Stadium they proudly call 'Hell' is an inferno that burns with passion

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The Independent Online

Banners welcoming foreign teams and their supporters to "Hell" are a familiar feature during the build-up to big European matches in Istanbul, as Manchester United and Chelsea have discovered in recent years. It is a bitter irony of the situation in which Leeds United and their fans found themselves yesterday that they encountered no such hostility on arriving at the airport.

Manchester United played the biggest of the city's three major clubs, Galatasaray, in the European Cup twice in successive seasons, in 1993 and again the following year. They have since faced another Istanbul side, Fenerbahce, who are based on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus. On each occasion they were met by hundreds of Turks waving flags and chanting abuse.

On their first visit to the city, Eric Cantona was attacked in the tunnel after the final whistle by a truncheon-wielding policeman, and the team coach was stoned as it left the ground. The scene was set in the first leg, at Old Trafford, when the goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel chased a protesting Turkish fan across the pitch and threw him to the ground.

Threats against Schmeichel were made in the build-up to the return leg in Istanbul, while before the match, 133 United fans were aggressively detained at a hotel, though only six were arrested.

Chelsea, who won 5-0 at Galatasaray in the Champions' League last October, also experienced difficulties, which made the warmth of the welcome afforded to Leeds on Wednesday afternoon a pleasant surprise. According to Turkish journalists, the Galatasaray coach, Fatih Terim, had appealed on television for their followers to stay away from the airport out of respect for "an outstanding team". The only mob awaiting Leeds was camera crews and journalists.

The relationship between players and fans in Turkey is much closer than in our own overblown Premiership. Not happy to be passive consumers, supporters - with their flags, flares and smoke bombs - see themselves as part of the spectacle. Violence is rarely prearranged, as it tends to be in Western Europe, though reactions to defeat, or to perceived insults, can be terrifying.

Dean Saunders, the Bradford and Wales striker who had a spell at Galatasaray, says: "The fans are just mad. There are coloured flares all over the place and what you think are firecrackers going off in the crowd are just as likely to be guns, because they all carry them. I've seen fans leaning over the barriers, banging drums, with nothing supporting them. They've only got to get one shove and they're dead, but they don't care. They're so wrapped up in the game."

David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, repeatedly played down the potential for trouble before Leeds flew to Istanbul on Wednesday morning. His experience of four trips to the country with Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland was that the "hysteria is over-hyped". He reiterated the opinion only hours before the fatal stabbings after Leeds had trained at Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen Stadium, where a few dozen fans of both clubs had looked on without a hint of menace.

Yet the Galatasaray club actively promotes the concept of their stadium as "Hell". Publicity material forwarded to Leeds to help with preparation of the programme for the second leg, at Elland Road on 20 April, says the ground is: "Heaven for Football, Hell for Competitors [visiting teams]".

Graeme Souness, the former Scottish international who was Terim's predecessor as Galatasaray's coach, also suggested that Leeds could expect a friendly reception. Now manager of Blackburn Rovers, Souness is remembered in Istanbul for planting Galatasaray's red-and-yellow flag on the pitch after a win over Fenerbahce.

Last season, the Turin club Juventus initially refused to play at Galatasaray, causing a diplomatic rift. Their reluctance did not stem from security fears, but from Turkish anger over the Italians' decision to consider asylum for Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish PKK movement, now in jail.