Dedicated to the memory of my best buddy Bülent Özmeral
Translated by Mustafa Ozmeral from the Turkish original "Misket Maçları"
I was 9 and Cenan was 6 when we returned home to Ankara after a 10 month stay in Germany. We had moved to a modern apartment complex in the Kavaklıdere district of the city. In our backyard there was a little playground with swings and a little wooden toy house for the kids to play in. But we usually ran in the vacant lots around our house and the surrounding poppy fields, trying to catch birds, insects and grasshoppers. Our cousin Bülent was 12 at that time and we often visited him in my uncle's house in the Anittepe district, close to Ataturk’s mausoleum. Bülent was athletic, a skilled soccer player and he was also very good at inventing games out of almost nothing; sticks and stones, soda bottle caps, pieces of discarded construction materials etc. Of course this was decades before video games, smartphones and the overabundance of games and toys marketed to today’s children, so we had to create our own games to pass the time. Bülent was our ring leader; he would constantly invent new games and my brother Cenan and I would follow his lead in playing these new games.
In our apartment building, our upstairs neighbors were an American family with three children. They were around our ages and they would play these “American games' ' in the backyard of our building that we found so alien and fascinating; American football, baseball and marbles. They would often leave their football and baseball balls and bats in the yard overnight. Because we were only interested in one type of ball; the soccer ball or (the real “foot”-ball in our view that you have to actually play with your feet) these different games did not interest us, except one: the marbles. The American kids had hundreds of these beautiful, shiny, gleaming glass marbles in all sizes and colors of the kaleidoscope, reflecting light into colors of the rainbow every way you turned them. They were almost too beautiful to play in the dirt playground outside! Cenan and I brought them home one day, thinking the American kids really didn’t play with them as much any more.
At first, the two of us played on our rug trying to mimic some games Bülent had invented outside with soda caps. We designated some of the smaller marbles as “balls” and the larger marbles as players, and tried to have the player marbles hit the ball marbles from a distance. We had convinced ourselves the American kids had forgotten all about the marbles we “borrowed”, but we still were afraid they might want them back so we only played indoors with them.
One day, Bülent was visiting us for an overnight stay and he quickly invented a new game with the marbles. We were going to form soccer teams of 11 marbles each, set up 2 goals, and have a soccer match between two teams. For this new game (which we would soon christen as “Marble Matches”) soccer teams. Bülent was our oldest and the inventor of the game so he got to choose first. All three of us were rabid Beşiktaş fans, but of course Bülent called first dibs and chose Beşiktaş as his team. Cenan and I had to choose between the remaining two Istanbul clubs, our bitter rivals Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. I went next (based on age seniority) and chose Galatasaray, perhaps because I did admire their legendary center striker and league’s “ Goal King” (Top Goal Scorer) Metin Oktay and perhaps my favorite uncle Lemi was a Galatasaray fan. My brother Cenan was left with Fenerbahçe. Our youngest brother Mustafa would not be born for another 5 years.
The rules of the new game as established by Bülent were as follows:
· The teams would consist of 11 marbles
· The “ball” would be chosen from a smaller marble of a solid color
· The matches would consist of two 30 minute halves
· Each team got 3 turns to hit the ball with one of their players. They had to successfully hit the ball to keep their turn or their turn would revert to the other team. After 3 successful connections on the ball, the turn would also revert to the opposing team.
· You could not score from a direct shot to the opponents goal from your half of the “field” (rug), or directly from a “throw-in”
· Offside rules were to be followed
· If a player marble hit another player marble before striking the ball, a foul (free kick)would be called
· Defending team could form a ‘wall' in a free kick, at a distance of four fingers of your hand (excluding the thumb) from the ball. Penalty kicks would be taken to the goal from a distance of 1 foot
· The lines for the 6 yard box, 18 yard box, center circle and sidelines would be called out before each game based on the particular patterns of the Oriental rugs we were playing on.
· The goal posts were in the length of 8 fingers of the hand put next to each other apart
The next task was to divide out the marbles into our three teams. Each team would ideally consist of marbles close to the colors of the team in real life football(soccer): Beşiktaş was black and white, Galatasaray red and yellow, and Fenerbahçe navy blue and yellow. Also, we had to choose the most beautiful and striking marbles to represent our star players. Bulent first chose the biggest Beşiktaş star at the time, Küçük Ahmet (Ahmet Ozacar). Cenan chose the legendary Lefter Küçükandonyadis. Finally, I chose a marble with a red crescent motif on a white background. I said this is going to be Metin, Metin “the King”.
Metin in front, Can on left Kucuk Ahmet on right
Retired marble players on by book shelf
Our first goal posts were made from the pieces of construction surplus granite I had brought with Bülent from Atatürk's mausoleum when I was 6 years old. However, we quickly realized that when the marbles hit these hard surfaces, they were often damaged and sometimes even broke into pieces. After some other intermediate solutions like medicine bottles, we eventually landed on a very professional looking solution for the goals. We nailed pieces of wooden blocks together as the crossbar and the side posts, metal brackets used to hang drapes became the back posts, and pieces of orange colored tiny fisherman's netting became our net. We painted the goal posts white as in real soccer. The dimensions of the goals were realistic and proportional to the size of the soccer pitch, our oriental rugs. We placed our teams on the field using the classical 2-3-5 formation popular at the time. Now, we were ready for the big time!
Over time, we also improved our marble-handling skills and developed new techniques. We had started with the most basic technique of using the thumb and index finger (see Figure1) to launch the marble. Later, we switched to using our middle finger and index finger together (Figure 2), which provided the most accurate and powerful direction. Soon we were masters of this new game, using our fingers with the skill and dexterity of a pool shark, masterfully using his cue to direct the billiards into pockets of the pool table, except we were hitting bigger player marbles into a smaller marble used as the ball, passing, dribbling, and shooting into our miniature soccer goal posts.
I was a devoted Besiktaş fan in real life but in the “Marble Matches” metaverse, I was the coach of Galatasaray and had to use all my skill and energy to beat Besiktaş, coached by my Bülent and often succeeded. My matches with Cenan’s Fenerbahçe team were often very heated, especially if Bülent wasn’t around to referee. Sometimes the two hyper-competitive brothers would end up in a fight and the match would be called off. I don’t remember this, but Cenan says I head-butted him one time because I was losing.
Our Marble Matches paralleled real life soccer in the Turkish league. We had 3 “fields”. The dark colored hand-woven Bünyan rug was Istanbul’s Mithatpasa Stadium predecessor of today’s Vodafone Park, the home field of Beşiktaş. The antique hand woven Isparta rug was Izmir’s Alsancak stadium and the solid beige colored factory woven rug became the Ankara 19th of May Stadium, which was our favorite. Soon, we also started using a floor lamp, which was brought from Germany, with three adjustable spot light bulbs to simulate night games.
When the three of us were together, we would alternately pair up to play matches while the third person refereed, and occasionally also pretended to call the game on radio, imitating Halit Kivanç or Orhan Ayhan, the famous sports announcers of the era. We also formed “Turkish national teams” from a selection of the best players and pretended to play Russia and other soccer powerhouses; organized tournaments between European and Turkish club teams, played “friendlies” that celebrate the career swan songs of famous players like Lefter. We made trophies out of any shiny object we could find and handed them out to the winners of these matches and tournaments. Every Marble Matches event we organized mimicked one in real life soccer. I also kept statistics, recording all the goals scored in each game, the player that scored them and the final results. I had a huge interest in writing even at that age, and especially in writing about soccer. I had sent two articles to the official Besiktaş club fan publication Kara Kartallar (The Black Eagles), which were both published. For a while, I even published a Marble Matches newsletter, but that was short-lived.
The best player in our Marble Matches metaverse was indisputably Metin (“the King”), just like he was in the real universe. By the time I was eighteen and we had stopped playing regularly, he had scored an amazing total of almost 600 goals. He was the leading scorer and MVP each season. The outer glass layer of his whıte and red body had almost completely disintegrated in many places, and was full of little chinks and divots in others due to the thousands of collisions on the “ball” and other player marbles. He looked like a grizzled and battle-scarred war veteran and still performed at the highest level. Sometimes I believed he really had a sort of a magical, living spirit inside of him. From the repeated collisions, sometimes a big chunk of the marbles would come off completely. One of my best player marbles, Kadri Aytac, had a big chunk from his body broken one day and I had glued him back together with Uhu, the German made superglue, and he had continued his career in Marble Matches
1. Index finger sniping from thumb
2.The thumb, middle and small fingers are on the carpet, the middle finger breaks off the index finger and makes the stroke.
3. Same as the number 2 above, but the thumb, middle and small fingers are in the air, the middle finger breaks off the index finger in the upright position and chips the ball over the wall.
4.Because of furniture in your way in tight spaces where you can't get your body behind the ball. The index finger and the middle finger on the carpet by scraping the middle finger over the index finger.
5. To position the ball in front of the player to the right angle, to face the goal posts before shooting All fingers are on the carpet by very scrapping the thumb with a very slight move from the index finger.
The rookie flick kick
The master goal kick
The free kick chip shot over the wall
When a furniture prevents to put your body behind the ball
The flick to correct the position of the ball
Five years after we started the Marble Matches, my brother Mustafa was born. I was 15, Cenan was 12 and Bülent was 18 at the time. I was in boarding school in Istanbul, and only came home to Ankara for summer vacation, which was the only time the three of us still got together and continued to play, although not as frequently as before. When Mustafa was 5 years old, we taught him the game too. He chose the 4th strongest team in the Turkish league at the time, Eskişehirspor. He soon developed his skills and by the time he was 8 or 9 became a formidable opponent to us in the infrequent matches we played on holidays and other get-togethers. Because Mustafa did not have us around to play against most of the time, he also created another team, Istanbulspor as a farm team for Eskişehirspor to practice against and played alone. Mustafa’s star player from Eskişehirspor was Fethi (Heper) and Cemil (Turan) from Istanbulspor, the latter who was in real life to transfer to Fenerbahçe and dominate Turkish soccer as the best striker starting from 1973 for the next ten years.
In 1971, there was a military coup in Turkey. I was actually doing my compulsory military service at the time and away from home. Cenan was a university student at Robert College, soon to be renamed as Boğaziçi (Bosporus) University. The military coup aimed to crush the rising Left-wing movements in the country. Both Cenan an I had some books which were banned by the military backed government. My parents had removed these books and given them to my grandmother to burn in her wood-burning stove. One day, a group of heavily armed military police and their officers came to our house to do a search. They thumbed through all the books in our home library, looking for banned titles. Mustafa was 9 years old playing his Eskisehirspor and İstanbulspor marble teams against each other on the beige rug in his room. The soldiers came into his room. Our father stood at the doorway, and told the soldiers ``this is our youngest son, just playing”. They did not care. One of the soldiers came within a foot of Mustafa, moved the working end of his automatic rifle over the marbles , and lifted up the skirt on Mustafa’s bed to look underneath and found nothing. The incident was a nerve racking experience for the whole family and the marbles had also witnessed the scary moments.
Bulent, Cem , Cenan circumcision picture 1956, Mustafa 1971
Ashton Aydin and Bryce Taner at Dede's house 2022
Years had passed, we three brothers settled in the United States, Bülent moved from Istanbul to Dalyan. We had all been married and had children. On a trip to Istanbul, I brought my marbles from the old house to America and placed them on one of the high shelves in my library. I also gave Bülent his Beşiktaş marble team so that he can give them to his son Emre. Cenan and Mustafa's marbles were left in the house in Istanbul under the storage base of a bed.
Today, every time my two grandsons, Ashton Aydin (5.5) and Bryce Taner (4), come to our house, they are always more interested in the marbles than the other little toys in my library. As soon as they arrive, the first thing they do is to climb the stairs to the second floor of my office, take down the marbles from my bookshelves, play with them, then put them in their boxes and hand them over to me. Now that they're at that age, I felt it was time to teach them the marble matches. At first Ashton started making the goal posts from old CD boxes, but after some research online I was able to buy two miniature table top goal posts. First I taught them how to hit the marbles with the rookie flick, how to place the goalkeeper in the right position and we started playing against each other. They are really interested in the game for right now. Their rooms in their house are full of toys, they spend the most time with legos, but when they come to our house the name of the game is marble matches. It remains to be seen how long they will play with the marbles in the future.
The types of games we had created as children and played outside as well as at home are non existent today. In the electronic age, children do not raise their heads from games on mobile phones or tablets. You can no longer see mables on the shelves of most toy stores, but you can order them online. Our marble matches will be a thing of the past as the most beautiful game of our childhood, which no one will know except us the three brothers and my grandchildren.