As if eager to demonstrate once and for all that they are out-of-touch, irresponsible, lacking in judgement and foolhardy to the point of actual insanity – it would appear that UEFA are genuinely considering Istanbul as a host city for the semi-finals and final of the Euro 2020 Championships. Our beloved FA, itself a body which has frequently demonstrated its own lack of fitness to run a piss-up in a brewery, stated today that it believes Istanbul is the “front runner” and main rival to Wembley’s own bid. Istanbul lost out to Tokyo in its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, after all. FA General Secretary Alex Horne said: “We’ve taken some soundings, there’s a sympathy for Turkey and it does feel like they are the front-runners. We get the politics around Istanbul, having not got the Olympics.”
Well, forgive me, but I don’t “get” this at all. Turkey has just about the most horrific history of football violence it’s possible to imagine. Istanbul in particular is home to Galatasaray, whose fans’ party piece is to raise banners when “welcoming” visiting teams to the airport or to their bear-pit of a stadium, the banners bearing the warm and comforting message of “Welcome to Hell”. Other touching signs of friendship and bonhomie include mimed throat-slitting actions performed en masse. Sadly, these ugly manifestations of Turkish culture have been shown to be no mere gestures. In the spring of 2000, two Leeds United fans – Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight – were brutally attacked and murdered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Ali Umit Demir and three other men were arrested for the killings, and Demir was jailed but released for retrial after a successful appeal. When the four men first appeared in court, they were cheered by members of the public, Demir being described as a “patriot” by residents of Istanbul.
More than 13 years on, it is still unclear whether Demir will ever face an appropriate penalty for his admitted crime of stabbing Mr Loftus and Mr Speight. Over the time since these tragic killings, fans of Turkish clubs have continued to disgrace themselves on numerous occasions with acts of violence and displays of hostility which UEFA have consistently failed to address, despite the alacrity with which they deal with lesser offences elsewhere. It has been reported that certain UEFA officials regard knife-carrying and its concomitant perils as “part of the culture” in Turkey, and this may partly explain their casual attitude towards what goes on there – but it certainly does not excuse it.
No Leeds United fan and, for that matter, no Manchester United fan needs any instruction about the atmosphere and the dangers of following football in Istanbul. Personal experiences of fans from both clubs leave little room for doubt that it’s a place to visit and roam around in only with extreme reticence and caution. The idea of masses of fans from different nations adding their high-spirits and nationalistic fervour to the cocktail of hatred and overt hostility which is so much a part of the fabric of Istanbul – it’s just too horrible to contemplate. You’d have thought that even a pea-brained UEFA pen-pusher could have accumulated enough evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, to realise this. But no. Self-satisfaction and pompous idiocy rules in the corridors of UEFA, and they will seemingly be willing to compound their laxity of recent years in failing to deal with what has happened there, by a whole new level of crass stupidity in contemplating taking a major Championships to a murderous pit.
It is to be hoped that wiser counsel – if any should exist in the game’s higher authorities – will prevail, and some safer place will be found. The idea of awarding the final stages of a prestigious tournament to Istanbul is a bit like inviting an arsonists’ self-help group to organise a bonfire in a petrol dump – only more so. If the madmen of UEFA have their way in this, the consequences could be dire; you only have to ask the Man United fans ill-treated by the local police, or the Leeds fans who, heart-sick at their bereavement of the night before, turned their backs at the start of the match against Galatasaray, because that club had failed, along with UEFA, to postpone the game, or even to order that black armbands should be worn.
It may be that one day Istanbul will be a fit place for civilised football fans to visit, and maybe even for a tournament to be held. But that day is not yet, it won’t be here by 2020 and it won’t be for many more years after that. Most sensible football fans would confirm that. Now we just have to find a way to persuade the fools in UEFA, and in our own FA, what their own eyes and ears should have told them long ago.