Since the birth of Western civilisation, Athens has been one of the most culturally significant cities on the planet. That sentiment rings particularly true in the sporting arena, thanks primarily to Greece’s central role in Olympic Games history, however football has been king in this region for over a century and the fan culture easily ranks amongst the world’s best.
In fact, despite boasting a very modest domestic league, the allure of Greek football carries a worldwide appreciation. Spectators across the globe are fascinating by the often fanatical scenes witnessed amongst the terraces, especially when it comes to the Derby of the Eternal Enemies in the capital.
It seems almost implausible that this could be the case considering the nationwide ban on away fans. Yet, somehow, the enthusiasm of Greek supporters is so strong that its attraction still shines bright.
Passion for football has been a huge part of Greek culture ever since the sport was first introduced. In November 1966, the foundations of fan culture in the country would be changed forever as loyal Panathinaikos fans would launch the longest-running Greek supporters group. From that moment on, the Gate 13 ultras have been the beating heartbeat of Athens.
Football fanatics were commonplace long before the emergence of ultra groups and that was certainly true for Panathinaikos, who have held an ongoing battle with arch-rivals Olympiacos ever since the latter was founded in 1925.
Whilst the Greens historically represented the middle classes, their Piraeus-based nemesis was originally a club symbolic of the working class. Whilst those barriers aren’t as evident now, especially as the nation’s two biggest teams garner support from all over the country, the historical hostilities still provide a furnace of hate between the bitter rivals. Even now, Panathinaikos fans taunt their adversaries by labelling them “bastards”, suggesting that their mothers had slept with sailors who had visited the nearby port.
Violence between the two clubs can be attributed way back to the 1930s, and physical altercations have been a regular feature ever since. Those indifferences off the pitch led to the term Derby of the Eternal Enemies being coined to describe the ongoing war of attrition and the fire has only grown over the decades. The emergence of organised fan groups has certainly played a key part of that.
While Gate 13 didn’t officially begin its operation until 1966, the group had essentially been running for almost a decade previously. Like-minded fanatics would congregate outside gate of the club’s Apostolos Nikoladis Stadium to organise away trips. By the time the group had gained its first headquarters, their name was already widely acknowledged by fans and players alike.
Unfortunately, less than a fortnight later, tragedy would strike as one of Gate 13’s founding members died in a fatal bus crash. That sad event was the only obstacle facing the group, though, as 1967 saw the start of a seven-year right-wing dictatorship of Greece. This period brought an abrupt end to various supporter groups, including a temporary discontinuation of Gate 13. However, that termination didn’t last long and the gang grew stronger by the year. In 1971, they followed the team all the way to Wembley as Panathinaikos became the first Greek club to reach a European Cup final.
Although they lost 2-0 to an Ajax side that would go on to complete a hat-trick of success over the next two seasons, Panathinaikos and Gate 13 had earned their place on the football map. While the club and its phenomenal fan base continue to make waves on the European stage, it is on the domestic scene that they acquire their global notoriety.
As is often the case in Eastern and Southern Europe, the Panathinaikos club extends far beyond football alone. In fact, the Shamrock boasts over 40 teams lifting dozens of trophies. Naturally, the Gate 13 shows its support across multiple platforms in a public gesture that underlines the feeling that affiliation to everything Green runs deep within their veins.
Gate 13 is one family and following the club is fundamental to the identity of its members. That feeling of unity is highlighted by an impressive headquarters, which boasts a bar, gym and recording studio. Nevertheless, it is the match day experience that makes the Panathinaikos ultras really tick – whether it’s football or one of the other various sports.
At a time when away fans aren’t permitted into football stadiums, the lesser known sports have become a hotbed for potential violence, especially when the eternal enemies collide. In 2007, one Panathinaikos fan was killed during organised clashes before a volleyball game, which resulted in all sport in Greece being cancelled for two weeks, whilst there have been a number of additional confrontations at basketball games in recent years. However, it is on the football pitch where the hatred reaches its optimum level.
Fighting between fans of Panathinaikos and Olympiacos outdates the associated ultra firms by decades. However, the brutality hasn’t certainly stepped up a notch in recent years and the Athens derby was key to the decision of banning all away fans.
It would be wrong to blame the Eternal Enemies, though, as violence on the terraces and in the streets is writhe across Greece. A 2011 FIFPro task force cited the country as a hotspot for fan trouble. Ultimately, when the passions for an affiliated club run so high, there is always going to be a potential for brutality.
That was highlighted perfectly in May 2014 as scenes exploded in a playoff match between Panathinaikos and PAOK. Travelling fans were permitted into the Apostolos Nikoladis Stadium as this wasn’t a regular season fixture and problems amongst both sets of supporters saw the game delayed for over half an hour. Chair, flares, and other missiles were thrown towards rival supporters whilst some fans even spilt onto the pitch. Just weeks earlier, the Greek Cup final had been marred by events of a not too dissimilar nature.
The target isn’t always opposing fans. An Athens derby in March 2012 was eventually abandoned after hours of antipathy from the Panathinaikos crowd towards local police. The problems had started outside the ground long before kick-off as officials attempted to clamp down on potential trouble, but their overzealous action antagonised the ultras and that aggression carried on into the stadium.
Inside the ground, home fans continued to voice their displeasure. Football is an extension of life to these people and it penetrates every aspect of their existence. Standing on the terraces, particularly on a big derby day, offers a chance to release anger. Considering the economic climate of Greece at this time, it is perhaps no surprise that this game erupted into pure bedlam.
Mass riots saw the second half delayed for over an hour. Then, with seven minutes remaining, the problems resurfaced as anarchy descended on the stadium, resulting in the match being abandoned. Panathinaikos would be given a five-point penalty as a result and forced to play four fixtures behind closed doors. The images of pandemonium inevitably had a much longer lasting impact on the minds of football enthusiasts the world over. While you cannot necessarily condone the violence, it does underline that Gate 13’s passion for their club is absolutely breathtaking.
The truth is violence plays a big part in the ultra movement and that is definitely the case in Greece. That adds to the magnetism of football in the Balkans state, but that main driving force behind a global appreciation is the passion. It could be argued that Panathinaikos personify that better than any other club.
In most countries, the lack of an away following would obliterate any atmosphere. However, the Gate 13 are extremely vocal at every match and their energetic choreographies and tifo displays rank amongst the best in Europe. If travelling supporters were allowed into the Apostolos Nikoladis, it would be a truly intimidating experience.
The atmosphere and fan culture surrounding Greek football is so uniquely fascinating that it has to be considered as one of the best. The fact Gate 13 stands out from that crowd is a glowing reference to just how special this set of supporters really are.
Just a few weeks after those incidents in the 2012 derby, the Vardinoyiannis family agreed to sell 54.75 percent of the club to a collective known as the Panathinaikos Alliance. This made the Athens club just the second in Greece to become a supporter-owned club.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman