When I first moved to America, I ended up playing junior soccer with a team made up almost exclusively of Turks that was called New York Besiktas. We wore the black and white stripes of the Istanbul club, we had the crest containing the crescent of Islam over our hearts. During that hugely entertaining season, I learned that the Turks had a near-monopoly on the petrol stations of Long Island, loved to argue with each other at half-time, and, if you were wearing the colours of Besiktas, you had to despise their hated crosstown rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbache.
That much came to mind over the past few weeks as I watched the television news scenes of civil unrest from Turkey. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the whole brouhaha about Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent desire to make the country less secular and more religiously conservative is the galvanizing effect it has had on the soccer clubs. Witness social media spreading a remarkable photograph of three Istanbul fans wearing Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbache shirts while marching together, their arms entwined beneath a flag that read: “Tayyip do you know Istanbul United? Since 31 May 2013.”
Imagine the most rabid Celtic and Rangers fans coming together, co-ordinating a march to demand Scottish independence and you start to picture how seismic and impactful this stuff has been on Turkey. Ordinarily, these supporters despise each other and very often, way too often in fact, clashes between their clubs, result in violence, hooliganism and murder. They are united now though because they see that something more important than sporting bragging rights over local rivals is at stake. This is not about goals scored or titles won, it’s about the future direction of the country they love.
Of course, we’ve been here before in recent years. During the Egyptian uprising in 2011, soccer fans were credited with being the most organised and coherent protesters when the people started taking to the streets to try to oust President Mubarak. In particular, the fans of Al Ahly (which translates as The National), a club formed a century earlier to help give students a voice against the British colonial rulers, were prominent on the barricades and in the pulling together of the various strands of the movement.
“The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare,” wrote James Dorsey, an expert on the Middle East. “Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.”
While the role of soccer in the revolution in Egypt was overshadowed by a riot at a match in Port Said where 73 died, the importance of sport as a vehicle for protest hasn’t been diminished any on the world stage. In the build-up to last week’s elections in Iran, soccer clubs featured again and again in dispatches. Some candidates promised to free teams from government control, others sponsored the teams in an effort to win votes. All the while, the rulers worried that Iran clinching World Cup qualification might yield celebrations that would become become an occasion for protest against the government.
All of this is relevant because perhaps the most shameful aspect of recent Irish history has been the public’s rather stoic acceptance of the bondholder bail out and other fiscal atrocities committed by those with their hands on the reins of power. I understand there is no great protest culture in Ireland but, from the outside looking in, it seems astonishing that more people were not moved to take to the streets in greater numbers to vent their rage and demand action.
To this end, I look at the stuff going on in Turkey and Egypt and I realise we have the very vehicle for an Irish protest movement right under our noses. We have the sporting organisation that unites more people than any other. We have the GAA. By most estimates one in four people are members of a GAA club. There is one, usually with a clubhouse and meeting rooms, in every parish in the 26 counties. The GAA has the power and the infrastructure already in place to demand and to effect real change. It has the power to move mountains.
That it has never flexed this muscle yet isn’t the point. It could and maybe, as generations of Irish children have been sold down the river for the bondholders, it should. There’s a great irony here too. From what I can see, the longest and most sustained protest against the bondholders has come from Ballyhea, a town many of us instantly associate with hurling. Moreover, one of the key figures in that weekly and very noble tilt at the windmill is the Irish Examiner sports journalist Diarmuid O’Flynn.
In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t know Diarmuid O’Flynn. I spoke to him on the phone once many, many years ago. But here’s what I do know. Him and his ilk have done the country some service with their weekly effort and they have also offered an example. All those people sitting around in pubs, whingeing about the austerity measures and the increased levies and the Anglo tapes, need to get off their arses too to help the country get out from under these punitive conditions. And the GAA could have a role to play in this.
The GAA can provide a nationwide apparatus and a formal structure to any protest movement. It also has the social and moral weight to force the government to act. To do so all it needs is to stand up, speak up and show the authorities just how many people come under the GAA banner. Picture Kilkenny, Cork, Dublin and Donegal players heading up a million man march through the streets of Dublin the day before an All-Ireland final. Some might think that sounds ludicrous. Not more ludicrous than the idea of Istanbul’s three major clubs uniting under one flag to protest a prime minister.