Maccabi TA in Turkey for Soccer, and Political, Showdown
Thousands of security officers and police will be on the highest alert in Istanbul Thursday night, as Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv plays in a Euroleague soccer match against Turkey's Beskitas soccer club. The Turks have guaranteed absolute safety and security for the Israeli team and any fans that show up, and Israel is hoping that the government can live up to its word.
The game was scheduled long before Turkish airport officials detained Israeli passengers on an El Al flight that stopped off in Istanbul several weeks ago, forcing passengers to wait in a dark room without food or water for hours. That incident proved to be the nail in the coffin for Israeli tourism to Turkey, and the few Israelis who were still visiting the country canceled their reservations.
Hundreds of fans who had planned to attend Thursday's game also canceled flight and hotel reservations, and few, if any, Maccabi fans are expected to be present at Inonu Stadium. Israel sought to change the venue of the game, considering how unwelcome Israelis are in Turkey, but the Euroleague management refused to allow the change.
Turkish officials have been promising a calm atmosphere for the game, and reassuring Israelis that Turks know how to differentiate between sports and politics. Turkish Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kilic said the match would be played under the “highest level of [Turkish] hospitality,” and that Maccabi would be able to “return home safely” afterwards.
Despite the reassurances, Israelis in Turkey for the game saw late Wednesday what could be a foreshadowing of an ugly situation that could develop Thursday night, especially if the Israeli team wins – which many sports commentators in Israel believe is a strong possibility. Dozens of Turks staged an angry, though quiet, protest outside the hotel where Maccabi is staying. The crowd outside the hotel grew as the hour got later, and when police tried to break up the protest at 1 AM, they refused to leave. Maccabi's owners Mitch Goldhar and Jack Angelides went outside the hotel to see what was going on – at which point members of the crowd pulled out metal bars and made threatening gestures. The two returned to the hotel immediately. The protesters, meanwhile, remained all night, and began playing loud music during the early morning hours in order to prevent Maccabi players from sleeping. Police did not intervene.
Protesters in the crowd said that in general Turks kept politics off the soccer field – Turkey has played both Cyprus and Armenia, two countries that it has long historical beefs with – numerous times. But in this case, Turks told Israeli reporters that they saw Maccabi players as “partners in what happened on the Marmara, because we did not hear them criticize their country over what happened. You are a rich nation and you do not help the poor Palestinians. You are murderers.” The report, in Yediot Achronot, said that the same protesters later threatened the journalists that carried out the interview.
Meanwhile, a mass march is planned for 6:30 PM Thursday in a central square of Istanbul, and will head for the stadium. Turkish security officials were quoted as saying that the marchers would not be allowed to get near the stadium before the game. “We expect the stadium itself to be quiet,” the officials said.