Suspect Device

Writing by Patrick Keddie

Dinamo Mesken: Turkish Football as a Political Football

Dinamo Mesken football team (Photo by Cemal Karadağ - 1976)

IN “DINAMO MESKEN,” a multimedia exhibition at Ankara’s SALT Ulus gallery, Turkish artist Ege Berensel tells the story of an amateur football club dragged into Turkey’s political turmoil of the late 1970s. Armed groups of the left and right fought and killed one another. The escalating conflict brought military repression and a traumatic denouement.

Berensel’s research, carried out over more than five years and displayed in the exhibition through documentaries, found footage, memorabilia, and photography, tells a tale of tribalism, violence, demise, and resurrection; a story with contemporary resonance as football continues to be an instrument of both political control and rebellion.

Berensel was born in 1968 and grew up in Bursa, Turkey — a city in the northwest of Anatolia. “Areas in Bursa were divided by ideologies,” he told me when I met him in Ankara, Turkey. “Leftist and rightist neighbourhoods, with leftist and rightist football teams.”

The Bursa neighborhood of Mesken was staunchly leftist during Berensel’s childhood. In 1975 many Mesken residents crowded into Bursa’s stadium to watch the city’s professional club Bursaspor take on the Soviet Union team Dynamo Kiev in the third round of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Many of the Mesken spectators were thrilled by the speed and style of Kiev and openly supported the Soviet side, which beat Bursaspor and went on to win the competition.

In the following weeks, supporters began chanting “Dinamo Mesken” at the matches of a Mesken-based amateur team Ertuğrulgazi. The club became widely known by their new nickname, which implied a political stance — a risky expression of affinity with the communist Soviet Union.

Many saw the club as leftists, but that was just a projection. In reality, most of the players and administrators were not. One of their best players supported the far-right Nationalist Movement Party.

“I don’t like the idea that sports and politics mix,” said Tunçkanat Yeğin, 69, an administrator of the club in the 1970s, who was talking to me with several former players, officials, and supporters in a wood-paneled, male-dominated cafe in Mesken. Yeğin saw Dinamo Mesken as a way for people to come together — a social institution in a deprived area. Dinamo Mesken was the amateur club with the most supporters in the city — between 300 and 500 people used to go to the matches. In such a starkly polarized political climate, it was perhaps inevitable that the popular club would draw the attention of both right-wing groups and the authorities.

Bülent Merey, 66, was the club’s coach in the late 1970s. He remembers the police approaching him one evening as he locked up the clubhouse, asking for information about the players. “I told them: ‘This is a sports club, it has nothing to do with politics.’” The next morning Merey removed leftist posters that had been pasted onto the clubhouse overnight. “So I also had to say to the leftists: ‘This is a football club! You shouldn’t involve it in politics.’”

The club’s matches became increasingly tense as rival fans accused them of being communists. By 1978 the violence between opposing political groups had intensified, and Mesken was a hunkered-down neighborhood, practically at war. Local men, armed with guns, manned checkpoints to prevent right-wing groups coming into the area and killing people.

Cemal Karadağ was the photographer of the club; Berensel’s exhibition features a slideshow of his images. One black and white photograph shows the team in the late 1970s. Those seated in the front row hold the black and white chequered footballs that seemed to fall out of fashion in the 1980s. The young men sport the Lego-haired hirsuteness of the time. It is a snapshot of a team on the cusp of demise.

On July 29, 1980, a man linked to a right-wing group came to Karadağ’s shop, drew a gun from his belt, and killed the photographer. “Since Karadağ was close to the team and the neighborhood, they targeted him,” said Berensel. “His death caused a trauma in the neighborhood.”

The political conflict was approaching fever pitch. On September 12, 1980, the military staged a coup d’état and vowed to end the violence across the country. Dinamo Mesken became subject to the military’s repression. In 1981 the authorities declared that the nickname was a “clear attack on national values” and the club was ordered to close. Several of the club’s players and administrators were arrested, tortured, tried, and convicted of extortion — charges which former members say were politically motivated.

In a football-mad country, Berensel says that the authorities have often both feared and favored the sport. “The authorities have always wanted to control football in Turkey,” stated Berensel. “They fear football supporters coming together.”

Yet, although Dinamo Mesken was shut down, its story didn’t end there.

[Read the rest of the story published by the LA Review of Books here]

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