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As the Geopolitical Rivalry Between Turkey and Greece Reveals Itself in Football (again), How Does It Reflect Current Views Towards Nationalism and the Nation?

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After Osmanlispor’s European season came crashing to an end following a 0-3 loss at home to Greece’s Olympiakos, the story of the match has slowly revealed itself to be more than just football itself: It is a story that involves an age old geopolitical rivalry that is being re-interpreted in the context of a world-system that is in flux. Globalism or localism? Is the response to globalism chauvinist nationalism that pits countries against one another in a zero-sum game, or is it a more civilized form of nationalism that views countries as equal actors on a world stage? While this struggle has played out most prominently in Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union during “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, it is a struggle that is far from over. Interestingly, the struggle even played itself out in a relatively insignificant Europa League tie between Turkish side Osmanlispor and Greek side Olympiakos FC.

Scholars of history will be familiar with the Greco-Turkish rivalry, a contentious relationship rooted in geopolitics since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Given the history, any matchup in European football between Greek and Turkish sides is bound to be a contentious affair. This year’s match was no exception since Osmanlispor itself is a team that represents the neo-Ottoman identity that the current Turkish government is building itself around.

“Osmanli” is Turkish for Ottoman; Osmanlispor FK can be loosely translated as “Ottomansport Football Club”. The team was originally Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor, the team of the Ankara municipality, and run by controversial Ankara Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek before being re-named to “Osmanlispor”. While the history is complicated, the team is, clearly, the team of the government. Their “Ottoman” name is not just a coincidence; it is meant to re-enforce the neo-Ottoman visions of the ruling government in the field of sports. The team’s main fan group Akincilar even have a Twitter handle that is written in Arabic characters while the picture they Tweeted ahead of the Olympiakos match features players charging out of a sepia-toned mist; it is an image evocative of historic art depicting the Ottoman cavalry charging into battle.

 

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The picture Osmanlispor’s Fan Group Tweeted Ahead of the Olympiakos Match Features Players Charging Out of a Sepia-Toned Mist. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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The Image Tweeted By Osmanlispor’s Fans Is Thematically Similar to Artwork Depicting the Ottoman Cavalry (Sepahis) Charging into Battle Out of a Cloud Of Dust. Image Courtesy Of: https://postimg.cc/image/5pa34tsij/

 

This kind of neo-Ottomanism is loosely connected to increasing religiosity and Turkish nationalism as well. Ahmet Gokcek’s (the son of Ibrahim Melih Gokcek) tweets show this synthesis well. Using football as a base, he sends messages that combine notions of Turkish nationalism with Islamic rhetoric. The first Tweet came after the first leg draw with Olympiakos—“Elhamdulillah” means “Praise be to Allah” in Arabic. His other Tweets, centered around the matches of Turkish teams in European competition, combine similar religious messages with images of the Turkish flag and the badges of Turkish football clubs: One says “May the Lord not embarrass our teams in Europe”, with Mr. Gokcek’s signature beneath the words. The team’s coach, Mustafa Resit Akcay, himself said (before the second leg) that “we [Osmanlispor] will feel pressure because of our name and because of representing our country”. Here we clearly see a connection between the nation and the Ottoman past.

 

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Ahmet Gokcek Thanks Allah For Osmanlispor’s Draw. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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Ahmet Gokcek’s Tweets Show the Relationship Between Turkish Nationalism, Islamism, Neo-Ottomanism, and Football. The First Carries an Image of the Turkish Flag Resembling a Blood Stain (Connecting the Ideas of War and Nationalism); The Latter Tweet Carries the Caption “Our Prayers Are With You…” While the Quote in the Image Reads “May the Lord Not Embarrass Our Teams in Europe” in the Context of the Turkish Star and Crescent. Images Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ahmetgokcek?lang=en.

 

Perhaps the most interesting pre-game Tweet came before the first leg when Istanbul Basaksehirspor (another team essentially created by the ruling AKP government) wished Osmanlispor luck by saying “Good luck on your trip to Byzantine”. Clearly Basaksehirspor’s Tweeters are not very familiar with history since “Byzantium” was the Byzantine Empire’s name for…Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire encompassed both Anatolia and Piraeus (where Olympiakos is from). In short, the Tweet can be seen as framing the match in terms of a historical rivalry between the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires that has carried over to the modern nation-states of Turkey and Greece.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ibfk2014?lang=en

 

After Olympiakos’ victory some segments of the Turkish press were upset at an Olympiakos tweet which returned the favor. Olympiakos Tweeted—in English and Greek—a message that reads “A triumph for all Greeks! Greece who knows how to win!”. The image accompanying the tweet consists of Olympiakos’ badge and the Greek flag; it is a fusion of football and Greek nationalism—perhaps a deliberate fusion in direct response to Basaksehirspor’s Tweets (and Ahmet Gokcek’s Osmanlispor Tweets) which fuse Turkish nationalism and neo-Ottomanism.

It is clear that the pre-match and post-match Tweets from both sides reflect forms of chauvinistic nationalism. Yet, the Greek press (according to Turkish media) actually praised the Osmanlispor fans for a banner during  the match which read—in Greek, Turkish, and English—“Dear Neighbor Friendship Will Win” [Author’s Note: The Turkish, “Dostluk Kazansin Komsu” translates more accurately as “Dear Neighbor May Friendship Win”. For it to be “Friendship Will Win” it would have to have been phrased as “Dostluk Kazanir”].

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/komsu-bu-pankarti-begendi-osmanlispor-2402475-skorerhaber/

 

The banner itself reflects the disconnect between traditional nationalist representations of the nation and the present pressure for “globalism” in the face of globalization. While Osmanlispor’s fans tried to put out a public message of “fair play”, the team’s fans—after Olympiakos’ first goal—ended up throwing objects onto the field (a fact only reported in a few media outlets, such as this play-by-play account of the match).

 

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Please See Minute 54. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.karar.com/spor-haberleri/canli-anlatim-osmanlispor-olympiakos-kac-kac-baskentte-kritik-uefa-mucadelesi-anlik-anlatim-397490#

 

The message on the banner was just words; not only was it poorly translated but it was—given the fans’ later actions—also not heartfelt. On the other side, while the Greek press may have praised Osmanlispor’s message of friendship, ahead of the match they were busy claiming that the grass in Osmanlispor’s stadium was painted green to cover up the fact that it was dead. Again, the spirit of “fair play” is only alive in the discourse surrounding the banner in the stadium; everywhere else the discussion (from both sides) is quite antagonistic.

This tension between what nationalism should be—and how it should be expressed—in the current international climate is a fascinating one. Personally, I do not believe that the divide need be one between chauvinistic nationalism driven by the perceived superiority of one nation over others on the one hand and over-hyped messages of (often faked) “friendship” and “tolerance” on the other. Rather, it should be an acceptance that countries—like football teams—all exist in one inter-connected environment. This does not mean that one country (or football team) is intrinsically better than another (this is the kind of sentiment that encourages violent forms of nationalism and fandom—in some cases hooliganism) but it does recognize that each country has a right to put itself first. The answer to what nationalism “should” be in the context of a rapidly changing international environment is still open to debate, and it will be interesting to see how this process is reflected in the football world going forward.

Football and Geopolitics: The International Aspects of Domestic European Football

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In the wake of a “Catalan referendum” on November 10, 2014 where 80 percent of the two million voters voted for Catalan independence from Spain in what was a symbolic vote, The Guardian’s Sid Lowe asked a pertinent question for those of us interested in football and politics: Where will Barcelona and Espanyol play if Catalonia gets independence?

This is, of course, a complicated question. Former Barcelona coach and player Pep Guardiola cast his vote, along with Barcelona players Xavi Hernandez, Sergi Roberto, and Martin Montoya. Barcelona’s past and present presidents, Sandro Rosel and Joan Laporta, also did their civic duties. As Mr. Lowe outlines, the situation regarding the two biggest clubs in Catalonia is complicated:

“While Barcelona’s commitment to political Catalanism is more shifting and nuanced than is sometimes imagined, the two clubs’ histories and identities are different. Soon after the civil war, Marca wrote of Español as a club run by people ‘well known for their [Spanish] patriotism’ and of Barcelona as an institution that ‘used sport as a mouthpiece for an insufferable region.’ But Espanyol, whose name, contrary to the usual assumptions, was not chosen as a Spanish rejection of Catalanism or Catalonia, have used the Catalan spelling for almost 20 years and insist that if Barcelona is more than a club, so is Catalonia. Yesterday, their president Joan Collet voted too. During their game against Villarreal there were Catalan flags at the stadium. But there were Spanish flags too, and possibly more of them.

He goes on to explain:

“Barcelona [has been put] in an awkward position, one that forces them to confront uncomfortable issues. So mostly they have chosen not to confront them at all; the difference between the current board and that led by Laporta, whose convictions were far clearer, is striking. There has been silence, a veneer of apoliticism, an implicit wish that the trouble would just go away. It took the club a long time to publicly back the Catalans’ right to have the vote. And a week ago, Barcelona refused to authorise the unfurling of a banner that declared Catalonia Europe’s next state.”

But he points out clearly that “the sponsor on their shirts and all over the stadium reads ‘Qatar’. Their focus is increasingly international; both in terms of signings and supporters.” This is the most important point.

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Image Courtesy of: http://gulfbusiness.com/2013/09/united-arab-bank-signs-three-year-fc-barcelona-deal/#.VNP_r5XRe0s

 

Barcelona are now an international team, attracting supporters from all over the world, like their rivals Real Madrid. Perhaps this explains the odd situation where Spain—a country that arguably experienced the worst of the European Economic crisis—is home to both of Europe’s richest football clubs: Real Madrid is worth 3.44 Billion USD, Barcelona is worth 3.2 Billion USD. Of course this belies Spain’s economic state. Meanwhile the largely uncompetitive nature of the rest of La Liga—even making an exception for Atletico Madrid (who are also internationally sponsored, in this case by Azerbaijan, by the way)—is full of dull matches between the haves and have nots.

 

 

After reading Mr. Lowe’s article I decided to do some research on a topic I am familiar with, and the results are worth sharing. What many readers may not know is that Europe is full of clubs playing in leagues outside of their home countries. Some clubs are well known, others are minnows, but the concept of playing domestic matches “internationally” is hardly unprecedented, especially in Western Europe (as Mr. Lowe mentions, there is a provision even in Spain for clubs from Andorra to play in the league system: Sixth tier FC Andorra take advantage of this).

 

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Seen Here Lining up During the 1999-2000 Season in a Striking Umbro Kit. Image Courtesy of: http://www.fotoequipo.com/equipos2.php?Id=736

 

 

Perhaps the most well-known of the European clubs playing in a foreign league is AS Monaco, the “French” Monegasque side that has won seven Ligue 1 titles and were runners up in the 2004 European Champions League. The team hails from the Principality of Monaco, a minute city-state on the French Riviera home to 36,371 residents packed into just 0.78 square miles. As a sovereign state Monaco has been a member of the United Nations since 1993 but there is domestic football league so the team plays in France. The principality has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297; the family own 33.33 percent of the football team as well (The remainder is owned by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, one of the many examples of the rising internationalism of the football business that frees teams from the constraints of political boundries to some degree).

 

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We’re Serious—We May Play in France But We’re Not French! Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dmarge.com/2014/05/monaco-fc-reveals-201415-home-kit.html#show_image=1

 

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Of Course, We’ll Still Use the French (Monegasque) Riviera as a Backdrop. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2014/05/new-nike-as-monaco-14-15-kit.html

 

 

The United Kingdom is full of examples as well. The most prominent sides that come to mind are current English Premier League members Swansea City and former members Cardiff City. Swansea City have played in the English League system since 1913 and reached the Premier League in 2011-12—the first Welsh team to reach the top flight since the top flight’s rebranding in 1992, as well as the first Welsh club to represent England in European competition after winning the 2012-13 Football League Cup.

 

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Swansea City Line Up to Represent England in the Europa League With International Finance Company Goldenway’s Backing. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.fiveyearplanfanzine.co.uk/features/5129-eye-on-the-opposition-swansea-city-a-29-11-2014.html

 

Cardiff City from the Welsh capital is currently in the second tier but remain the only club from outside England to have won the FA Cup (the triumph came in 1927)—the entity is named Cardiff City FC Limited, a member of the Football Association of Wales.

 

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Cardiff City and the FA Cup. Image Courtesy of: http://www.historicalkits.co.uk/Cardiff_City/Cardiff_City.htm

 

The third Welsh team playing in England’s top four leagues—therefore under the jurisdiction of the English FA for disciplinary and administration purposes—is Newport County AFC, playing in the Football League Two. See More about their history in this interesting blog, The Beautiful History.

Wrexham, Merthyr Town, and Colwyn Bay are the other three Welsh sides currently playing in the English league system. Since they are currently outside of the top four leagues they are under the jurisdiction of the Welsh FA but are eligible to play in the (English) FA Cup. One little fun fact: Chester FC’s Deva Stadium, the first British stadium to fulfill the Taylor Report’s safety recommendations following the Hillsborough disaster, is located in two countries! The pitch is in Wales, the club offices are in England (and the team plays in the English League system).

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://stadiums.football.co.uk/NonLeague/Deva-Stadium.htm

 

 

Outside of these well known clubs there are still other examples in Europe. Some stem from geography, others from politics. Liechtenstein is one of the world’s smallest countries and therefore has no domestic league. Teams from Liechtenstein compete for a national (Liechtensteiner) championship by playing in the Liechtenstein National Cup (The winners qualify for European competition), but they play their league football in the Swiss Football League. The most famous of these clubs is FC Vaduz, currently playing in Switzerland’s top flight, the Swiss Super League, but they cannot qualify for European competition via the Swiss League System.

 

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FC Vaduz Lift the 2013 Liechtensteiner Cup. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.uefa.com/memberassociations/association=lie/news/newsid=1947329.html

 

Despite having its own league (The Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio), the small nation of San Marino boasts one representative that plays in the third tier of Italian football, the Lega Pro: San Marino Calcio is the only Sanmarinese club to play in Italy.

 

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Probably Not a Coincidence That Club and Country Share the Same Colors. Image Courtesy of: http://www.taringa.net/posts/offtopic/18439109/Me-voy-a-San-Marino-y-te-cuento-porque.html

 

In Finland and Sweden there are also a few examples of teams plying their trade in leagues from across their borders—the Finnish side Lemlands IF currently play in the Swedish seventh tier as they are from the Åland Islands—an autonomous region of Finland with an ethnically Swedish population. For more examples from outside of Europe, please see Wikipedia’s page.

 

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Who Knew They Played Football Here? Image Courtesy Of: http://truthfall.com/oceanx-team-new-expedition-to-the-baltic-anomaly-sets-sail/aland-islands-baltic-sea/

 

 

In the Republic of Ireland there is the example of Derry City FC, a team that plays outside of their home country due to domestic political problems; the well-supported team currently play in the Republic of Ireland’s Premier Division but it wasn’t always so. Despite everything the very fact that the team still exists almost one hundred years after their founding in 1928 should give faith to those worried about Barcelona and Espanyol. For more than forty years the team played in the Northern Irish league, even winning a title in 1964-65, before political developments literally tore the team away from the city (Derry or Londonderry?).

 

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There is alot In a Name. Image Courtesy Of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derry/Londonderry_name_dispute#mediaviewer/File:Signpostinstrabane.JPG

 

At the start of the Troubles the republican areas around Derry City’s Stadium, Brandywell, fell victim to the violence and unionist teams did not want to visit. The Royal Ulster Constubulary, Northern Ireland’s police force, deemed the area around the stadium unsafe meaning that the team had to travel thirty miles away to play home matches in Coleraine. The arrangement lasted a year before dwindling crowds and increasing violence forced the club to apply for a return to Brandywell. The proposal went to a vote among fellow Irish league teams and it fell by a lone vote, forcing the team withdrew from the league on 13 October 1972 since they effectively had no home stadium.

From 1972 to 1985 the club suffered through “the wilderness years” without a senior club or a league to play in as their continuing applications to use Brandywell as a home ground were rejected. Many believe these rejections stem from the club’s identity as a nationalist/Catholic team coming from a nationalist/Catholic neighborhood of a mainly unionist city. With re-admission into the Northern Irish league looking unlikely the team applied for admission to the League of Ireland (the name of the Republic of Ireland’s league) and were accepted as semi-professional members of the first division in1985. Success came quickly and, in 1987, Derry City won promotion to the premier division where they have been ever since. The team has seen some success in the Republic’s football structure, winning the Premier League title in 1988-89 and 1997-97 as well as four FAI Cup titles in 1989, 1995, 2002, and 2006.

During the team’s time in Ireland financial struggles have been ever-present, with the team being expelled from the League of Ireland in 2009 due to large debts. The team has since been reformed as a “new” Derry City, entering the First Division in February 2010 and winning promotion back to the Premier League in October of the same year. Interestingly when the threat of bankruptcy loomed in 2003 it was, among others, FC Barcelona who came to the rescue by arranging a friendly so as to provide much needed cash for the struggling Derry City. Recently, on February 5 2015, the Londonderry Sentinel reported that the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Tom Elliot suggested that Derry City return to the Irish League in Northern Ireland. Carál Ní Chuilín, the Minister responsible for sports in Northern Ireland, stated “it is up to Derry City where they play, who they play with and who they play for.” It is certainly a development worth following in terms of the Republic’s relations with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

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The Derry City Faithful in Action. Image Courtesy Of: http://backpagefootball.com/an-aussie-abroad-derry-city-fc-my-new-favourite-club/65121/

An Interesting Derry City Documentary: 

The Most Famous Derry City Song: The Undertones-Teenage Kicks:

 

In the past we have also seen teams play in the leagues of different countries, mainly as a result of international political conflicts. Most famously Germany’s 1938 Anschluß with Austria led to the Austrian league’s incorporation into the German football structure until 1944; Rapid Vienna even won the German title in 1941!

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Rapid Vienna’s 1941 Title Lives on in Sepia After the Fall of the Reich. Image Courtesy Of: http://medienportal.univie.ac.at/presse/aktuelle-pressemeldungen/detailansicht/artikel/tagung-fussball-unterm-hakenkreuz/

For more details on teams from Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, and Luxembourg that joined the German football structure following the territorial irredentism of the German Reich during World War Two please see the RSSF’s stunningly detailed archive here.

Following the installation of a military junta in Greece the concept of enosis gained followers and in a bid to strengthen the union between Greeks in Cyprus with Greeks in Greece the champion of the Cypriot football league was promoted to the Greek first division from 1968 to 1974. Before the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 ended this practice Olympiakos Nicosia, AEL Limassol, EPA Larnaca, AC Omonia Nicosia, and APOEL Nicosia FC (UEFA Champions League participants in 2014-15) all appeared in the Greek football structure.

 

Most recently we have seen the effect of geopolitical conflict on football in Ukraine. Two top flight Ukrainian clubs from the Crimea—the territory recently annexed by Russia—SC Tavriya Simferopol and FC Sevastopol (the latter whose Ukrainian League match with Dynamo Kiev I watched in Kiev two summers ago) have been admitted into the Russian football structure’s third tier with different names (FC TSK Simferopol and FC SKChF Sevastopol, respectively) so as to, at least nominally, be different teams. A third team from the Crimea, FC Zhemchuzhina Yalta, formerly of the Ukrainian Second Division, was also admitted into the Russian third tier for the 2014-2015 season. On 22 August 2014 UEFA stated that “any football matches played by Crimean clubs organised under the auspices of the Russian Football Union (RFS) will not be recognised by UEFA until further notice.” It seems like football in the Crimea will stay in limbo for some time to come.

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Tavriya Simferopol Ultras Voice Their Opinion. Image Courtesy Of: http://z6.invisionfree.com/UltrasTifosi/ar/t28786.htm

The situation regarding Barcelona and Espanyol in Catalonia should solidify in the future, but—as can be seen—there are many other interesting cases throughout Europe that are worth keeping an eye on as well, even if they do not involve such famous clubs.

 

 

Greece’s Football Issues on the Field Parallel the Economic Issues Off the Field

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“Europe is self-destructing,” said Polyxeni Konstantinou, a 56-year-old public-sector worker voting in central Athens. “I voted for Syriza because I hope that it will help change the tragic circumstances that now govern Europe. Will Syriza be able to achieve everything it says? Probably not. But whatever it does achieve, then that will be good for Europe.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Mr. Konstantinou after the leftist party Syriza won national elections in Greece almost a month ago, sweeping to power behind the promise of ending austerity measures. Now the party is facing one of its first concrete decisions, and it involves…football. The “derby of eternal enemies” between Athens rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiakos on Sunday, February 22nd featured riots and a pitch invasion in addition to flares, fireworks, and chairs being thrown onto the field. Indeed, it gave the image of a Greece self-destructing. In the wake of the violent match (Panathinaikos won 2-1, by the way) a board meeting among the presidents of Super League clubs on Tuesday came to a premature ending, with Olympiakos president Evangelos Marinakis engaging his Panathinaikos counterpart Giannis Alafouzos in a verbal argument before it descended into violence. Apparently, Panathinaikos’ deputy president “Vasilis Konstantinou suffered a cut lip from a blow by one of [Mr.] Marinakis’s bodyguards” according to the Financial Times. Following the unprecedented off the field violence Super League president Giorgos Borovilos announced Wednesday, February 25 that the league would be suspended indefinitely.

That “indefinite” suspension—the third suspension for Greek football this year—did not last long, however. On Thursday 26 February, deputy sports minister Stavros Kontonis met with Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for a second time and backed down, announcing just a one week suspension: “Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to have Super League games played this weekend. The decision of the government regarding the combatting of violence is definitive and irrevocable. If the situation remains the same, there will be another suspension”. Of course many—including Greek football journalist Panos Polyzoidis—do not think the suspension will have any effect. As Mr. Polyzoidis said such violence has been common for the last 40 years in Greek football; it is more of an indication that the government has not—and still does not have—any concrete solution in mind. One cursory look at the history of football violence in Greece seems to confirm Mr. Polyzoidis’ opinion. Eight years ago in 2007 the league was suspended for two weeks following the murder of a Panathinaikos fan during an organized brawl with rival Olympiakos supporters in Athens involving 500 supporters. Back then the goal was to separate fan clubs—ultras, in a sense—from the teams. Clearly those security measures that were to be implemented had no real effect, and the onus will now be on the new Syriza government to prove concretely that they are the party with solutions, as was their platform while campaigning in the run up to elections. This won’t be easy when the government has more immediate economic problems to deal with: On the same day that the government backtracked from the indefinite suspension Syriza had to face their first anti government protests when 450 far-left protestors took to the streets and some clashed with police.

Stavros Kontonis, the deputy minister for sports, implied in comments to ANT1 TV that an electronic ticket scheme may be set up to combat violence in the stands. In Turkey this system has come under fire for being a tool to control political minded fans. In Greece, such a system would ostensibly be used to deter fan violence. But since the violence is not only confined to the stands—with even team presidents unable to control themselves—it seems that the problem is more deep-seated; fan groups have not been separated from the teams in the eight years since it was stated as a goal by then Sports Minister Giorgos Orfanos.

Due to Greece’s ongoing economic problems and high unemployment rate (hovering around 25%) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some men vent their frustrations in (and around) the stands during football matches. But it is important to note that high unemployment rates are not the main thing to blame for increased violence in the stadiums. As Eurostat confirms Greece’s unemployment rate was only 8.4 percent in 2007, the last time the government focused on eliminating stadium violence. This leads me to believe that endemic problems are at the root of Greece’s football violence (and economic issues). When the system is characterized by cronyism and governed by who one knows, it means that—more often than not—a blind eye is turned to the damaging actions of the real culprits. The fan groups are close to the teams who have no incentive to punish them for creating atmospheres that intimidate their opponents, just as many politicians are weary to punish tax-evaders who support them in elections. At the end of the day it comes down to winning at any cost. It will be up to the new government to face this head on but, as they saw Thursday, it may prove to be harder than expected both on and off the field.

 

The Fans Put on a Show Sunday–But How Much Longer Will the Show Go On? Olympiakos Manager Vitor Pereira Seems to be Wondering Himself in the Last Image:

Images Courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2964899/Panathinaikos-vs-Olympiacos-overshadowed-riots-fireworks-flares-chairs-thrown-pitch-bitter-Greek-rivalry.html

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AEK Athens 2006-2007, Away

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I wrote about AEK Athens earlier this year, as such it is fitting to put their shirt on this blog. I got it on my first visit to Thessaloniki in 2006, when I was—for some reason—unable to find either an Aris or PAOK shirt. The best part of this shirt to me is the Greek flag on the arm. It is a lightweight Adidas fabric sporting a design typical of the year, the LG and Diners Club sponsors are both printed on in a quality fashion. Once while wearing this shirt at home in Rhode Island someone called out to me in Greek. When I didn’t understand and told him I was part Turkish he just walked away—I suppose he didn’t understand the brotherhood that football is.

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Greek and Turkish Brotherhood in the Stands: Berkin Elvan and Alexandros Grigoropoulos Side by Side, Remembered by AEK Athens Fans

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Football can sometimes warm even the most calloused hearts—this story from Sunday March 16 is no exception. The picture below (courtesy of Ultra Style’s Facebook page) is worth a thousand words and more:

AEL-Triglia Rafina, Greek 3rd Division, 16032014

During a Greek third division match between AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina, AEK’s Ultras—Gate 21—hung a banner commemorating 15 year old Berkin Elvan of Turkey, a boy whose death on March 11th (which resulted from being hit by a tear gas canister in protests last summer: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/turkey-protests_n_4942943.html) sparked a new wave of protests across Turkey. AEK’s black and white banner put two faces together: Berkin’s face is alongside Alexandros Grigoropoulos’—another fifteen year old—who was fatally shot by Greek police in 2008 during riots in Athens.

Despite the macabre nature of the banner it is a unique look at football’s ability to bridge historical and political divides that the politicians have yet to succeed in doing. That the two fifteen year old boys lost their lives in conflicts that they were only spectators to is the sad result of modern governments that are perceived—by those living under them—to have failed to uphold the social contract. When governments act with impunity no one wins. These two preventable deaths attest to it in the darkest way.

AEK Athens are mired in the third division—the amateur ranks—after self relegating themselves to escape debt, an economic crisis on the small scale that mirrors the larger economic picture in Greece. Their crest is the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Byzantium. The “K” in AEK stands for “Konstantinoupolis”; the team was founded by Greek refugees who fled Istanbul during and after the Turkish war of independence (for a similar story please see my writing on PAOK Thessaloniki). Triglia Rafina share AEK’s black and yellow colors—the colors of the Byzantine flag. When taking the history of both AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina in question it is not shocking that a Turk, Berkin Elvan, should be remembered at an obscure third division football match in Greece. It may not be shocking, but it is certainly commendable.

Animosity between Turks and Greeks is long standing, stemming from years of Ottoman occupation and culminating in a brutal population exchange after the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. For years Greeks and Turks lived together under the Ottoman flag until the divisive ideologies of nationalism shattered the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century—indeed, Greek and Turkish cultures are almost indistinguishable (the foods, the coffee, the yoghurts). I myself have written before on the similarities and differences between Greece and Turkey; having grown up seven kilometers from Greece on Turkey’s Aegean coast I know how similar—yet different—these two cultures truly are.

Where the fortunes of both countries began to diverge was during the mid part of the 20th century. While both Greece and Turkey were taken under the West’s security blanket—via NATO—as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Greece (due to the perception of its being the birthplace of Western democracy) became a darling of the West. They were allowed to join the European Community (EC), the precursor to the European Union, in 1981 despite having a mainly agrarian economy. This ushered in unprecedented years of economic growth as European Community funds supported the development of industry and infrastructure throughout the country. In 2001 it culminated in the adoption of the Euro, a disastrous decision that takes us up to where we are today.

Turkey, on the other hand, was continually given small concessions and valued partnerships with both the EC and EU but was never given a truly viable path to membership. Indeed the divided island of Cyprus is one major roadblock—and a thorn in the side of Greco-Turkish relations since the 1960s. It is notable that it was current events that led to Greece’s abandoning their veto on Turkish membership into the EU following two destructive earthquakes that rocked both countries in 1999. It was similarities—this time the fact that both countries share similar geographies—that brought the two back together.

In 2014 it is different earth-shattering events in both countries that are bringing people together, and the AEK ultras are proof of this. It is no longer Greeks and Turks that are divided as nationalities, but Greek and Turkish individuals that are uniting in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and the increasingly reckless hubris of their politicians. Respect to Gate 21 for abandoning the old animosities between Greeks and Turks—if only for 90 minutes—and for bringing to the fore the similarities between these two nations that go beyond their cultures, addressing the real concerns of twenty-first century people on the streets regardless of where they were born or where they live, what passports they hold or what languages they speak.

As protests rage on in Turkey and instability rules in Ukraine it is times like these—more than ever—that humanity needs to unite in the face of chaos and governmental oppression. I commend the football fans for making their voices heard. Fenerbahce fans quoted eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/football-fans-from-turkey-greece-italy-remember-berkin-elvan-.aspx?pageID=517&nID=63703&NewsCatID=362) over the weekend: “Let no children die, let them play”. It is a sentiment I think we can all agree on, no matter what our politics are or which football team we support.

The Derby of Northern Greece: Aris Thessaloniki-PAOK Thessaloniki

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“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

–       Bill Shankly

The former Liverpool manager’s quote says a lot about the game I love. For many—including myself—football is a way of life. There is a special way that a football match can elicit emotions and feelings that need no description, things everyone can relate to in their own way. Feelings like seeing flashing red and blue lights reflecting off a puddle on the dark asphalt, or the feeling of snow falling all around you on an empty street in February. It is like standing on the shore and looking out at the waves, or staring up at a clear night sky in the middle of summer.  These are emotions that can take everyone back to a specific moment in their past, both the good moments and the not so good. The cruel nature of memories knows no discrimination.

One night in December I was flipping through the channels and came upon a football match on CNN International—the Match Against Poverty. The charity match, live from Brazil at an ungodly hour in Turkey, pitted two teams against one another—Ronaldo and friends against Zidane and friends. Watching the host of former greats on the battered pitch released a flood of memories, and even though the football on display wasn’t the best, watching it had a profound effect on me.

Watching the jerky movements of the former greats, many of whom had lost a step or two on their runs, took me back to the days I had watched them, the days when life had seemed so simple before the trials and tribulations of jobs and relationships, in short “Life”. Those were the days I wanted back and—if only for 90 minutes—I had a small taste of them.

The trademark bald head of Zinedine Zidane, the French Algerian star made infamous by a head butt in his final match, was there. For me, Zinedine Zidane was watching the World Cup final of France 98 at my grandmother’s house on a quiet summer night on the Aegean coast. Bebeto and Romario were both there, the stars of Brazil’s winning team in the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.  Bebeto and Romario take me back to that summer I truly caught the football fever, with everyone in Turkey calling me Tony Meola, after the goalkeeper for the US team. My dad always told me that the strange Italian name, with two vowels next to each other, was what explained the Turkish fascination with the name. I think they called me that because, as an American, I was only good enough to be stuck in goal when we played pick up games in the parking lot behind my house.

Two other Brazilians, Cafu and Djalminha, also made their appearances. Cafu is Italian soccer from the late nineties to the beginning of the new millennium, single handedly running the right flanks for AS Roma and AC Milan. Djalminha will forever be a fascinating name and the face of a Deportivo La Coruna that challenged the traditional greats of Spanish football by winning the championship in 2000. This championship came at the turn of the millennium, as I was starting my own collection of football shirts, and his long name was an interesting site on back of the classic blue and white shirts of Deportivo.

The Brazilian for me, however, that took me the farthest back was the troubled character of Mario Jardel, an example of how “Life” can affect us all, even professional football stars. In 2000, when I was 14, he came to Galatasaray in Turkey as the leading goal scorer in Europe and brought the European Super Cup to Istanbul. His clinical finishing was a joy to watch, and despite a lack of pace he always knew how to be in the right spot at the right time. And he always knew how to make the ball meet the net, no matter what. After Istanbul, however, he got homesick. A return to Portugal, where he had made his name, followed before his career declined. He had a weight problem and reportedly some marriage problems, and following Portugal he bounced around from England to Italy to Argentina to Brazil, then back to Portugal before Cyprus and then Australia. He then went from club to club in the Brazilian lower leagues, then back to Europe to Bulgaria where he played eight matches, and then returned to Brazil for his final act.

In this charity match his weight showed, and he was consistently late on runs and late on his touches, missing chances that would have been peanuts in his prime; the fact wasn’t lost on the announcers. It was strangely depressing to watch the once clinical striker looking like he would be better served in a weight loss clinic, and not on the pitch. Stumbling into the box, he receives a cross only to send it wide of the goal. Despite it all, it is watching matches like this that remind us of the trajectories of our own lives. Since first watching Mario Jardel calmly slip the ball into the Real Madrid net one August night in 2000, I now watch the same man struggle one December night twelve years on. Watching life played out on a green field a world away from me made me think: “I need to find a game and make more memories—and find a soccer shirt, naturally”.

In order to find “that game” (and shirt) I went where everyone goes for answers in this day and age. The Internet. Where could I find a memorable game? Luckily for me one month later was just such a game. On February 3 Aris Thessaloniki would be hosting PAOK Thessaloniki in the Derby of Northern Greece. It was the perfect local derby, as football rivalries are termed. Also, it was in Greece’s second city, away from the capital, which meant that along with a good dose of local football culture a good deal of local life would also be on display.  I decided to go, and see just how the derby would play out in the shadow of Greece’s crippling economic crisis in front of a population where more than one in four people are unemployed.

I knew the teams from the first time I had been to Thessaloniki six years ago. Aris of Thessaloniki, nicknamed “the yellows”, were founded in 1914. Named after the Greek god of war, Ares, Aris have had their moments of glory but—like their country—have seen better days (They’re currently battling against relegation to the second division). In total they have won three Greek championships and one Greek cup. Despite leaner years for the better part of the last three decades, the last five years have seen a rise in fortunes after shares were offered to fans—perhaps an odd coincidence considering Greece’s reputation as the birthplace of democracy—allowing them to vote in elections for the leadership of the club in exchange for some financial contributions. Currently, almost ten thousand fans are involved and this personal connection means that fans have a close relationship to their team. Of course, such a close bond between club and fans was cemented from the very foundation of the team—the club took the God of War’s name after the two Balkan wars pitting Greeks against Ottoman Turks, and is known as the team of the Greeks living in Thessaloniki since Ottoman times.

It is this clash of identities that forms the rivalry as Thessaloniki’s other team, PAOK, have a very different history, and one that their rivals like to remind them of. PAOK—or the Pan-Thessalonican Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans (or Panthessalonikeios Athlitikós Ómilos Kostantinopolitón)—was founded by Greek refugees who left Istanbul following the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish war of independence. The foundations of the club were laid in 1875 in Istanbul by the Greek community, but following the unfortunate events of the population exchange PAOK was officially formed in 1926 by the first players to emigrate to Thessaloniki. Following a merger with another local club in 1929, the team acquired its now (in)famous logo, the Byzantine symbol of a black two-headed eagle. The black on white symbolizing mourning for the home left behind in Istanbul, the eagle looking both east and west, back to the past in Asia Minor and into the future in Greece.

PAOK (a team that I admittedly have sympathies for) are known as the most famous team of Thessaloniki due to their successes on the field and their fan’s escapades off the field, both products of their intense rivalries with teams from Athens. It is a classic struggle between national center and national periphery. They have won two Greek championships and four Greek cups, and have had some famous victories over European clubs in continental competition. In Europe, however, PAOK have also left their mark in less glamorous ways. In the 1990s they were banned for five years following violence against Paris Saint Germain and their hooligan element has led to numerous stadium closures. For this reason, I was secretly happy that the match I would attend was not going to be in PAOK’s Toumba stadium.

I started the trip at the sprawling Istanbul bus terminal, letting my mind wander as I read the advertisements for destinations as close as the neighboring provincial towns of Kocaeli in Izmit and Malkara in Tekirdag to far flung international capitals like Vienna and Baku and everywhere in between. The possibilities were endless and my head was spinning but tonight there was only one destination and one coach—the 10pm bus by Metro to Thessaloniki.

I took my seat for the ten-hour ride and stared out into the darkness, watching the skyscrapers of Istanbul fly by as we glided down the E-5 trans-European motorway before exiting onto the smaller state highway winding through small Thracian country towns and towards the international border at Ipsala/Kipi. Like many others, the reason I enjoy international travel overland—despite the grueling nature of it—is the chance to internalize the movement. Four hours after leaving the bustling metropolis of Istanbul I was standing at a lonely border in the cold dark air at 2am, where small snowdrifts dotted the concrete between waiting tractor-trailers. After an hour on the Turkish side of the border waiting for the passport formalities—and watching the Turkish customs officials take (might I add, the four most suspicious people in my mind) off the bus for a random inspection, we hopped over the border bridge to Greece. The railings on the bridge were red-white-red before a red and white hut next to a matching blue and white hut marked the border; the railings became blue-white-blue. This was not the border of a red state and a blue state, but instead the border of Christianity and Islam, the European Union and (to many of the uninformed) the “Middle-East”. It’s hard to imagine Edirne as the “Middle-East”, but sometimes old prejudices die hard.

In Greece the same formalities were followed, passports were stamped and random inspections ensued; duty free alcohol and cigarettes were bought and we all huddled in a chill that can only mark the dead of night. After everything was completed the driver and his assistant herded us wandering sheep onto the bus and I attempted to grab some shut-eye during the final four hours of the journey. Sleeping was difficult, as can be expected on a coach, and I curiosity got the better of me as I peered out the windows at the Thracian towns of Alexandropoulis and Komotini. As I watched a group of four young girls walking home in Alexandropoulis at an ungodly hour, I was once again reminded of how close—yet how far—modern Turkey and Greece remain despite all that has come and gone. Personally, I chalk it up to the Christian and Muslim divide, but others can debate that topic further. My subject is the football.

The assistant’s call of “Selanik! Selanik,” roused me from my light sleep and with bleary eyes I peered out the windows into a bleak urban landscape on a grey morning. These were the colorless outskirts of Thessaloniki. I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the bus, getting directions to the local bus station for a ride into town while ignoring the taxi touts.  The graffiti on the highway overpass opposite the bus station told me I had come to the right place—“PAOK” was scrawled in black across the grey concrete.

80 Euro cents and one ride on bus number 8 took me to the train station and back in time—this had been my first view of Thessaloniki in December of 2006 when, as many storekeepers would tell me later, the city was alive.  I followed my map towards the main thoroughfare of Egnatia and towards my hotel, located north of the Aristotle square.

“Is this your first time in Thessaloniki?” asked the front desk in that familiar tone that front desks have, ready to give me all the information one small hotel map can provide.

“No, its my second time actually,” I explained. “But the first time I couldn’t do some things. I couldn’t get the shirts of PAOK and Aris. And I couldn’t go to a match. I’m hoping to see Aris-PAOK on Sunday.”

This was clearly not the expected answer, and it shown in the man’s eyes.

“So, you came here for the football?”

“The football.”

The football?” he repeated, unsure.

“The. Football.” I nodded, sure.

“Well, be careful in that case,” he laughed, before taking my bags and explaining the way to the stadiums. Apparently both PAOK’s Toumba and Aris’ Kleanthis Vikelidis—or Harilaou, as it is colloquially known from the eponymous neighborhood—were on the same bus line, 14. I nodded but knew I would prefer to walk. It’s the only way to take in a city and embed its geography into one corner of the mind for use in the future. It was a useful tactic since, after six years, I ended up coming back to Thessaloniki.

I left my bag at the hotel and had a quick “traditional” Greek breakfast of a coffee and cigarette, minus the cigarette. It was only one Euro. Rested up, I headed east down Egnatia, following my poor yet overpriced map past the landmarks of the ancient Arch of Galerius and the Macedonia University into what could be termed more suburban areas. These were the areas farther from the Aegean and Thessaloniki’s famously chic waterfront, where I envisioned the “real” people living. The multitude of empty shops and closed businesses were a sign of the times, as were the expressions on commuter’s faces at the bus stops and the empty bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label in the windows of Figaro Club. Strewn along the sidewalk were what looked like purple 500 euro notes—I stooped down and picked up one of the cleaner ones. Upon closer inspection I saw a picture of a girl in lingerie, looking seductively behind her while displaying her behind—an ad for Le Cabaret. I suppose that when times are tough sex sells well, and even better when made to look like cash money.

Stuffing the amusing advertisement in my back pocket I continued on towards Harilaou, noticing the rising floodlights of the Toumba stadium on the hill above me that marked my progress. After ten more minutes the lights of the Harilaou came into view at the end of the narrow boulevard I had been walking like the light at the end of a tunnel. As I approached I saw the colorful pictures of the fans displayed on the stadium walls, but my eye immediately went to the Aris sign missing the “s”. It had been some rough times indeed. I followed the signs underneath the stand towards the Aris megastore, in order to find the jersey and tickets, half of my mission for the day.

In the store I picked out a yellow Aris shirt made by the American manufacturer Under Armour and the size that would fit me had to be taken off a mannequin as the store was conspicuously under-stocked. I supposed 40 Euros was a steep price in an era of 26 percent unemployment. As the lady heat pressed number 20 and Gianniatis (in Greek characters, interestingly) onto the shirt I decided to inquire about tickets.

“Were should I sit?” I asked, knowing that that is half the battle of being safe at a derby. You don’t want to be in the heat of the action and get caught up in extra curricular activities, but you don’t want to be so far from it that you don’t feel the atmosphere and get the adrenaline pumping. The Harilaou was sufficiently compact enough that all four stands are intimately close to the field, so I wasn’t too concerned. Still, intelligence is intelligence.

“Bring a mask for the gas,” she said getting straight to the point, “and do not sit in sections one or three. There can be some….situations there.”

I understood that much.

“Ok, so where is safer?”

“Section seven is good,” she said. I assumed it was the covered stand she was referring to, since generally the most expensive tickets—and thus less violence prone fans—are located in the covered stand while the more fanatical fans congregate behind the goals. You never know when it will rain, after all.

I thanked her for the advice and after paying for the shirt went back outside in order to get the tickets. The signs directed me towards a ticket booth that was closed, but there was a piece of paper taped to the iron. After matching the word for ticket from the booth to the word on the paper, I made out the word “ARIS CELL” in English characters and reasoned that the tickets would be sold at the ARIS CELL store. Indeed they were. In line were other young men who looked my age, including one with a girlfriend—which reassured me, and when it was my turn I asked for “section seven”. I gave the girl working a twenty Euro note, and she gave me the ticket along with a second warning to bring a mask for the gas. It was clear that it would be an interesting derby.

Walking outside, the man with the girlfriend asked me where I was from, and I told him.

“You came here just for the match?” he asked incredulously, as his girlfriend smiled shyly.

“Yes—I like going to derby matches,” I said trying to make myself sound credible before asking, “Are you from here?”

“No, Mykonos.”

“So you came here from Mykonos for the match?”  I replied, and his laugh told me that we were both equally ridiculous. Before parting ways I got my third warning.

“Have fun—and bring a mask.”

I thanked him and left wondering where on earth I would find a mask. I hadn’t seen any carpenters around, neither was this China and there was no SARS outbreak.

Bright yellow Aris bag in hand—and looking like a very easy target for any rival football fans—I retraced by steps to where I had seen the turn off for the Toumba stadium on my way to Harilaou. I headed right where I thought I should and headed up hill, into the Toumba district. The black 4-1 and matching PAOK scrawled on the shutters of a closed newsstand told me I was on the right track—it was the score by which PAOK had defeated Aris during their first meeting in September.

I followed the streets as if in a maze, turning left and right in the shadows of towering residential apartment blocks. I noted to myself how Greece had truly been spared the experiences of the Iron Curtain. These towering blocks were concrete, for sure, but unlike their counterparts in much of post-communist Eastern Europe there were small shops, driveways, and colorful awnings on the ground floors of these apartment blocks, giving the neighborhood a quiet residential feel in the (Western) European sense, a sense that is lacking even in Turkey.

Once free of the maze I found myself on the corner of a rather large boulevard, parallel to the main ring road. Between these two highways stood the towering concrete mass that is the Toumba Stadium. On this warm winter day—feeling more spring than winter in Greece—the Toumba looked less intimidating, especially due to the presence of a small farmer’s market in the parking lot. Small trucks were parked all around with crates of vegetables and tables of olive oil in front of them, as customers strolled around taking advantage of the spring weather. I ignored the organic goods on sale and headed straight to the store, purchasing a black Umro PAOK shirt, numbered 28 with Katsouranis in Greek lettering written across the back in white lettering. After completing my mission I stepped outside to examine the stadium and check out one of my favorite things: Football related graffiti.

In contrast to the yellow and black smiley face marked “Aris LSD” at the Harilaou, in front of PAOK was a grey and black unsmiling face with devil horns, below which was written “Welcome too [sic] Toympa [sic]”. The two clubs were indeed in stark contrast.  Nearby was a mural of the skyline of Thessaloniki with “PAOK West Side” written above it. This was the PAOK’s claim over the city’s geography, I would see a similar claim from Aris before the match.  “RABBIT [sic] WIEN DEAD” and “FUCK RAPID” were to be seen occasionally, a violent reference to the UEFA Europa League qualifier between the two sides back in August that knocked PAOK out of Europe, and cost them thousands in sponsorship dollars as well. It was, clearly, a bitter blow to the team’s pocketbook and to the supporter pride.  Other murals conveyed the more common messages of “Ultra Violence PAOK” and “PAOK Hooligans Fuck The Police” while a particularly well done piece read“SALONICA CREW”, with the middle of each word separated by a black on white version of the club’s two-headed eagle badge which contained, at the center, a skull.

The most striking—and most chilling—piece of art, however, was a lesson in the geopolitics of football. It was a mural of a top-hatted gravedigger, gaining leverage with the front foot while jamming a shovel into the ground in front of a mound of dirt. On either side of him were two crosses, beneath him—in the “ground”—was written “PAOK GROBARI” in large letters, both words separated by the smaller message “Orthodox Brothers”. In the store I had noticed the presence of the PAOK badge side by side with the badge of another black and white colored club, Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade. Grobari is a nickname for Partizan’s fans meaning “undertaker” in Serbian; it was given by their arch-rivals Red Star Belgrade, themselves friendly with PAOK’s other main rival, Olympiakos Piraeus of Athens. It seemed that these two “Orthodox Brothers” had a close relationship as some teams in Europe have. Indeed, at the match it was possible to see the flags of Borussia Dortmund from Germany and of Bulgaria (for the club Botev Plovdiv, I reasoned later) in the Aris stands. These two clubs have a good relationship with Aris, since they all share the same electric yellow and jet black colors.

After the taking in the “art gallery” I decided to hop into a nearby bar to see what people’s views on the match were. It was just one in the afternoon, but there was a small crowd drinking coffee, ouzo, and beer. I took a beer and sat down to rest, munching on the complimentary potato chips. The barman, noticing my yellow Aris bag, laughed.

“You should hide that around here!”

“Yeah, I figured as much. But look—I got a PAOK shirt as well!” I explained, pulling out my black PAOK bag. At that, one of the patrons (who had been drinking ouzo) came over, interested.

“I came here for the football match.” I explained and watched him—literally—do a double take. “What will happen?” I asked, looking to engage the barman and customer.

Looking at me the barman nodded slowly as if to reassure me, “Aris, Aris.”

Just then the ouzo drinker butted in.

“PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!” He started yelling, thrusting his fist in the air with each mention of his team’s name. “He is an Aris man,” he said nodding toward the bar, “but he doesn’t remember what happened in the fall. PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!”. We would see on Sunday night, around 930pm, who would be proved right.

That night I decided to go out in Thessaloniki to sample the city’s vibrant nightlife, said to be some of Europe’s best. I took in some quick souvlaki at the local spot To Etsi where my PAOK bag got a respectful thumbs-up from the cook, before heading to the Partizan bar, a suitably hip spot sporting a Run DMC quote on the wall. After a couple Jim Beams and cokes I headed down to the famed Thessaloniki water front.  There over a Jack Daniels and coke I was told that PAOK was sure to win. “Tomorrow will not be a game. It will be slaughter. Do you know what happened last time? Four to one. But it doesn’t matter. By six I will have drunk so much ouzo that I won’t care who wins!” said one particularly confident fan, who told me to come to see the same fixture next year at the Toumba. I told him I would certainly try. After the PAOK fans cleared out I asked the bar-tender his thoughts, while he offered to take a shot with me, on the house. Such is Greek hospitality.

“I don’t care—I’m an Iraklis fan.” He said simply, detached from the derby. His position, however, was not enviable. Iraklis were the city’s third team, currently mired in the second division playing to mostly empty seats in the cavernous seventy-thousand capacity Kaftanzoglio stadium. Like so many he held hopes for better days. I only held hopes for tomorrow.

Match Day

I walked down Thessaloniki’s dark avenues towards the Harilaou.  At six thirty I saw the floodlights in the distance, and I felt a feeling calling me. It was excitement and apprehension, caution and reckless abandon all at once. As I got closer a low din got gradually louder and the roads got congested as my nostrils started burning from an old familiar sour smell. It was tear gas, and I hadn’t brought the mask. I passed the first row of riot police and found myself on a pedestrianized street next to the stadium in the midst of a carnival atmosphere. It seemed that I had avoided the worst, only the lingering scent of the gas remained in the air as a reminder. I followed the crowds of fans clad in yellow Aris shirts, past street vendors selling souvlaki and beers. I grabbed myself an Amstel from one of the trucks and marveled at the palpable excitement; watching the fans, a few sober and many drunk, I noted how many had come with significant others. In Turkey, women tend to avoid the stadium like it’s the plague. Here, however, there were a fair number of the fairer sex, and it added to the carnival atmosphere. Such excitement need not be gendered. It was a derby and it was also a party, a celebration of a city’s identity.

After milling around in the streets amongst the supporters I decided to head into a small café named “Aris”. Inside were throngs of yellow and black clad supporters swigging Amstels, their eyes glued to a TV screen showing highlights of other matches from the weekend. On the walls were posters for various Aris supporter clubs. One, marked S3 Moydania, was a graphic of huddling players with “United We Stand 2013” written on it while another said “Super 3 Neaopolis: 1998-2013 15 Years By Your Side”. Next to these was a Liverpool clock, with the familiar dictum “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Its presence was strange in an Aris bar, but I saw it as a monument to football fans everywhere, one of those unspoken ties that unites us all as supporters wherever we are and whoever we support.

As the clock neared 7:30 and kickoff I headed to gate nine, passing through two separate lines of nervous riot police, standing behind scarred plastic shields and holding their lines. Surprisingly, and unlike in Turkey, there was no pat down at the entrance and I climbed straight up the stairs and found myself in the cauldron that is the Harilaou. Periodic loud booms that sounded like cannons echoed through the stadium as the fans rained sound bombs onto the pitch, and I felt that old familiar feeling of football in my head. I felt drunk, not from Amstels but from the crowd. It felt like the streets of Cairo, with so many colors on display and so many noises flying in my ear that I could barely get my bearings. I stumbled up the steep stairs to find a place to stand in the aisles—this was a sold out match. I found a small space barely enough for one man to stand behind a few young kids with punk haircuts, shaved on the bottom and long on the top.

From here I had a good view as the stands behind both goals lit up in a sea of smoke and red air, the fans holding their flares to light up the February night.  There was chanting in a language I couldn’t understand, but everyone was in unison. The stand opposite mine then unfurled a large yellow banner, covering the length of the terraces. Through the smoke I could make out “Super 3 Eusmos”, and below it the symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower—the Byzantine fortification made into a prison during Ottoman rule. On the brick of the tower a large Aris badge had been drawn and the Aris fans had claimed the city’s geography as their own. It was a tactic I had seen used across Europe, just as Legia Warsaw placed their badge above the Soviet era Palace of Culture in graffiti on Warsaw underpasses and as Galatasaray fans used the Bosphorus bridge as their own during pre-game choreography in the Istanbul derby with Fenerbahce earlier in the year.

The pageantry continued and the buzz was deafening as Aris’s players took the field. The buzz turned to whistles with boos and flares raining down onto the pitch as PAOK’s players stepped onto the grass. They stepped gingerly, avoiding the array of projectiles that were falling all around their lonely figures. There were no PAOK fans in attendance, so as to lower the chances of violence.

The referee’s whistle that announced kickoff was a distant sound, drowned out by the Aris chants and the random booms of sound bombs. I could barely see the cameraman five feet ahead of me in the smoke, and the field was a grey blur. The green of the grass was nowhere to be seen. The haze soon turned into a daze for Aris and their fans, as PAOK’s Stefanos Athanasiadis slipped one into the Aris goal and silenced the home crowd in the second minute of play. It became so quiet that you could hear a pin drop—and the plastic lighters raining down onto the pitch. The PAOK celebrations had a surreal feeling, eleven men celebrating against, what seemed like, the world. After the initial shock, which must have been similar to getting under cold water when expecting warm water in a morning shower, the Aris fans picked up again in a bid to rally their players.

Aris’ rally worked and, just three minutes later, Aris’ Spanish striker David Aganzo hit a nice left footed volley to equalize at 1-1. The flares went off again at either end of the stadium and the Aris fans held a tune that, although I couldn’t understand the words, sounded quite similar to what I’ve heard at Turkish league matches—Hepiniz orospu cocuğusunuz—You’re all sons of whores.  Once things were back on level terms both teams started going at one another ineffectually, the pressure made cool decision-making difficult and it seemed as if the players were playing on full emotions only.  It was now quieter than before, but it proved to be the calm before the storm.  On the twenty-sixth minute PAOK’s Abdoul Camara hit a volley squarely into the Aris net that put the visitors up again, this time 2-1. The Aris fans were beside themselves and after a PAOK yellow card in the 27th minute profanity rained down from all around me. “Pushti”, “Malakas” and “Bastardi” were understandable enough, but my favorite was the special epithet reserved for PAOK, “Turki”. I hoped no one would know that there was at least one Turk amongst them, standing quietly in the aisle frantically scribbling into a notebook.

The half ended like that, with Aris going into the locker room down by one to their city rivals. The kids with anarchist haircuts in front of me took to drinking beer and rolling cigarettes in their hands while discussing what had happened in the first forty-five minutes. All over fans were looking to catch their breath and prepare for the next forty-five, while others spat words at one another, I was unsure whether their criticisms were directed at their own team or at their rivals.

After fifteen minutes things got underway again, but the atmosphere had become more subdued. For the first fifteen minutes of the second half it was almost as if Aris had resigned themselves to another loss in a season that has seen many. Urgency began to creep in as we got into the last half hour, and when a PAOK handball wasn’t given in the 65th minute a small fire started behind the western goal. The Aris keeper didn’t seem too concerned, and neither did the fireman who calmly ambled over, took a cursory look at the burning fabric on the fence, and then turned around to walk away without doing anything. Only after the match did I see pictures on the internet—they were burning a PAOK flag that had been hung up on the fencing.

The turning point came in the 70th minute when a red card came out to Dimitrios Konstantinidis for a push in the box. Aris had been attacking the goal in front of their hardcore support, and the fans began waving their black and yellow flags frantically. The goal scorer David Aganzo would be given the responsibility, and he stood behind the ball with the hopes of half a city on his shoulders. At thirty-two the journeyman striker had seen a lot since starting his career at Real Madrid. Although never in the plans of the European giants, he did earn a Champions League winner’s medal after appearing in one match during the 1999-2000 Champions League for the Galacticos. Since then he had been all over the Spanish Leagues and even to Jerusalem. All that had to be behind him now though, as he stared down PAOK’s Premier League pedigreed Cameroonian keeper Charles Itandje. In the end, Aganzo stepped up and deftly put the ball past the outstretched arms of Itandje’s six foot four frame and into the back of the net.  The stand behind the goal went wild and a pyro show ensued, red smoke rising into the night. Aganzo’s strike had settled the matter, and the score, at 2-2.

He last twenty minutes played out uneventfully, it was almost as if both teams had worn themselves out and neither wanted to risk the draw by putting too many men forward. Aris couldn’t risk a home defeat to their arch-rivals, and for PAOK a point was a point—that would also save them the blushes.  As the final whistle neared I ducked out to look for a Souvlaki sandwich, since the smells had been wafting into the stadium for the last ten minutes. I found what I needed and, satiated, dodged the police cordons again to look for a taxi. I had thirty minutes to make the bus back to Istanbul.

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Kaftanzoglio Stadium, Thessaloniki, Greece – Iraklis Thessaloniki FC

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