I have been a Manchester United fan since 2006. I remember my first full match like it was yesterday. United started the 2006/07 season with a resounding 5-1 win over Fulham thanks to goals from Louis Saha, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. United were 4-0 up inside 20 minutes and the team played some of the most sumptuous football I had ever seen.
For me, it had always been a distant dream to be finally able to go and watch my favourite team play live and in person. When it finally became a reality on the 3rd of November, 2016, it was an experience I will never forget. Studying in Turkey has opened so many opportunities for me, many of which I take for granted on a daily basis. Being back in Pakistan, I would not be able to do, or have access to, most things that I have in Turkey.
Last semester, from January to June, I had the opportunity to go and study in Barcelona, Spain. There I fulfilled another dream, getting to see the Camp Nou stadium, home of the European Champions (at the time), FC Barcelona. It also happened to be the scene of my favourite club, Manchester United's, greatest night in its history. 26 May, 1999, United faced German side Bayern Munich in the final of the European Cup at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium and thanks to two very, very late goals, won the tournament in dramatic fashion. So to be there, have the opportunity to sit in the stands and trying to visualize those moments reliving themselves in front of you was an overwhelming experience. Also, I got to see the world's best player (my opinion), Lionel Messi, mere 20 feet away from me, kicking a football. I could not believe my luck.
Manchester United came to Istanbul to play Fenerbahçe in the Europa League, a competition befitting their current mediocre state, with all due respect to the competition. No matter what the occasion would have been, I was not going to let this opportunity pass. and no matter what you say or might have heard about Turkish football fans, they know how to create an atmosphere at a stadium.
Before the match, I had bought the tickets a month in advance and despite some last-minute complications with the ticket, there was no way I was going to miss this game. Even if I had an exam the next day (which I didn't, luckily!), I would still have gone. And I would've missed my exam with no regrets. Yes, you read that right.
I travelled to Istanbul from Bilkent, in Ankara, at around noon on Thursday with the match due to kick-off at 9 in the evening. I was travelling with my friend, Aish, and we bought our bus tickets on the spot and they ended up being very cheap, 30 Turkish liras per person to Istanbul is not that bad. Plus, we good seats in our bus so the journey ended up being not so bad.
We reached Istanbul with almost 4 hours still to kick-off. We quickly reached the stadium and got the final process of our ticket done and, at last, we had our single-entry tickets in our hand. We went inside the stadium one and a half hour before kick-off.
Before the match started, me and my friend ran into a fellow fan who responded in English to a question I asked in Turkish by saying that he did not speak Turkish. Surprised, I also continued in English and asked him where he was from? He replied saying Iraq. I then asked him who does he support, with a feeling that I already knew the answer. He hesitated for a second, scared I'm sure of who I might be or my motives for asking that question. He then answered "Manchester, but I have to sit with the Fenerbahçe supporters." I laughed and said to him "us too, bro, don't worry" and then to see the relief on his face once he realized I wasn't going to punch him for supporting Manchester United against a Turkish team was very amusing, to say the least.
The noise at the Camp Nou in Barcelona was nothing compared to Fenerbahçe. Not for one minute of the entire 90 did I get to sit down and have a breather.
Insane. Crazy. A TV screen cannot do justice to the hostile reception United received at the Şükrü Saraçoğlu stadium tonight. Nothing can compare to this experience. No tourists, no casual fans, just 30,000+ passionate, fanatic, crazy, my-type-of football fans gathered to support their favourite team. For all the talk about United's great away support, you couldn't hear a word from the away end tonight. Absolutely no regret about sitting with the Fenerbahçe fans.
Nevertheless, it was a poor performance and it was very hard to keep acting like you were supporting Fenerbahçe instead of United.
I was lucky to see three great, GREAT goals. Moussa Sow might just have won the Puskas Award. Wayne Rooney was the only one not intimidated by the atmosphere while others around him wilted under the pressure.
You can go to Camp Nou, Bernabeu or even Old Trafford, I'm sure, but you will not find the type of atmosphere anywhere in Europe that Turkish fans in Istanbul bring to their stadiums. If I had to do this whole one-day trip to Istanbul again, I wouldn't change a thing. And I honestly don't know what I have done in my life to deserve this.