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A Few Thoughts About The True International Language

by Philip MADDEN


When I was growing up in England I was never really interested in football.

All the way through my childhood and teenage years I never tried to get
into a team or even cared about it, and apart from one season when my father took me to see most of Rotherham Uniteds home games,  I never waited for Saturday to come so I could dash off to a stadium somewhere ,and join others in shouting and jeering at grown men kicking a ball around a field.

Everything changed when I came to Turkey. Whenever people of different cultures and national backgrounds meet there is, apart from the usual linguistic difficulties, a problem of conversational topic, because of the barriers of culture, religion or ethnicity. I have encountered this many times in my initial dealings with newly met Turks, a sort of embarrassment, a desire not to offend by making an inappropriate remark to a foreigner, yet at the same time a willingness to forge a friendship. It is here that football comes to the rescue.

Even if you do not follow a specific team, or even like the sport, because you are a member of the human race at the beginning of the 21st century you cannot hide from the phenomenon that is football. Simply put it is everywhere, and because it knows no border, has no religion or political stance it is accessible to all. So I would be asked at the start of a conversation, "Do you know Galatasaray?" or “What do you think of our Hakan Sukur?” and from there the conversation would lead to Manchester United and Fenerbahce and so on and so on.  Although these conversations were markedly dull for me for there Turkish practioners they served the function of an easy way to communicate with a foreigner in their own country, and also a cheap way to practice their English.

In class students would ask me who my favorite team was and I, in an effort to keep them interested in what was going on in the classroom would give them the name of a well known English team just to keep the conversation alive.

I would ask them who they supported (CIM BOM!! Nine times out of ten!!) and so we were speaking football not English. In my social life it became the basis of conversation and to my amazement I was starting to follow the happenings in the football world, which team had recently signed which player, who was top of the league, who was the lead goal scorer in the country. Football had been a tool to establish a link with students and friends, but now it was becoming an obsession.

In 2000 the awful and shameful events that took place in Istanbul, where two Leeds fans were murdered for no good or valid reason changed my attitude towards football and in some ways my dealings with Turks. I had to listen to people tell me it was the fault of the two Englishmen that they had been stabbed, this is Turkey, they would say, we are like this they would not listen when I suggested that perhaps the two unfortunates had nothing wrong except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No I was wrong I was told. Football was no longer an easy linkmaker, it was know a matter of the unacceptable and defending what cannot be defended: murder.

Also that year Galatasaray beat the English team Arsenal on penalties to win the UEFA cup and all talk and discussion of the killing of the two Leeds fans faded from the conversation of my Turkish friends. Instead it was replaced by strangers chanting Galatasaray football songs in the street at me, or writing graffiti on the door of my flat. The reaction made me feel that I did not belong here, that I would always be a foreigner that people were measuring their patriotism against their partisan football feelings. It was like Turkey had fought a war against Britain and had won and not what it really was: a football match against a team based in England and a team based in Turkey and which both contained Brazilians, Romanians, Frenchmen, Irishmen, Swedes and Argentinians.       

Things have settled down since then. This year nobody as mentioned football to me at all, probably because of the decline of Galatasaray As both the dominant force in Turkey, and as an unpredictable threat in Europe. I discourage my students from trying to bring up the topic of sport in the classroom now, because it has served its purpose and I want my students to find more sophisticated ways of making friendships with people of different nationalities. Yet things could still be difficult, in September England and will come to Turkey to play the second match of their two qualifying matches for the 2004 European championships, England won the first match and nobody I knew said anything about it (which made me laugh!) but I will still avoid my Turkish friends whatever the result and that is something that disturbs me about the importance of football as a means of communication, or belittlement as the case may be.

- . -

This issue is dedicated to Global Awareness: All The Shah's Men & "Strategy of Preemptive Strive"

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