Anybody who knows me well will know if there’s one thing I don’t understand above all else, it’s sport. Except, of course, for cricket, which isn’t actually a sport, is it? More of a really big board game. And so it was in undiluted ignorance I boarded a bus for Istanbul during the week of the European football finals.
How popular could it be?
I have always had ideas about Istanbul, Not Constantinople (all together now!), mostly thanks to From Russia With Love. Former seat of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires, enfant d’amour of the illicit love affair between East and West, den of spies and intrigue. The Grand Bazaar! The Blue Mosque! The mighty Bosphorus! Curiously, amongst such heady images, the thought of red faced, red jerseyed, Liverpool fans belch-thronging in the streets, belch-butchering Beatles’ songs and belch-vomiting beer on my bedroom floor had never occurred… Which was not very prescient of me, because, arriving in Istanbul on the eve of the football final, one was struck by the fact the city was inhabited, not by Turks, but by football fans from Lennongrad.
By unfortunate coincidence, not only were we staying in the same street as the entire Liverpool cohort, but on arrival we were told that (because we had not paid a deposit) our rooms – like the soul of the city – had been given to football fans. We could, apparently, sleep in a cage on the roof … or I could, added the smiling hostel proprietor, and Jess could sleep with him. To add injury to insult, it had been pouring all night, and I was getting slightly annoyed.
But our kindly host took pity, and preferring Australians to Liverpudlians (if only ideologically), led us down the street to his mate’s hostel… After paying a ridiculously inflated price for the room, we were led to the beds in which sleep would for days elude us, as for 48 hours without break, and again in the 24 hours after Liverpool’s victory, the piss-fuelled pandemonium did not cease, drawing international media coverage day and night, and weary stares form the long-suffering locals who just wanted to put their babies to bed.
But what a game! they said.
Fortunately, most of the football fans were too drunk to remember they had paid good money to fly to one of the world’s most wonderful cities, and the crowds at the Aya Sofia and Topkapi Palace were as normal. And wonderful they were. Confoundingly large, and unceasingly busy, Istanbul’s monuments met the infinity of my imagination, not to mention the infinity of delights for sale in the Grand Bazaar, to be eaten, or taken home as gifts, or more often gifts to be taken home but soon eaten.
In Istanbul, everybody wanted to be our friend … especially if we had time for tea, and perhaps a carpet too.
In any case, the football fans were soon forgiven. They found their Istanbul, we found ours.