'The Turkey mounted the English,' read the headline on the front of the mass-circulation daily Sabah yesterday morning. 'When they want to criticise us they say they will cut these turkeys to pieces,' continued the gushing prose. 'But Manchester United got the lesson of their lives. Be proud, Turkey.'
Beating the English champions at their own game in the second round of the European Cup on Wednesday night wasn't just good news in the Galatasaray district of Istanbul. It gave the entire country its finest moment since the Ottoman Empire bequeathed its name to a piece of household furniture. Now they were on level terms with the best.
You could tell it meant a lot to the Turks, this football business, during the first game in Manchester. While to Manchester United plc a good run in the European Cup represented about pounds 12.5m, to the Turks it meant prestige, status, respect. It wasn't just a place in the European Cup they were after, it was a place in Europe. When his team scored a crucial third goal on a foreign field, the owner of Galatasary (or Cim-Bom as they are known) stood on his seat in the Old Trafford directors' box chanting and kissing his guests on the lips. In front of him United's finance director, Mr Launders, turned grey.
On Monday night, a fortnight later, the highly remunerated glory boys of England flew to Istanbul for the second game. They met a reception committee almost as over-excited as the local club's chairman. There were about 150 of them, with bad banners and big chants, filling the arrivals lounge with noise. 'Welcome to the hell,' one banner read. And 'Hello, Mr Cantona, welcome. After the game, you say goodbye Mrs Cantona.'
'Jesus,' said Steve Bruce, United's centre back, fighting through the scrum of local television camera crews, inquisitive airport staff and policemen adding to the anarchy. 'There was a hell of a crowd when we got to South Africa in the summer. But they were pleased to see us.'
Outside the airport, United players pushed their way to a coach surrounded by yabbering Galatasaray fans, gesticulating predictions of the score (always 5-0 for some reason). Pallister, Bruce, Robson and Ince pressed their noses to the windows, grinning and replying in kind. It was loud, it was chaotic, and it was about as intimidating as kindergarten playtime.
But the British tabloids had their story. The next morning, in the papers back home, the players' families read that this eager, tumultuous welcome was a nightmare gauntlet of hate. They thought their lads were in mortal danger, when in fact they were confined to a former Sultan's palace of a hotel, watching videos.
'We'll keep them here for security,' said Alex Ferguson, United's manager. 'The Turks are lovely people, but they can be volatile.'
Volatile indeed. Istanbul, which like Manchester had just recently failed to land the Olympics, had gone mad for another sporting event. Tickets were changing hands on the black market for a month's wages. Walking through the streets, where all life is conducted in Istanbul, you were blinded by the yellow and red of Galatasaray. Traders sitting on blankets on the pavement, selling single cigarettes from broken packets, selling individual fish hauled straight from the Bosphorus, selling you your own weight on bathroom scales, were united for Cim-Bom. In the Grand Bazaar balloons were strung in lines from shop to shop, pictures of the players were pasted on to the windows. As an experiment, I walked through this maze of commerce wearing a United T-shirt. I was completely mobbed, pulled this way and that by cheerful merchants.
'Hey Manchester,' one said. 'You will lose, come buy my carpet and you will have something to take home.'
'Hey, Manchester,' said another yellow-toothed grin. 'Cantona is a peach.'
Indeed, a peach of a player, I agreed.
'No, no. You no understand. Cantona, son of a peach.'
But what everyone wanted to know was why the British papers called the Turks animals.
'We are friends,' they said in an over-friendly way. 'Turkish are gentlemen. Why print these lies?'
The language barrier prevented any lengthy lectures about why jingoism is a well-honed weapon in the tabloid sales war. Instead they seemed happy with a 'you've made us very welcome'. Still the Turkish press itself was hardly unsullied. The front page editorial in Fotospor would have had them purring down in Wapping. 'Tomorrow we see who is stuffed,' it snorted.
It wasn't until about two o'clock on the match afternoon that a barman gave me a very hard time. News had filtered out about our diplomatic corps smashing up a local hotel, and he held me responsible.
'Why do you act as scum?' he fumed. 'Why do you piss on the Turkish flag? We will fuck you, Manchester.'
Which, given the size of his moustache, sounded ominous.
If they were excited in the Grand Bazaar and in the grand Blue Mosque ('You Manchester?' asked the man at the door. 'You lose 5-0, ha ha]'), inside the ground the atmosphere was as if a Cup final crowd had been main-lining adrenalin for a fortnight. When we arrived, cutting it fine two hours ahead of kick-off, the place was jammed with Ultra Boys. The upper tier of stands were lined with bass drums, thumping out a constant rib-rattling rhythm. Flags flew, flares torched, a thick fog of gunpowder smoke palled the pitch. Every supporter in the ground was chanting with a wonderful discipline not shared by their policemen. In one corner, surrounded by a human shield of riot cops 20 deep, was the forlorn rump of United fans, looking monochrome in colourful surroundings, popping camera flashes at the fantastic sight surrounding them.
'It was something else,' said one lad from Crewe. 'We've learnt some of their chants and we're going to practise them on the plane home.'
When the two teams came out, the place looked like Hades - shadowy figures in the stands enveloped in pink smoke. Galatasaray had added a Turkish crest to their shirts: they were carrying the pride of a nation with them, or at least that part of the nation that wasn't Kurdish.
In the front row of the directors' box sat the country's beleaguered Prime Minister, Mrs Ciller. Rosetted in yellow and red, she milked the opportunity to associate herself with Turkish success. As the game progressed, and the United players snapped in frustration, the noise grew frightening. At the final whistle, the pitch was invaded by crazed policemen trying to hit our favourite son of a peach. Turkish players wept, spectators wept, police dogs wept, the Prime Minister wept. What, you thought, would they have done if they'd lost.
'It is wonderful for us to get rid of all the problems on our agenda and prove we are as good as you,' said Onur Arifoglu, 25, a student hoarse from yelling since 2pm. 'Manchester United is one of the best teams in the world. Now the world will see Turkey is great.'
Outside the stadium, the city was alive with car horns, flag-wavers and gun fire. Along the motorway to the airport, fans stood 10 deep to laugh at the humiliated Englishmen, to hold their children up to the windows and show them what losers looked like. The United players stared straight ahead, and prepared themselves for more mundane business: Manchester City on Sunday.
Out-gunned, out-played, out-thought, out-sung: another night abroad for England. The omen had been there on the team plane on the way out. The in-flight movie was The Last of The Mohicans. Half-way through the action came a scene in which a regiment of scarlet-coated English soldiers marching through a wood is set upon by howling Mohawks, who proceed to kebab the lot. When you're up against it on foreign soil, being English and wearing red is not enough.
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