Lefter Küçükandonyadis (1925-2012) was Fenerbahçe football club’s and Turkish national team’s star player during the many long years when he played football. Last week, my good friend and distinguished sportswriter Bağış Erten named his new born son “Lefter” and announced the happy news through social media. Erten tweeted: “We appear to love Lefter yet very few us name their children after him. Instead we tend to name them ‘Can*’ or ‘Metin’ mostly but not Lefter. My wife and I chose to remain loyal to and reward his memory.”
First, for the un-initiated about Turkey and perhaps for the rare Greek reader if there are any following these weekly columns of mine, allow me to share a few essential information at the outset. Istanbul has three big teams representing different neighborhoods (and according to some three different social classes): Fenerbahçe (FB), Beşiktaş (BJK) and Galatasaray (GS). Each has its own idol. Respectively: “Ordinarius” Lefter, “Baba” – literally “Father”- Hakkı and Metin “The King Without A Crown”. Each team has its almost religiously devoted followers. As in Galatasaray for me and, obviously, Fenerbahçe for Erten. The prefix “Küçük” in late great Lefter’s of Prinkipo’s Island family name means “little” in Turkish.
Both my dad and his maternal uncle were from the Galatasaray area. Both, even though GS club members and ardent GS fans, eagerly admitted to me while I was a kid that Lefter was indeed an unequalled talent. This uncle of mine in question here liked to tell stories. He recalled how once when the Turkish national team played a friendly against the Greek side in Athens, questions were raised beforehand whether Lefter would give his best. And then, during the game Lefter, having dribbled skilfully past every opponent as well as the goalie, stops the ball right on the goal line and puts his hands on his hips. Everyone held their breath: Turks their ears hard pressed to their radios and the Greek crowd in the stands. Absolute silence. Nobody knows what will happen the next. Then, according to the rakı fuelled narrative of my uncle, “without further ado” Lefter simply rolls the ball across the line, turns around and walks (not runs) “in a decisive manner” towards the centre spot “keeping his head down”.
For sure, this story can easily be fact-checked in our “Saint-Google” era and most probably be proven to be fabricated through raki clouds. But that would have spoiled for me the beauty of it and I refused to do it till today. Here, what my uncle was trying to convey to me was his deep respect both as a GS fan and a Turkish national for Lefter’s integrity and skills. Unfortunately, the sheer truth is not so bright as it generally is the case. Lefter’s military service had taken three and a half precious years of his footballing youth. On the pogrom night of 6 to 7 September, 1955, a lynch mob had appeared on his doorstep and he had been only saved by his neighbours who fiercely defended his life, family and property. He played till almost when he was 40 years old, never complained about any of these “events” and wore Turkey’s national jersey proudly.
“Ver Lefter’e / Yaz deftere” (“pass it on to Lefter, add it to the bill”) chanted FB fans adapting from a poem written for him by poet and artist Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu. I know, it’s not that easy to clear the books politically. On both sides of the Aegean live people who definitely look like each other their religion excepted and they created their countries fighting against the other and both sides tend to mix nationalism with patriotism. As in Byzantium where the chariot racing rivalry between the “blues” and the “greens” ended sometimes even in open mutiny, the rivalry between GS, FB and BJK is not so gallant any often in our time. Same holds true for Turkey and Greece. It is not enough like late Mr. Cem and his counterpart Mr. Papandreu to raise glasses to friendship and dance traditional sirtaki/zeybek together to move forward.
I am aware of all this. When I had just started to work at the foreign ministry in early nineties, an old gentlemanly ambassador had pointed to the back of his ear and told me “this here is the only place where they didn’t f.ck me, my dear child.” I was taken aback by his candour and came to realize what his prophecy meant many years later. Nevertheless, I wish to insist to believe that simple acts of courage and humanity like Bağış Erten’s, or Cem & Papandreu’s “sirtaki diplomacy” are not in vain. True, the Turkish football federation (TFF) had named the 2018-19 season after Lefter Küçükandonyadis. And then the Fenerbahçe club erected his statue right in front of their stadium. So, he is not like intentionally pushed to oblivion, no, far from it. Still, what Bağış Erten did, in my humble opinion means much more than all these efforts combined.
As Erten has the habit of always wearing a hat in his public media appearances, I am taking my imaginary hat off to him. God bless Lefter’s soul and let divine light rain on his tomb. I learned from Bağış Erten that “Eleftheros” meant “free man” in Greek. I hope his son will have a long and healthy life worthy of his name’s meaning and one that will make his dad and his namesake proud. Sometimes, not always, simple is just beautiful.
*“Can” as in again late & great Fenerbahçe player Can Bartu: nickname “Sinyor” or “Baron”.