gender and social norms.
A history as turbulent as Turkey’s creates colourful characters, and the book presents a wide array of these. Turkey has no shortage of personalities whose path crossed the football pitch at some point: President Erdoğan himself was a footballer, so was Adnan Menderes. Other characters in the book are less famous, such as leaders of fan groups, or even ordinary citizens. Yet McManus presents lively portraits of all figures, and some of these are very detailed and memorable.
A common problem with many popular works on Turkey is that they tend to focus exclusively on Istanbul, with occasionally forays to the Aegean coast or other touristic destinations. A truly national phenomenon such as football cannot confine itself to a few major destinations. This is where Welcome to Hell stands out: McManus tours the reader around Ankara, İzmir, Trabzon and Diyarbakır – he even includes the curious history of the rise and fall of a Syrian football team in Gaziantep.
All this excessive travel hints to rigorous research in the background. The book is dotted with an impressive number of interviews and observations made through the years the author spent in Turkey. Although the book is meant to be accessible, one can see the underlying academic project under a thin layer. It does not distract the reader thanks to the author’s linguistic skills, which plays a large part in his writing. One remarkable example is how he takes the task of providing translations of Turkish fan chants into English:
We came to add strength to your strength
We came to be the sweat on your shirt
Beşiktaş, we came to die for you.
It is impossible to convey the energy of Turkish football without this language – always creative and sometimes vulgar. Luckily, through the 300-odd pages the reader keeps hearing these genuine conversations, shouts and marches: everything is given in the correct context, often with humour, and using remarkably accurate translation.
Welcome to Hell is a book which is equally suitable for football lovers and those who are indifferent to it, be them Turks or not. McManus tackles a difficult topic with skill and ties it all together in a fluent narrative. Definitely recommended for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Turkey.
Onur Kara is a PhD candidate at King’s College London
You can get Welcome to Hell here.