Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Day Hell Froze Over

L-R: Will Unwin, Marcus Chippindale, James Johnson, John Dickens, Me.

Our 3,144-mile trip for 31 minutes of football

When Juventus fans travelled all the way from Turin to Istanbul to see their team face Galatasaray in a crucial Champions League tie only for the match to be abandoned after half an hour, they were disappointed - but not as disappointed as the five idiots who made the 3,144-mile round trip from Luton Airport.

As a group of former-or-current sports journalists, we've probably visited every one of England's 92 football league grounds between us. We are also a diverse cross-section of football fandom: Manchester United; Manchester City; Rangers; Blackpool, and Portsmouth. British football would be unlikely to serve up something at least one of us hadn't seen before - our Jolly Boys' Outing needed to be planned with imagination.

So it was decided that we would travel to the other side of the continent to watch a match in what is simply and affectionately referred to as 'Hell'.

We planned an affordable trip: budget flights; back-street hostel accommodation, and face-value tickets courtesy of ITV mover-shaker Will Unwin. We were all set for a bit of football tourism.
Photo: James Johnson

Istanbul is an incredible city.

Grand Bazaar. Photo: James Johnson
A vast landscape - boasting ancient Islamic architecture and industrial skyscrapers - is complemented by delightful blink-and-you'll-miss-'em intricacies. In the shadows cast by mosques and bridges, fishermen sell sandwiches while stray cats lick their lips. In the Grand Bazaar, buckets of rainbow-flavoured spices sit next to obligatory cheap market plastic tat. In the bars and cafes, some smoke from decorative sheesha pipes while the rest smoke filthy filter tips and pick their teeth. Istanbul is a construct of the rough and the smooth. The city would be our home for three days, so we decided to spend our time perusing its grandeur one minute and drinking from its gutter the next.

Me and Marcus. Photo: James Johnson
We drank pints of local lager under the fishermen's bridge, mindful of mackerel-less hooks being yanked back upwards a nostril or an eyelid's width from our faces.
We ate piles upon piles of sinewy meat drowned in grease, and other meals that raised questions to which we didn't want answers.
We merrily chatted with a waiter who had once lived in England, but stopped talking to him once he revealed he hated his time in Wigan 'because there were too many blacks'.

'The Blue Mosque'. Photo: James Johnson
For some reason, fortune was not our friend throughout the entire trip; if we were superstitious we wouldn't have even bothered to turn up to the stadium.

From the airport, our 'coach shuttle' dropped us off a couple of miles from our hostel. There were five of us, and we didn't want to split up, so we stuffed ourselves into a four-seater taxi. For a number of reasons benefiting all involved, the 6'7" Marcus was given the passenger seat while four slightly smaller adult males cosied up in the back. Many crushed bones, honked horns and narrowly-avoided accidents later, we found our pokey hostel.

During our first evening's ablutions and Efes-drinking in our room, one of the lightbulbs caught fire out of nowhere. Our 'getting ready' montage was interrupted by ribbons of black smoke and the stench of melted plastic.

In one mediocre Taksim restaurant we were charged £30 for underwhelming meze that we never asked for, on top of a £15 dollop of bullshit tax. We Britishly bitched and neglected to tip.

We tried to visit two museums on the only days they were closed; we discovered that Turkish pastrami is the worst legally-available foodstuff; we were refused entry to the grooviest, most happening nightspots.

L-R: Dickens, James, me, Chippo. Photo: Will Unwin
One slice of good fortune came in the form of our newfound ability to haggle. Deciding a knock-off Galatasaray replica shirt was essential for our trip to the Turk Telekom Arena, we opened negotiations. "How much are these?" we nonchalantly enquired; we didn't want to look too interested. "40 lira my friend," came the young man's opening gambit. 40 Turkish Lira? That's 13 English pounds, we can do better than that. "15 lira!"... "No, 30 lira, best price for you"... "We'll do 20 or nothing"... "OK my friend, 20 lira". "Do we get a discount for buying four(Will was too cool for replica shirts - ever the football hipster, he would later buy a Trabzonspor scarf and a Besiktas keyring from the airport)?", "No, sorry". "70 lira for four mate, come on?"... "OK".

The nuisance weather at the Turk Telekom Arena
With a spring in our step, a beer in our hand and 'Drogba 11' on our back, we alighted the Istanbul underground train at Seyrantepe and bought a Galatasaray scarf to put around our neck #FullKitWankers.

The gentle flecks of snow that greeted us on our walk up to the stadium amused us. Who knew it even snowed in Turkey? This was going to be hilarious.

I'm not usually a fan of new stadia, for all the clich├ęd reasons: poor acoustics, corporate facilities, sickening cleanliness, lack of 'charm' - but I am a fan of the The Turk Telekom Arena. 

It is an uncomplicated stadium, with short distances between entrance and gate, and between fan and pitch. With stands deep and steep like those at the Santiago Bernabeu, the arena traps the atmosphere like a localised storm.

Although, in fairness, they could put the Galatasaray fans at the bottom of the Bosphorus and they'd still make an impressive noise.

I could continue to gush about the famous Galatasaray atmosphere, and I could make an attempt to describe the football we saw, but instead here are some photographs:

Blissfully unaware of the disappointment ahead.
We officially saw some football
Awful shovelling
Tools down
My lasting memory of a ridiculous night
Their faces tell it all - each in their own way

The Group B Matchday 6 fixture was called off after 31 minutes due to an unexpected blizzard. We were booked on the first flight home the following day, and the rescheduled match was played while we were in the air.

We travelled 100 miles per minute of football witnessed.

But we had a good trip.

We dealt with the agony in different ways

*'Hell Froze Over' is courtesy of the wit of Will Unwin. I couldn't not use it.