The political tension between Turkey and Israel crept into play on Thursday night as Maccabi Tel Aviv visited Istanbul to play Besiktas in the Europa League.
Despite Maccabi coach Mordehai Ivanir’s assurances that “we came here to play football, politics is not our business”, signs of the diplomatic spat were in evidence in Istanbul.
There was an increased security presence in front of Maccabi’s hotel near Taksim Square. Anti-Israeli protesters were quick to seize the opportunity and they left large banners reading “We never forgot Mavi Marmara We never let it be forgotten.” Nine Turkish activists died when Israeli troops stormed the ship last year. The Mavi Marmara was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza to break Israel’s blockade of the territory. Turkey has recently downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel.
This reminded the visitors that “football is never only football”.
But despite the tension and the stern diplomatic language of late, authorities still took every precaution to protect their guests. The team went to the stadium surrounded by security personnel.
As the game got under way a small group gathered at Taksim Square and marched to the stadium. They chanted anti-Israeli slogans and carried Palestinian flags, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah banners. Police escorted them until they dispersed.
But the politics were less present inside the Inönü stadium. Besiktas fans, after months without football, were concentrated on the game. The Turkish team won the game 5-1 with the help of its ‘Portuguese gang’ of Simao, Quaresma and Almeida. Politics were almost entirely left aside for 90 minutes.
Maccabi left Turkey without major incident, with just the score upsetting the Israeli side.
Bora Bayraktar, Istanbul