Istanbul – It’s a common sight that has become a ritual. A foreign player set to sign for a Turkish side steps bleary-eyed into the arrivals hall at Istanbul airport to be greeted by a raucous welcome from thousands of fans.
Slogans are chanted as if in a trance, flares let off and the player battles through the hordes of selfie-taking fans before being bundled into the sanctuary of a waiting car.
It’s a baptism of fire for the large numbers of European and Latin American stars who have arrived to ply their trade in the Super Lig in recent years, attracted by high wages, low taxes and a competitive league.
“People abroad must just say to themselves, ‘what is this country of crazy people?'” laughed Ayhan Guner, a leader of the Carsi, the best known fan group from Istanbul’s Besiktas.
“It’s simple — for us football is sacred. We go to the stadium as some others go on a pilgrimage,” he told AFP.
Supporters fondly remember some of the most celebrated welcomes, such as that laid on by Fenerbahce fans for Brazilian striker Alex in 2004, by Galatasaray supporters for Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder in 2013 and for Ricardo Quaresma at Besiktas.
Last summer’s transfer window marked a new peak for the practice with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis (Galatasaray), Mathieu Valbuena (Fenerbahce) and Pepe (Besiktas) given ear-splitting receptions on arrival.
“I can’t explain it. It was something crazy,” recalled former Besiktas striker Pascal Nouma, a Frenchman, who was welcomed by thousands at the airport when he arrived in Istanbul in 2000.
The welcome plays on Turkey’s traditions of hospitality but also have an element of a warning.
“We are saying ‘you are not a foreigner, you are part of the family,'” said Atakan Bodan, head of the student section of the ultrAslan, the hardcore fan club of Galatasaray.
“The message is ‘here’s what the place where you are looks like. Here is your family. Give your all and we will make you the king of this club’,” he added.
Candas Tolga Isik, a board member at Besiktas and in charge of communication, said in Turkish culture there was something special about greeting or saying farewell to someone at an airport.
“When a young man leaves on military service, all his relatives come,” he said.
But he added: “It gives great motivation but also makes the player aware of his responsibilities.”
The custom started in the 1980s as more foreigners began to play in Turkey although only reached its current proportions in the last decade.
“I was expecting it as I had seen the pictures of other players but I did not imagine there would be so many fans,” Algerian international Sofiane Feghouli, who was greeted by a sea of red and yellow when he joined Galatasaray in August, told AFP.
Another motivation of supporters from the big Istanbul clubs is showing rival fans that they can put on a better show for their new guests.
“It’s a competition between the clubs. They say, ‘well the others had 1,000. We’re going to have 3,000’,” said Atahan Altinordu, a journalist on the Turkish sports monthly Socrates.
“It’s a show of force between the big sides,” agreed Guner of Carsi. “We will score points against our rivals with the chants and the flares.”
‘EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE THIS’
The biggest gatherings are the result of an operation of near military precision, with fan groups mobilising members through messaging services. Sometimes, transport will also be laid on.
“You used to have to call people one by one. Now you can get 3,000 people at once on Twitter or WhatsApp,” said Bodan of the ultrAslan.
The phenomenon is not restricted to Istanbul — new arrivals can always expect a reception to remember on the Black Sea at Trabzonspor while fans of Sivasspor pulled out the stops when Robinho joined their Anatolian club in January.
But for some fans, the systematic nature of the greetings means they have lost their spontaneity and value.
“A lot of people regard this ritual as obsolete, especially after seeing these footballers don’t show a genuine dedication to the club but already have plans for a soft-retirement,” sniffed Erden Kosova of Vamos Bien, a Fenerbahce ultra group.
But for some of the arrivals, it leaves a lasting memory that will never go away.
“It’s like ‘Made in Turkey’,” said Nouma. “Every sportsperson should experience this once in their lives.