Kewell’s move to Galatasaray is likely to be lucrative, with no fee being payable to Liverpool for his services, and the move has angered fans of his last club Leeds. Their instant thought when hearing the name of the Turkish side is of the deaths of two of their fans in 2000 on the eve of a UEFA Cup match. Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight were stabbed in Istanbul by Galatasaray fans.
The Australian international’s decision to sign for Galatasaray was announced on Friday, before his agent claimed it wasn’t actually finalised. The player was in Turkey on the Friday however, and the deal was officially announced the day after. It’s taken another 48 hours for his thoughts on what this move might mean to Leeds fans to be released.
Kewell left Leeds for a transfer fee of just £3m, with his representatives getting £2m, as the Yorkshire side were about to start on their slide down the divisions and a period of financial ruin. It was hardly Kewell’s fault that Leeds had taken big risks financially, but many Leeds fans still felt the player’s part in his cut-price transfer was a betrayal, showing a lack of respect and little concern for their club’s welfare. Speaking through Sky, Kewell says nothing has changed: “My love and respect for Leeds United and what the club has done for me will never change, no matter what anyone says about me and whatever their motives are.”
Kewell claims he was thinking of Leeds when he chose his shirt number for his new club: “I chose the number 19 shirt when I signed for Galatasaray as a sign of respect for Leeds because that was the number I got when I first became a regular member of the Leeds United FC starting XI.”
He went on: “I felt that it might be a way to demonstrate that I had not forgotten where it all started and I was hoping that in a small way it would help the healing process of the tragedy that occurred on the 5th of April 2000. My sense of sorrow and sympathy for the families and friends of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight will always be with me.”
The statement then leads up to his own justification for joining a club the Leeds fans have such distaste for: “For me, sport should first and foremost be about the love of your game. But equally important is the respect for not only your team-mates but all those who you compete against. For this reason I have always objected to any form of discrimination in any sport and football in particular, as that is the sport that is the most near and dear to me.”
And he is sure to enrage Leeds supporters with this comment: “To blame the Galatasaray club for the tragedy in Istanbul is simply wrong and discriminatory.”
His message continued: “This is a club founded in 1905 that has a proud history of striving for sporting excellence and it should be given the same respect as any other football club. I respect everyone’s right to have their own opinion on whatever they like, but that does not make their opinion right. No one has to agree with my views or my choices, but I think it’s only fair and reasonable to allow me and my family to enjoy the same democratic rights as expected by those that have been attacking me over the last few days.”
Whether Kewell is right or wrong in terms of how much blame Galatasaray should get for the tragedy in 2000, he was aware of the issue before he agreed to move there. He would have to be unbelievably arrogant or uncaring not to see how it would cause an angry reaction from some supporters of his former club, who he must know do still blame Galatasaray in part for what happened that night.
Back in 2005, ahead of Liverpool’s historic night in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium, Kewell recalled the night the Leeds fans died: “I don’t think you’ll ever forget that. Obviously there was a bad tragedy that happened out there and the result in the game didn’t go our way so I ain’t got great memories of Turkey.
“But you’ve got to put the past behind you and move on. This is a different ball game, a different atmosphere and hopefully it’s going to be something to remember.”
Leeds lost 2-0 that night, in what was the first leg, and ultimately went out after only getting a 2-2 draw in the home leg. Kewell said it wasn’t clear if the first match would actually be played: “Not that we didn’t want to play, it was just a mark of respect for the two people. We all wanted to play because obviously it was an important game but I think it was just a mark of respect for the families.”
The murders “put a downer” on the UEFA Cup match he said but the players wanted to try and win: “Once it happened it put a downer on things but the best thing we could have done was go out there and win for the families. The manager talked to us and told us what happened and said you can’t think about that at the moment, we have to concentrate on the game, the fans would understand and they did understand and we took it from there.”
As for English teams playing against teams like Galatasaray, Kewell said in that 2005 interview: “When any English team goes abroad now I think they’re always reminded of what can happen out there but you can’t expect to live in fear. You’ve just got to go out there and enjoy yourself and be careful.”
Back in 2000, one of Galatasaray’s earliest responses to the tragedy was to complain to UEFA about the decision by Leeds to not allow any Turkish fans to attend the home leg, a decision they made on safety grounds. Galatasaray demanded that should their 1700 fans not be able to attend the game, and that it should instead be played in a neutral country.
A Galatasaray spokesman, Turgay Vardar, said: “Galatasaray will send a note to UEFA asking for a neutral ground, because we don’t have assurances of our security on the ground. Leeds is insisting on not having Galatasaray supporters. They have a report from the police saying police can’t control a crowd of 1,800 and warning that tension is very high.”
Leeds were considering pulling out should the game be moved to a neutral venue, but Galatasaray’s Vice President Mehmet Cansun said his side would play regardless of the decision: “I believe that playing without supporters will not greatly affect our players. Our players are professionals.” He also had a little swipe at England’s ultimately fruitless bid for the 2006 World Cup: “I don’t understand how Turkish supporters will affect England’s candidacy for the 2006 World Cup.”
Galatasaray’s coach at the time, Fatih Terim, compared the anger surrounding the two murders to a situation the year before where Juventus played in Istanbul. The game took place at the same time that an outlawed terrorist leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was being held in Rome, causing anger in Turkey. Terim said: “At that time UEFA obtained guarantees from the Interior Ministry (in Turkey) and the governor (of Istanbul). When UEFA last year asked for a guarantee from our state it is impossible to understand why this year they just want a guarantee from Leeds United. How can UEFA allow a match to be played in a country that does not give guarantees?” This was said days after the murders. He claimed that his players were worried that Leeds fans would attack his players: “Can you imagine the state of mind of our players?” He called for “calm heads to prevail. Sport is not a battle, it is a competition. We have to preserve the beauty of football without turning this into a blood feud.”
Galatasaray declined to wear black armbands for the first leg, and their general secretary, Sinan Kalpakcioglu, commented: “It was an ordinary criminal situation,” after the stabbings. Talking of the trip to Elland Road, he said: “Our concern is whether to take our supporters to Leeds or not. Secondly, there are supporters from other European cities and we cannot control them. Finally, if Leeds says it cannot provide security for our supporters, how can it provide security for our players and technical staff? We have to have guarantees.
“One alternative is that no English supporters be allowed in the stadium either. Another solution would be the play in another city.”
Another Galatasaray official commented on the idea of Leeds barring away supporters: “Under UEFA rules, if the safety of the fans cannot be guaranteed then the match cannot be played. If the chairman of Leeds is saying it is best for our fans not to travel and to stay home, then he is saying their safety cannot be secured. Therefore we shall ask UEFA to look into this matter.”
The Leeds chairman at the time was Peter Risdale, and he claimed his players had received death threats on their hotel room telephones: “The team were in no fit mental state to play the first tie. They were understandably shaken up by, among other things, receiving death threat phone-calls to their rooms in the early hours of the morning even though we had asked for no calls to be put through. Normally you can laugh that sort of thing off but on this occasion it was anything but funny.”
Kewell seems to like the Turkish supporters now though. Forgetting the way that he and his Leeds team-mates had to be escorted from the airport when they arrived in 2000, he said on Saturday: “I’ve never known anything like the reception at Istanbul Airport. There were thousands mobbing me and chanting my name. I always knew they were passionate about their team but that was something I’ve never experienced before.”
A “source close to” Kewell implied that the Istanbul club was the one to offer the best contract: “There were approaches from clubs all over Europe but some wanted to impose ridiculous conditions to guard against injuries. We got the impression some people were taking the Mickey.”
Kewell was injured when Liverpool played in Istanbul against Galatasaray in their Champions League group game in 2006. He started the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, but went off injured, as he did in the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham. He spent most of the 2006-2007 season injured, but managed to make an appearance in the Athens Champions League final as a second-half sub.