In Turkey, as in many countries around the world, football is more than just a sport. It’s a staple, a universal thread woven into the fabric of the place and connected to everything else that holds it together. And in this cultural tapestry, the tension is focused heavily in Istanbul, a city home to three of the country’s most popular clubs. To get a firm grasp on the world of Turkish football, one must first understand the rivalry of what locals call the Big Three.

The Eternal Rivalry — as it’s also known — between the Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray clubs spans continents and stretches back over a century. In recent years, it’s come to include Besiktas, another team whose newfound success has threatened the prevailing domination of the country’s top two clubs. The result is a trifecta of bitter competition, and the bad blood between these teams — and, more importantly, between those who root for them — has grown so intense that it influenced a 2013 attack outside Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium that left one fan dead.

To understand how it got to that point, we’ve taken a look at the history of the rivalry and compiled some information on the three clubs that compose it. If you’re interested in attending a football match during your time in Istanbul, here’s what you need to know about the Big Three.

Photo by Faruk Malik Cevik
Photo by Anzhelika Sherbakova

History

It’s no wonder that Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe developed into such powerful opposition. When the two clubs meet on the field, the match earns the title of Kıtalararası Derbi, or the “Transcontinental Derby,” a moniker that captures the teams’ positions on opposite sides of the Bosphorus Strait. With Fenerbahçe representing the Asian half of the city and Galatasaray the European half, it’s only natural that the two clubs would clash with such intensity.

That said, the animosity on display today was not always present. The teams met for the first time in 1909, and for roughly a quarter of a century, their matches were nothing but sportsmanlike. But when the teams gathered at Taksim Stadium on February 23, 1934, for what was supposed to be a friendly match, all hell broke loose — to put it lightly. It’s unclear if there was any reason for the hostile nature of that game beyond a mutual drive to win, but what we do know is that the match was marked by fouls of such intensity that the referee had to stop play on many separate occasions. Before long, the tension had carried over into the stands, where fans from either side began duking it out with one another. Ultimately, the game was called by the refs, who made the decision once the players started fighting with one another. From then on, there would be no more friendly matches between the two teams. The rivalry had begun.

Photo by Ozan Guzelce
Photo by Kristina Maler

In the 85 years since, the intensity of the Eternal Rivalry has only increased. What’s important to understand is that, as with most sports-related competitions, the hatred between the two clubs is more apparent in the bleachers than it is on the field. While the gameplay between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray is certainly marked by an above-average vigor, the real clashes occur between the dueling fanbases. Spectators at the games are likely to witness violent behavior that includes shouting, cursing, seat-breaking, and physical altercations. In many instances, the tête-à-tête has carried on outside the stadium as well, with fans taking to the streets to continue fighting and, on the most dangerous occasions, starting riots.

Photo by Ozan Guzelce

What has changed, however, is the introduction of a third wheel to the competition. Besiktas JK — named for the Besiktas district that sits farther south on the European shore of the Bosphorus — has recently challenged the athletic authority of both Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. Together, the three teams have won 54 of the 61 Turkish Super League Championships (only two other clubs have ever claimed the title), and since the league’s creation in 1959, none of the three clubs has ever been relegated (moved down to a lower league). Besiktas has been particularly victorious of late, having won the championship two of the past three years.

Though the hatred between Besiktas and the original two members of the Big Three bears nowhere near as much history, by posing a threat to the combined dominance that Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray once shared, the third club has inserted itself into the glowing feud of Turkey’s greatest rivalry.

Photo by Serkan Guzey

Fenerbahçe SK

Nicknamed the Yellow Canaries (or Sarı Kanaryalar in Turkish), the Fenerbahçe football team is recognizable by its yellow-and-navy jerseys. The club was founded in 1907 in Istanbul’s Kadiköy district, and in its early years, it gained a reputation as the “Turkish People’s Team” after taking down many opposing teams formed by foreign occupying powers. Ever since, the club has enjoyed a regular position near the top of the Turkish Super League standings, winning the championship 19 times (the second-most of any team) and placing second 22 times. The Yellow Canaries’ best international performance came in 2013 when they reached the semifinals of the UEFA Europa Cup, ultimately falling to the Benfica club from Portugal. Today, the team plays in the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, and its biggest annual match remains the intercontinental derby versus Galatasaray.

Photo by Yildirim Gökhan

Galatasaray SK

Statistically speaking, the Galatasaray club is the most successful football team in Turkey, having won the Super League championship 21 times (including the 2018 title). The club was founded in 1905 at the prestigious Francophile high school known as Lycée de Galatasaray, and it won its first championship just four years later. Though the team’s mascot is the lions (most likely in reference to its red-and-yellow kits), its fans often refer to it as Cimbom or Avrupa Fatihi, meaning the “Victors of Europe.” This latter nickname denotes not only the team’s supremacy in the Turkish Super League, but also its victories in both the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup (in which it defeated worldwide powerhouse Real Madrid) during the 1999-2000 season, marking the only time that a Turkish team has won a major UEFA competition. Today, the club plays its matches in the Türk Telekom Stadium, and the highlight of its season remains the intercontinental derby versus Fenerbahçe.

Photo by Gieuseppe Romano

Besiktas JK

Though it was officially created in 1903, Besiktas incorporated two other teams, Valideçesme and Basiret, in 1911 to form the club that it is today. A year later, the club changed its colors from red and white to black and white to commemorate those lost in the Balkan Wars. Nicknamed Kara Kartallar, or the “Black Eagles,” the team has risen to success in recent years, picking up over half of its 14 league championships in the last two decades alone and entering a de facto three-way rivalry with Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. The club shares a reputation with the former as a “People’s Team,” given its fanbase rooted in the leftist working class. Besiktas plays its home matches at Vodafone Park, a gorgeous stadium that sits near Dolmabahçe Palace and overlooks the Bosphorus Strait.

Photo by Sedat Cakmak
Photo by Fatih Yurur

The Rivalry Today

On May 12, 2013, an intercontinental derby match between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray was held at the Yellow Canaries’ Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, and the home team emerged with a 2-1 victory. Following the game, 19-year old Fenerbahçe supporter Burak Yildirim was waiting for a bus home when a fan wearing a Galatasaray #7 jersey stabbed him in the chest with a knife. Yildirim was rushed to a hospital, but the knife had pierced his heart, and he passed away that evening. In almost a century of fierce enmity, the event stands out as the darkest stain on the city’s passionate competition.

Though there have been no fatal incidents in the years since, the intercontinental derby matches have continued to be scenes of tension, with violence often breaking out both in the stadiums and in the streets surrounding them. In April of this year, for instance, a match was postponed in the 58th minute when Besiktas coach Senol Gunes was hit in the head by an object thrown from the stands, an injury that left him with five stitches.

As with any form of travel to potentially dangerous areas, it is important to not let a disproportionate fear of harm impede on your experience of a local city and culture. That said, if you plan on attending any of these matches, we do encourage you to exhibit caution and, as always, treat those around you with respect. Remember that for Istanbul football fans, this is more than just a sport, so refrain from engaging in any activity that may spiral into something personal. As long as you act respectfully, you will be able to safely enjoy the charged atmosphere that makes the rivalry so exciting.

Ever attended a Big Three football match? Let us know what you thought of the experience and atmosphere!

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.