Turkey's Sound of Silence: Tyler Boyd, Playing Amid Pandemic and Istanbul's Fan-Less Derby

What's it like playing in one of the world's most fierce rivalries behind closed doors, while the game is being shut down globally due to the coronavirus pandemic? Besiktas and U.S. national team winger Tyler Boyd sheds some light.
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It’s not really the color or choreography that shocks you. That can be found elsewhere. Instead, the thing that really stands out about Turkish soccer is the noise. The sound on match day is constant, resonant and palpable. It comes from all directions—these stadiums have no quiet side. It’s intimidating and exhilarating, and it’s a big part of why Tyler Boyd wanted to play in Istanbul, and why he wanted to play for Besiktas.

“When they’re whistling at something, it’s almost like you can feel a wind. You can feel it. It’s incredible. They’re incredibly passionate and it creates such a good atmosphere to be a footballer,” the Besiktas and U.S. national team winger told SI.com.

“It’s tough sometimes when you’re losing, because you might get criticized on the street or in public. But it goes both ways. When you’re winning, it’s the best feeling ever,” he continued. “I love it. I love the culture. I love the people. I love the passion.”

Imagine, then, the strange sensation Boyd and his teammates experienced on March 15 as they stepped onto the field at the Türk Telekom Stadium for the Süper Lig grudge match vs. Galatasaray, the other heavyweight on the European side of the Bosporus. The old enemies had combined to win each of the past five league titles, but both were in pursuit as the 2019-20 season turned toward the stretch run. This was a big game. Every derby is.

“It’s the biggest game of the season,” Boyd said. “It just feels different the week leading up to it. You can see the whole city is buzzing. It’s not like any other game. From a social media standpoint, a city standpoint, from the public talking to you or encouraging—or telling us—to win. It’s crazy. You can feel it building during the week.

“So to come to the game on the weekend and there’s no one there...”

The two teams walked out, warmed up and then played 90 scoreless minutes in front of 52,000 empty seats. It was awkward. It even felt like a distraction at times, Boyd said. In that moment, it was the silence that was deafening.

“It was such a strange feeling. The contrast is crazy because the Turkish fans are the craziest fans in the world, so going from 1,000 to zero, from the noisiest crowds to nothing, was just crazy,” Boyd said.

Tyler Boyd and Besiktas played Galatasaray to a scoreless draw in an empty stadium

Inside the lines, it was soccer by the book. Procedures and laws were followed. Each team took shots and free kicks and made saves and substitutions, and each earned a point in the Süper Lig standings. But it didn’t feel like soccer. The result was recorded, but how would it be remembered? This was soccer without soul. And that was just one reason it couldn’t continue.

“Football isn’t the same without fans. Fans make football,” Boyd said. “Otherwise it’s just like training, really. We tried to stay as focused as we could.”

So Galatasaray-Besiktas would be one of the final matches played in Turkey, and in Europe, as the sport responded to the coronavirus pandemic. The Süper Lig had been relatively reluctant to suspend play, forging ahead in empty stadiums while almost every other European circuit or tournament (not to mention MLS, the NWSL and many others) shut down. There were also a handful of top-tier matches in Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus and Kazakhstan that weekend, but otherwise the continent was dark. And Boyd was the last current senior U.S. international still active (five American women, including former USWNT midfielder Sofia Huerta, appeared in Australia’s W-League final on Saturday).

Boyd knew, and Turkish authorities knew, that they were among the outliers.

“We were definitely aware, and it was hard for us,” Boyd said.

Finally, the Turkish Football Federation announced last Thursday that “all football activities in Turkey have been suspended until further notice.” The campaign stops with Besiktas in fifth, five points out of a Europa League berth, and with Boyd on a streak of three straight Süper Lig starts, the most since August.

“A few days before the [Galatasaray] game, and all the leagues are getting shut down and we’re sitting in limbo—will we play, will we not play—and it’s the biggest rivalry and we’re trying to be prepared, but you’ve got all this stuff going on in the back of your head,” Boyd said of the build-up. “It was a lot to comprehend and when we stepped out on the field and there was no one in the crowd, it definitely went through my mind. There comes a point when safety is the utmost priority, and you just never know how safe it is. As painful as it was stopping the league, we need to take other people’s safety into consideration—and our safety as well. It was the right thing to do.”

Galatasaray's stadium is disinfected before a match vs. Besiktas

Boyd was far from the only one who felt anxious. A day before the TFF’s announcement, Trabzonspor’s John Obi Mikel, the Nigerian midfielder who won two Premier League crowns and the Champions League with Chelsea, walked out on his club and had his contract canceled. A showdown with Trabzonspor president Ahmet Agaoglu over the league’s decision to continue was the catalyst.

Agaoglu had said, “If they suspend the league for a long time, in a month from now there won’t be enough judges to rule on all the divorce cases.”

Mikel last week told The Guardian, “It just shows that they don’t really care about human life. They don’t care about what is going on in the world. All they care about is how to win the league. … In this situation, where the world is facing such a difficult time, I didn’t feel that football should continue.”

Mikel watched from the bench as Trabzonspor and visiting Istanbul Basaksehir tied, 1-1, in a top-of-the-table encounter.

“It was still a risk in terms of passing the virus on, with a lot of accredited people there,” Mikel said. “There was no motivation. The players were all scared. There was no handshaking. It didn’t feel right. I just thought, ’I don’t want to be part of this.’”

Like Mikel, whose family is in London, Boyd, 25, is far from loved ones. His parents live in New Zealand (his father is from there and his mother is American), and his girlfriend is in Los Angeles. Travel is restricted, and Boyd said he could sympathize with Mikel’s concern. He acknowledged how difficult it could be to focus on the field when everything around it, near and far, was so confusing or chaotic.

“I can understand why he did it. Family is important—more important than football—and he was away from his family and wanted to leave. I can understand that,” Boyd said. “I’m away from my family, but I’m staying here. The borders are shut, and I can’t leave and come back without an issue, so at this point I’m staying put, and trying to stay as fit as I can at home.”

Feeling supported at Besiktas, and like he’s being taken care of and kept in the loop, played a role in Boyd’s comparative contentment. He said the players had a meeting with a club doctor during the run-up to the Galatasaray match, where they got information concerning the coronavirus’s spread in Turkey and about the precautions the club was taking. Questions were asked and opinions where voiced, Boyd said, and “there wasn’t really a group consensus about it and there wasn’t really a divide.” 

The team bus, training facility and dining areas were sterilized, and players were (and still are) updated frequently via a group message app. He said there was never any indication that Besiktas wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously, nor did Boyd ever feel the club was taking his safety for granted.

“They did take measures, but it’s hard to ignore what’s going on, and it was the right decision to pause the league,” Boyd said. “Football is the biggest thing here and it joins so many people together, and seeing the stadium empty and now that the league is paused, it’ll catch a lot of attention and that can be a positive. We can use our voice to tell people to stay home and to be responsible and to be safe.”

USMNT winger Tyler Boyd

And that’s what Boyd will be doing: staying home and trying to remain safe and busy. He said the grocery delivery service he uses has a three-day backlog, but otherwise he’ll be comfortable. He has his own weights, and the club was scheduled to deliver a stationary bike last weekend. Beskitas’s facilities are closed, as is the gym in his building. He’ll FaceTime with family and friends, play video games, and become one of the many millions of people who have pared down their lives during the coronavirus crisis.

Boyd said USA coach Gregg Berhalter has already checked in to make sure he’s O.K. It was an appreciated gesture, but it didn’t alleviate the frustration over missing out on the friendlies against Netherlands and Wales that were scheduled for this week and next. They were canceled on March 12, three days before Boyd and Besiktas took the field. Boyd has been capped 10 times since switching his international allegiance from New Zealand, and he was used as a substitute in three Concacaf Nations League matches last fall.

No one knows when his next game will come. He recalled that while preparing and playing amid the silence at Türk Telekom Stadium, that was one thought that kept popping into his head. Soccer couldn’t continue like that. That much was clear. Everything else is uncertain.

“We didn’t know if we were going to play or not, up until the day we played. I tried to give it everything I could. In my mind, I thought this could be the last game I played for a while. I didn’t want to leave anything in the tank,” Boyd said. “I thought I gave everything. And it might be the last game I play for a while.”