In Serbia and Turkey, sports teams advance social causes

Teams and their fans play a big role off the field in promoting social issues.

By Menekse Tokyay and Ivana Jovanovic for SES Türkiye in Istanbul and Belgrade — 25/06/13

When news spread that riot police moved in on protesters in Gezi Park this month, the fans of Turkey’s top football clubs, Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, brushed aside their rivalry on the pitch to mobilise as one group in support of the demonstrations.

  • Youth participate in an event on fair play and tolerance in Nis, Serbia. [Serbian Ministry of Sport and Youth]Youth participate in an event on fair play and tolerance in Nis, Serbia. [Serbian Ministry of Sport and Youth]

The move highlighted the role of sports clubs in mobilising around social and political issues, a trend seen in Serbia as well as Turkey.

Nurullah Ozturk, a former footballer and now a sport columnist, told SES Türkiye that the football fan groups, and especially Besiktas’ “Carsi,” have long been sensitive to social and political developments.

“The latest protest movements around Gezi Park events revealed once again that football players and support team members could [support] some common social problems beyond the difference in team colors. They tried to fight on the same side for good,” Ozturk said.

Through mass protests and social responsibility campaigns, football clubs can channel their fans’ energy beyond sport, he added.

With the slogan “Carsi is Against Everything,” Besiktas supporters’ have organised protests against nuclear power, global warming, racism, war, poverty and environmental degradation. They have also organised campaigns in support of the Turkish Red Crescent and victims of the 2011 earthquake in Van.

Fazlı Bolugur, a tradesman in his 40s, has been wearing the black-and-white stripes of Carsi for decades.

“One of our foremost characteristics is that we have been involved in every kind of social activities, not only in Gezi Park protest movement, but also in other social responsibility activities. Carsi is a ‘soul’ and we are all brothers claiming equality for all. Although there is a competition between the teams, the friendship lasts forever when it comes for a common cause,” Bolugur told SES Türkiye.

Other fan support groups like UltrAslan of Galatasaray and GFB of Fenerbahce have also organised their members to aid poor villages in Anatolia and to raise awareness of cancer by encouraging donations.

“A campaign announced in Istanbul by a support team can spread to the remotest village of Turkey in a very short time,” Bolugur said.

The situation is similar in Serbia, where some athletes and sports club fans promote tolerance and reconciliation among nations who fought in the Yugoslavia conflicts of the 1990s.

Although the rivalry between teams like Red Star and Partizan is feverish on the pitch, it does not stop their players from helping educate young people about tolerance and the failings of extremism and chauvinism.

The Serbia Ministry of Youth and Sport supports such initiatives under the slogan “Fair play is a victory,” in which legends of Serbian sport visit schools in the country and talk to the students about fair play and tolerance.

“The results of this campaign are fantastic and the proof for this is the fact that young handball players of Red Star, boys born in 1997, decided to collect money for the surgery of an injured handball player from rivals Partizan,” Dragan Antanasov, assistant youth and sport minister, told SES Türkiye.

This gesture, he said, shows young people that the “struggle should be conducted in the spirit of chivalry and on the playground only, not out of it.”

As part of the “Fair play is a victory” project, Partizan footballer Lazar Markovic and Red Star opponent Darko Lazovic have held joint public discussions about tolerance in one of the biggest primary schools in Serbia.

Antanasov said athletes’ awareness about the importance of fair play is natural because athletes during training develop respect for other players.

“They struggle with the same problems, under the same conditions, according to the same rules,” Antanasov said.

Zeljko Tanaskovic, a Serbian volleyball player who has helped the Serbian national team win a number of international medals, said being an athlete requires social responsibility.

“Athletes, by achieving great results, become idols to numerous people, especially to young,” Zeljko Tanaskovic, now the president of the Federation of School Sports, told SES Türkiye.

“The mission of athletes is very important. We are showing to young people that they should be dignified and promote fair play and tolerance, in wins and losses. Young people see and absorb this idea,” Tanaskovic said.

What role do sports teams and their fans play in promoting social causes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. (setimes)