”We Drink, They Rig”, a short story, is set in a nameless Turkish town in an unspecified year and is about the match-fixing rumors of narrator’s favorite soccer team.
by Deniz Arslan
Seated stands, modern roofs, security guys like well-fed oxes: none existed back in those days. Chaos and disorder reined in the stadiums, just like it did on the streets outside.
I told you, there were no seats on the stands. You had to bring something to put under your ass; anything you could lay your hands on. Real sofa cushions from your house, make-shift cushions out of styrofoam, old magazines, newspapers, whatever you could find outside the stadium…
There were no tight security controls at the entrance either. Even if there had been, we used to know all the officers on duty and it was no big deal to go inside with items such as a corkscrew, a deck of cards, a portable beach chair or – in our case – with yoghurt, lots of fruits, feta cheese, special mountain spring water, a big bottle of raki and our slim-waisted tea glasses.
Only those people who were at the VIP box – or the “bigheads stand” as we called it – had a roof over their dreadfully big heads. It was a wild ride, especially on those sunny spring days when the real bighead up above decided to sprinkle us with a sudden rush of rain.
Anyway, coming to that notorious match day, the day I’m here to tell you about. It is excruciatingly cold that day, but not cold enough for us to forgo our bi-monthly booze session on the stands. We are there as usual an hour before the game, provisions pre-arranged thanks to Kadir the German’s industrious approach.
We take our place on the street stand, which was close to the main exit and remote enough from the boisterous youngsters due to arrive in half an hour. As we start to sip our rakis, one of the ball boys yells, “Boss, why don’t you pour one for me also?” German answers him: “I don’t even give that to your dad in the pub, you fucking cheesemonger.” The ball boy must have been Ziya’s son, who sold cheese in the marketplace. He doesn’t even dare to throw a second glance at us.
Now, that was a special season, mates. There was this merchant who had made a fortune siding with the conservatives back before the military putsch in 1960. It is against our custom to speak behind a dead man’s back, but this guy was not your average small-time merchant. He was one of the most sinister-looking, malignant and double-tongued guys you could ever see. Always wheeling and dealing, devising new ways to rip innocent people off and always finding a way to whitewash himself and his chums. There were stories about him — how he had usurped a fellow Armenian trader’s mansion out on the hills after the deportation of Armenians back in Ottoman times. This guy also had a son, who was an exact copy of his father, except for that devious and slippery astuteness, which had made him who he was.
This son took over his dad’s business after the latter was killed by someone who allegedly owed him huge amounts. I remember someone saying, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” Anyway as the football had taken hold in the whole country and started to be seen as a way for wealthy businessman to become more popular, this corrupt son took over the presidency of our beloved club. Unlike his father, he was a pretentious little prat, who took every opportunity to extol himself and attract other people’s attention. The team was in the second division back in those days. When he became president, he bought two half-famous players from the first division, a striker who was past his prime and a ferocious defender. A few other players came fresh from fellow second division clubs and the whole city was vibrant and full of enthusiasm. Destination first division!
Things were not going bad either. A few back-to-back wins, excitement building up, number of fans growing every week. But the players started to get nervous towards the end after a few games not going our way, and to top it off, luck also deserted us. We heard about quarrels within the team between the players and the manager, president first siding against the manager, manager deciding to resign, president making a u-turn and convincing him to stay. As these were happening, the team had descended as low as the fifth position — but the promotion was still within reach.
Our opponents that day were a mid-table team who had nothing to play for. We had beaten them away and everybody thought that the game was in the bag already. Imagine: the number five, Fiko, is the business partner of one of the guys in our crew. He is more of a businessman than a football player, but God had given him a bear’s strength and the bulk of an elephant. He’s the libero, but don’t bother imagining a Turkish Beckenbauer — better reckon a hefty figure, who intimidates the opponent and doesn’t shy away from the occasional leg-breaking challenge. He joins us briefly before the game; he devours his pre-match dose of raki and updates us with the latest team news. He says the morale is high but they were not pleased with the weather. After swallowing his last sip, he says, “Don’t worry mates, we are gonna eat them alive,” and leaves us.
The game commences. Alas, you should have seen those plucky guys with white jerseys, whom we had taken for granted. They blow like a hurricane. After a few half-hearted attempts, they realize that our guys are relaxed like they are having a summer picnic and go for it with full power and dedication. Thank God we have a decent goalkeeper, who keeps saving their ever-more-dashing attempts, but his talent also runs out towards the end of the first half. They have this annoying number seven, a blond, agile winger; he comes down from the right wing, leaves our defenders empty-handed in his trail and hangs the ball up in the ceiling like a ripe pear. Sabri the Grocer’s apples become lumps in our throats. As we try to surpass the shock of it, their ladder-like number nine rises in the air and lobs a long ball in the far right corner. 0-2 says the scoreboard at the end of the first half.
We’ll hear all about it later, how the president goes crazy at halftime. He wants a win at all costs, but he knows that it is an impossible task with this performance. The president also has a right-hand man, who’s even worse than his boss regarding all things raunchy, dirty or outright salacious. As we hear, he has been collecting intelligence about the ref and he knows the guy’s vice. So he slips out of his place in the VIP box and waits for the ref in front of the dressing room. As they leave the room, he winks at him, and the referee meets him in the toilet after sending the linesmen packing. It doesn’t take a long time to find the common ground and clinch the deal. Even to this day no one knows exactly how much the ref was offered and probably no one knows it apart from those two guys wheeling and dealing in that decrepit toilet.
But the real useful piece of intelligence about the ref is his fondness for women. Besides the money, the president’s man also promises him Ayten, highly-acclaimed and gifted prostitute of our town. We heard all about it later. The only thing he should do in exchange is to go out there and turn the tide around for us. The rumour has it that half the agreed amount is paid right away in that toilet, and since he didn’t have time to go back to the dressing room, the ref officiated the second half with that fat roll of money in his pocket.
We of course didn’t yet know that the match was rigged, just like the other fans, players, linesmen or bigheads in the VIP box…
Starting the second half, it looks like the manager has upbraided our guys a little bit, they start anew with a new-found spirit. They still fail to create clear chances but they keep driving forward and moving like a flock of bees. The ref also seems to make things easier for us, but nobody thinks it’s a deliberate attempt to help us win. You know, it wasn’t unheard of for the refs to favor the home side back in those days in such games away from the spotlights.
It was around the sixtieth minute. Our skittish number eleven is caught offside yet again. I kept on pouring a new round of raki without giving much attention to linesman’s flag, as it was a clear decision. Number eleven is also aware of the situation, he is about the leave the ball and retreat, but the referee raises his arms forward, “continue” he shouts. We are all surprised, but the number eleven is more than surprised. He is bewildered, flabbergasted. He could have scored if he had been a tad shrewd, but opponent’s defenders are much more agile and one of them moves forward like a greyhound and grabs the ball before our eyes.
The ref has now completely lost it. He shakes like a delicate autumn leaf. He wants to stay true to his promise but he also wishes to wangle it without being discovered. He waits for the perfect opportunity, but our guys are incapable even to break in the area. As the white-shirts ably fend off that initial swarm, they regain their confidence and find their balance in the game again. In a midfield skirmish, their number six commits a foul to our stocky libero Fiko while trying to steal the ball. Ref blows his whistle. As the number six turns away and leaves the crime scene, the stands are awash with whistles and cries. Number six finally realizes that something unusual is going on, he turns and sees the red card shaking in ref’s right hand. The referee is stringent in his decision, protests come to no avail.
From this moment on things start to go downhill for the referee. As we discuss whether we should send the cheese-seller’s son for another bottle of raki, one of the youngsters from our team sends a ferocious ball from at least 30 meters. One of their full-backs finds himself on the trajectory of the ball, the ball hits his back and goes out, but the referee points at the white spot. That’s a penalty! The fans are ecstatic, and increasingly suspicious at the same time. Irfan, our experienced, pot bellied, old-fashioned striker, is going to take the spot kick. His playing style is based on waiting around the box, approximately half a meter away from the offside line, for an opportunity throughout the whole game, and acting ruthlessly when that opportunity comes. He is also a good penalty taker, give or take a miss or two. That day however, he is also a victim of that light-heartedness we have been complaining about. He doesn’t step away from the ball, he seems comfortable and confident, he slowly approaches, we see the lightest of the touches, goalkeeper picks the wrong corner but the ball goes out wide and high. They bring it back from the Revenue Office’s garden.
As expected, this blatantly wrong penalty decision makes the other team more determined and ambitious. They are now playing not only to beat us but also the ref. They keep coming with numbers and after a few final passes going astray, they find the net. An unassuming combination on the right flank, a well-directed cross, that ladder-shaped striker with the brushy moustache rising again and putting it into the back of the net. We see linesman running towards the midfield line but the ref looks unimpressed. His hand in the air shows our side, that’s a foul decision. The tall guy who scored the goal was at least two horse steps away from the nearest defender, but he in the black shirt is now able to see everything that we mortals cannot. This becomes the last straw on the camel’s back. The opponent’s bench bursts out like fresh buds of a rose — there is no word to describe their anger and frustration. They enter the pitch and encircle the referee. Protests, abuses, curses, shakes and pushes. During the shenanigans, the referee shows yet another red card in honour of Ayten. We cannot figure out who is ejected, but we can see that their manager is a prudent, cool man. His team is leading at that moment and it is not wise to push the referee towards suspending the game prematurely. He enters the pitch, soothes his players, has a few words with the referee and drags the subs and his assistants back to the bench. As the commotion comes to an end, everyone chips in and we send the ball boy out for another bottle of raki. He refuses at first, but as we tell him to buy himself a bar of chocolate with the remainder, he moves like a black antelope.
Now the opponents are playing with nine men and they park the bus in front of the goal. The ref also must be a little bit intimated and he doesn’t interrupt the game for a while. Since the other team are now down to nine men, he might have been thinking that our guys could not be that incompetent. But they are really that incompetent. They miss chance after chance, luck doesn’t help. Irfan can’t find that killer instinct and the ball refuses to embrace the net. We have ten more minutes to turn the game around.
As we start to play with the idea of drinking the last bottle up in the woods, Irfan shows signs of recovery. In a goalmouth scramble, he does what he does best, stands at the right place at the right time and scores the first with a blind touch: 1-2
The goal kindles not only us, but also the players themselves. There is no scoreboard of course, we check out our watches, there are five minutes left, but ten minutes of stoppage time minimum is expected. “Look at your fucking apaches,” says Gökçe, “they finally remembered to play football.” Gökçe is right, even his no-less-drunk-than-himself partner Fiko is moving forward to help the team for another goal.
We don’t wait too much for that goal. As the regulation time is about to be over, Tarik, or The Viking as we call him, dribbles into the box from left. Number three tackles him, the ref immediately points at the penalty spot. It was impossible to judge from where we were sitting whether this was a fair decision or another attempt of the referee to guarantee a night with Ayten. But in any case, our opponents find it difficult to suppress their anger. They circle around the referee like women picking pants at the marketplace. The skipper calls the other players for an emergency meeting. They are probably discussing if it was wise to quit the game. Their manager signals them to keep on. Pure chaos. Anyway, they once again pull themselves together and Irfan once again places the ball on the white spot. A few younger ones try their chance to convince him to leave the kick to them, but he doesn’t pay attention. He is determined, he will make it this time. Once again he doesn’t move away too much from the ball, but he doesn’t look comfortable this time. He once again lightly touches the ball, the goalkeeper once again picks the wrong side and he scores this time. We jump, we rejoice, Ferit breaks his glass with joy and we check our watches. Can they really make it?
Alas, the disorder really reins this time. After the penalty kick, one of the assistant managers, a man of huge proportions bursts into the pitch, knocks down the linesman with his right shoulder, grabs his flag, and runs toward the ref. Before the ref realizes what hit him, he breaks the flag on the referee’s head and goes on to beat him the old-fashioned way as if an oil-wrestling match.
Until the others interfere, he goes on beating the shit out of him. Blood spills from ref’s nose. Linesmen come rushing, other players, assistant managers, ball boys, police officers, feverish fans. It is a complete mess. The cheese-seller’s son looks frightened. He asks whether he could come close to us. Kadir answers him cross: “I am already fed up with your imbecile father, now you.” The boy looks like he is in a real horror. Kadir says, “Come you little bugger.” He comes and the match is declared suspended.
Whatever happened later I don’t care, but since you ask; the F.A. declared the match 3-0 in our favour. That stout assistant manager and a few other players from the other team were given harsh punishments. A few of our guys also were also punished for effect, but neither the president nor the referee was implicated in any way. On top of it, we won the game.
Rumour has it that the ref couldn’t cuddle up with Ayten since he had to spend the night in a hospital room. And the president’s right hand refused the pay him the rest of the agreed amount, telling him that he couldn’t stay true to his promise. Although the referee had threatened them, they defused him by telling him that he didn’t have any proof. Curiously, they say that even the money he was paid at halftime somehow went missing during the commotion. No one knows for sure but it is said that the president’s right-hand man, who had clinched the deal, went down to put an end to the chaos and stole back the money from referee’s pocket during the bustle.
Anyway my friends, we didn’t go up that season. Or in the following years. Our gang also couldn’t make it and disintegrated after a few years. Some of us became anarchists, some became businessmen and some evolved into harmless family guys taking their sons to the occasional Sunday game now and then. The team itself? They hang around somewhere in the lower echelons of the third division I guess.
– Deniz Arslan, is a Berlin based Turkish writer of short-stories and essays. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org