Only girls allowed

Turkish club Fenerbahçe hosted a historic night of football on which no men were allowed in the grou

Spending a "girls' night out" at a football match might appear to be something of an oxymoron. Yet in what is thought to be a world first, more than 41,000 women and children aged under 12 packed the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Istanbul last Tuesday evening - home to Turkish first division side Fenerbahçe - in a league match where men were banned from attending.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had initially ordered that the club play their first two games of the season behind closed-doors in a bid to combat violence and hooliganism after fans had invaded the pitch during a pre-season friendly against the Ukrainian side, Shakhtar Donetsk. However authorities had a change of heart and instead decided to admit only women and children for free to the matches.

Following the game, both the players and the Turkish football authorities felt the "experiment" had gone well and called for a greater push to increase the number of women and families present at football matches. The vice-president of Fenerbahçe, Ali Koc who was speaking to CNN, described the atmosphere as being one of a kind and "historic in the sense of Turkish football as well as international football".

One fan, American-born Charlotte Surmeli told the Guardian that "grandmothers in their 70s with their daughters and their grandchildren [were present]. For these women it could be the first and only match they ever go to but I really hope they continue to do it".

Players from both Fenerbahçe and the opposing side, Manisaspor, tossed flowers to the women in the crowd and were eager to champion the whole experience as a great success. Fenerbahçe's captain, Alex de Sousa revealed that the memory of the night would stay with him forever whilst Everton loanee, Joseph Yobo said "we have to thank the ladies for coming to support us. It is difficult playing without fans." Omer Aysan, midfielder for the opposition, agreed saying it was "such a fun and pleasant atmosphere".

After reading about this historic game, it got me thinking about whether the idea would be feasible for a Premier League game. There are already a large number of women attending football matches in England. According to a Populus survey in August 2010, 19 per cent of match attendees in the 2008-09 season were women.

A stadium packed to the rafters but with no men present would certainly be quite a sight. But it would no doubt also feel strange. The man launching a foul-mouthed tirade at the ref and the guy offering his expert analysis at half-time are an essential part of the English football experience.

Hooliganism is not as much of a problem as it once was and there have been some initiatives taken by some clubs and the FA to broaden their fan base and make it more diverse. For example, at England matches, the FA has launched a discounted price for a family ticket of four, which allows the match to be enjoyed from a specially designated enclosure.

Karen Espelund, the first women's delegate appointed to the UEFA executive committee, who was speaking at a UEFA meeting in Cyprus, has also advocated the need to involve more families in the game. She said "the answer has been quite clear that the more families you have in the stands, the better the atmosphere you get".

The Premier League and other divisions should definitely learn from Fenerbahçe's experiment and attempt to increase the number of families present at football matches, but it's hard to imagine a Premier League match attended by women alone. If the scheme were ever to be implemented over here, I fear we'd have a riot from football-starved males on our hands.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue