The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

A century later, Ottoman Armenians are still invisible in official records

In Turkey, we are officially told that "modern soccer" began in the late 19th century in the Ottoman Empire and that soccer was introduced with the establishment of the Republic in 1923 under the banner of "Westernization."

However, the texts skip the intervening years and move on to the era of the "big three," that is, the years dominated by Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas. If there are gaps in the chronology in Turkey, you get the feeling that something interesting is going on there, which is also the case with the missing pages of "official soccer."

The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

The "Shavarshan" soccer team of Merzifon American School, "MARMNAMARZ," 1911.


In Turkey, anyone who considers themself a student of sciences, rather than a guardian of official history, is aware that when you hunt for the omitted pages in official history, the pages that have been deliberately lost, you will come across "interesting" events, or rather, you will come across the truth, even if only some will own up to it.

Soccer started to be played in 1875 by Englishmen living in Salonica and then spread to Bornova and Izmir. Armenians play an important role in the team founded by Christians in Izmir. By 1905, Shavarsh Kocharian founded the first Armenian soccer team, 'Baltalimani.' That same year, when Vahan Cheraz finished his studies in England and returned home with a soccer ball, he formed a group of students from his alma mater, Getronagan High School (an Armenian high school still operating in Karakoy), which later became the professional team "Santral."

The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

The soccer team of the Armenian Hunting Club of Izmir, "MARMNAMARZ," 1910

 Under the leadership of Gapriel Macarian, Dikran Kholayan and many others, professional teams were formed in Istanbul bearing the names of the districts where they lived, such as Uskudar, Bakirkoy, Galata, Kumkapi, Nisantasi, Sisli, Pera, Kadikoy, Balat, Uskudar, Kazlicesme, Pangalti, Kinaliada. In addition to the Dork, Araks A, Araks B, Ararat, Kilikia, Sasun, Raffi and Demokrat teams, Armenian high schools such as Esayan, Berberian, Sahakian and Mgitaryan, as well as the Armenians of Robert College, establish school teams, and all these teams compete in the "Rumelia League" in 1911. In addition to Istanbul clubs, more than 100 "Armenian soccer teams" and school clubs were established in cities such as Izmir, Kutahya, Adapazari, Trabzon, Ordu, Yozgat, Adana, Merzifon, Sivas, Kayseri, Kharpert, Kars, Van, Malatya, Amasya, Antep and Marash.

The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

Tarson Surp Boghos school soccer team, 1914.

 Much of this information can be found in "Marmnamarz" (Athletics), the first Ottoman sports magazine published in Armenian in 1911 under the editorship of Shavarsh Krisian. The magazine also had an office in Bahcekapi Yeni Volto Han 19, where young people often met to discuss sports. The annual subscription was 25 kurus, and the magazine was delivered to subscribers in Europe for 8 francs. But this lasted only three years. When Krisian, one of the first Armenians deported to Ayas by the Unionists in 1915 was killed there, the magazine could not continue to operate. It is likely that the Unionists thought that an intellectual who could publish a sports magazine would be very dangerous for the country.

The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

Vahram Papazyan, second from right, member of the Ottoman light athletes group at the 5th Stockholm Olympic Games, "MARMNAMARZ" June 5, 1912.

 While Armenians were dreaming of a new era that would end oppression in the Ottoman Empire with the Unionists, the “legendary” figure of Talat Pasha, and one of the party's "ideologues" and famous "Turkists," Ziya Gokalp, were personally working on the Turkification of soccer. In their own words, they sought to popularize soccer among Turks, which "the Sultan had prevented because he did not want Turkish youth to organize, and non-Muslims therefore dominated it 'by necessity.'" Footballers were recruited, team names were Turkified. In short, these were the years when the Sultan disliked soccer while the Turkists would seek to carve an "ideology" out of it.

The main goal of the Ottoman Power Unions founded by Ziya Gokalp together with Enver Pasha, and later the Turkish Power Unions founded by Selim Sirri, the architect of the National Olympic Committee of 1908, was to "purify sport from harmful elements and to Turkify it," just like the country they were going to create.

While soccer was very popular among Armenians, Greeks and Jews in those years, wrestling, boxing, tennis and athletics were also well liked and clubs were established. The Ottoman Empire had been invited to the Olympic Games, but did not participate for a long time. In 1912, a year of great importance for Armenians, the Ottomans participated for the first time in the Olympic Games in Stockholm.

The "Lost Armenian Pages" of Modern Soccer in Turkey

Mkrtich Mkryan, one of the participants of the 5th Olympic Games in Stockholm, Robert College, "MARMNAMARZ," June 5, 1912.

Since interest in sports was low due to cultural prejudice, athletes to participate in the Olympics were recruited through newspaper announcements: "Athletes are sought for participation in the competitions in the Swedish capital. Those interested are kindly requested to apply to Selim Sirri Bey (President of the Ottoman Olympic Society)." Two Armenian youths, Vahram Papazian and Migirdich Migiryan, who read Selim Sirri's advertisement, apply. However, when Selim Sırrı hears the names of the athletes, he comes up with the "strange" solution that those who want to participate must travel to Stockholm with their own means.

The two athletes, overcoming all obstacles and reaching Stockholm after paying for their trip with the help of Ardavast Sports Club, immediately run to Ambassador Ahmet Bey when they see that there is no flag of the Ottoman Empire in the organization area. After the flag had been somewhat sorted out, it was the turn of the jerseys, and when the ambassador's wife single-handedly embroidered a white crescent star on the red undershirts of the athletes, this problem was also solved.

As if it wasn't enough that participants had to pay for travel expenses out of their own pockets, Selim Sirri told reporters upon his return to Istanbul from Stockholm, "My eyes filled with tears. All nations were represented at the Olympics except the Turks," unable to foresee that Vahram Papazian would later serve as a telegraph operator for the Ottoman army on the Gallipoli front. Shavarash Krisian, the editor of the magazine "Marmnamarz" (Athletics), must have been disturbed by this treatment, because he wrote in his magazine in an article explaining their loyalty to the Ottoman Empire through examples of Armenian participation in the defense of the homeland in the Balkans:

"These athletes wore shirts with the Ottoman crescent and made efforts to represent the Ottoman Empire in sports. Those who applauded them did so not because they were Armenians but because they were Ottomans. Why do you omit to mention the names of these two Ottomans?"

Krisyan, who was deported to Ayas with the first Armenian group by the Unionists in 1915 and killed during the Armenian Genocide, still has no answer to his question: why do you not mention all the Ottomans in the official sports records?



*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the +GercekNews Portal.

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