A Tale of One City: Athens

A Tale of One City: Athens

This feature is a part of A Tale of One City

Hyperbole is a common feature throughout the football world, from self-effacing irony to full-blown delusion. As the first torrential downpour of this year threatened to swamp the north-west of England, the faithful Moss Lane supporters could be heard chanting “And we’re Altincham, Altrincham FC! We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen!” Heartening as it was to see a flowing brand of football produce a stirring 4-1 defeat of local rivals Chester, the claim to that title from a team struggling near the bottom of the fifth tier of English football was, of course, not meant to be taken literally.

At the other end of the scale, Ricardo Geromel, managing partner of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, brazenly attempted to convince the media at Ronaldo’s unveiling as a minority owner last week that “the Strikers have a legacy and a history that few clubs around the world can match.” Teófilo Cubillas, Gerd Müller, Gordon Banks and George Best did all turned out for the club in the NASL’s 1970s and 80s heyday, but they have never won a national top-flight title, so there seems little grounds for the 27-year-old Brazilian businessman’s grandiose statement.

When it comes to football in Athens, however, lavish descriptions of achievements are certainly not exaggerated. Olympiacos have been crowned league champions 44 times to Panathinaikos’s 20 and AEK Athens’ 12; in fact, the title has only ever left the capital six times, the last occasion coming before Sir Alex Ferguson had won the first of his 38 trophies with Manchester United. From riots to stadium closures, petrol bombs to stricken mangers, it is the intensity and hatred of the Derby of the Eternal Enemies that focuses the attention more than any other fixture in Greece.

Panathinaikos were established on 3 February 1908 by Giorgios Kalafatis, who broke away from the Panellinios Gymnastikos Syllogos after the athletic club disbanded the football team. Along with forty other athletes, they founded the Podosferikos Omilos Athinon – Football Club of Athens – and invited Oxford University graduate John Cyril Campbell to coach them. Two years later, a dispute with the directors led to the grander name of Panellinios Podosferikos Omilos – Pan-Hellenic Football Club – and so began their ethos of superiority and success.

Like in many overseas countries at the turn of the century, football was not a pursuit of the masses, but of the privileged classes. At this time, the strategic port of Piraeus was still a separate city geographically from Athens, and the ideologies of the two locations were displayed in the battle between the two strata of society. Piraeus became crucial to Athenian naval domination in the 5th century BC, and despite being ransacked by Sparta, Venice, Rome and the Ottomans, and suffering a millennia-and-a-half of disuse and decline, the port developed a battling mentality and maintained a working-class atmosphere. To further protect her interests at sea, Athens built The Long Walls, vast 8 metre high structures extending 6km from her own city to surround Piraeus and protect her route to the port.

The historical relationship between the two areas of what is now a single agglomeration mirrors the antagonism between the supporters of both clubs, although in recent years the traditional roles have been reversed somewhat. Over two millennia ago, it was Athens that claimed all the glory and Piraeus that constantly battled for survival. After Panathinaikos had claimed six Panhellenic Championships, the unofficial precursor to the Hellenic Football Federation-run league established in 1927, the self-made Andrianopolis family decided to set up a new athletic association to instil a sense of pride into Piraeus.

From the beginning, the club represented a broad spectrum of the local community, with a naval officer, an army officer, the director of the post office, a stockbroker, notaries and merchants all forming the initial membership. The naval officer, Notis Kamperos, proposed the name Olympiacos “to suggest power, athletic strength, ethos, noble rivalry, dominance and ultimately the Olympic ideal”.

As if to further prove the collective nature mentality of the club, five Andrianopolis brothers formed the forward line in the early years, while their father Andreas’s commercial business provided the backing required to maintain it. Immediately moving into the Neo Phaliron Velodrome that had been built for the inaugural modern Olympic Games in 1896, they set about dominating Greek football by winning six of the first nine official league titles and garnering a passionate following from the working classes.

Initially, the relationship between the two clubs was warm. When Olympiacos were expelled from the Hellenic Championship in 1928 following a dispute over the distribution of money and power, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens walked out in solidarity. These three clubs attracted the vast majority of support in the Athens/Piraeus area and felt they deserved a greater control over the running of the national championship; as a result they formed the Podosfairikes Omades Kentrou (POK) – Central Football Teams.

During their one-year exile from HFF-sanctioned competition, they organised their own friendly championship including other smaller teams, and held invitational tournaments involving the best sides from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia – a tradition they continued right through to the 1960s.

The first official confrontation between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos set the tone on the pitch rather differently, however. Still to this day a record score between the two, the high society Greens thrashed Olympiacos 8-2 in June 1930, setting the tone on the field of play. It became clear that with the off-pitch cooperation through POK that the gap between the elite few and the rest was only going to widen, which concentrated the rivalry to even greater levels.

As with many continental football teams, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are both part of enormous multi-sport organisations that compete at basketball, handball, volleyball and athletics amongst others. This amplifies the already feverish atmosphere that surrounds every encounter between the two, as there is virtually no let-up in the relentless battle to constantly outdo each other.

Since the 1960s, organised fan groups have formed to provide themselves with an outlet on match days. Panathinaikos’s famed Gate 13 ultras united many independent groups under one umbrella in 1966, the year before the military junta took control of the country. This was the era of the ‘Greek economic miracle’ when state and foreign investment in first and second sector industries such as construction, tourism and shipping produced the second highest rate of growth worldwide after Japan, while exports grew at an annual rate of over 12 percent.

This phenomenal transformation of the country’s post-war financial condition papered over the horrific rates of inflation that touched 20 percent, rampant tax evasion and an alarmingly swift expansion of the rich-poor divide. These harsh conditions for the average man, coupled with the Junta’s strict crackdown on public violence and freedom of speech, resulted in the disappearance of many of the groups that had only just sprung up around the country.

On 17 June 1964, the great rivals had been drawn against each other in the semi-final of the Greek Cup at Panathinaikos’s Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium. Since the early 1950s, foreign referees had been flown in to officiate these electric derby contests, and on this day the bald-headed Dutchman who bravely stepped into the breach was faced with a cauldron of vitriol and bile.

When fans in England were still wielding wooden rattles, rosettes and flat caps, the Greek crowd were hanging over the balconies, cursing each other and defacing the pitch side advertising boards. A tense match was violently fought on the pitch with players from both sides stretching the limits of the permitted shoulder-barge, although amazingly there were no red cards shown, despite three dismissals in the first half of the abandoned cup final two years earlier.

As the tie was somehow permitted to continue into extra time following a goal apiece after 90 minutes, and fans began sporadically spilling out onto the pitch, littering the playing surface with any rubbish they could lay their hands on, it became clear the crowd was spoiling for a battle. Before long the meagre police force ringing the pitch were being forced back by the fired-up mob armed with ripped up boards set on fire, and the game became secondary to survival as players first gathered in the centre circle before being shepherded off down the tunnel. Rival supporters scaled the flimsy walls separating them and ran amok as the security forces had no hope of reigning in the unleashed adrenalin, as smoke billowed out of the stadium.

It was in this context that the dictatorship set their strict regime on football supporters, as the cup was cancelled that year over the fans’ shocking behaviour. The fierce enmity that had developed until this point meant that no trifling matter of military rule could stamp out the fervour that was by now entrenched in the psyche of the followers of both clubs.

The goldfish bowl environment of Greek football meant that another avenue would be needed to escape the downward spiral of the sport. On the domestic front, Olympiacos had totally dominated for thirty years up until the end of the 1950s, winning 15 of the 22 league championships contested in that period, including six in a row during the 50s. Panathinaikos had only won three, but after six titles in the 60s including the only unbeaten campaign in Greek top flight history in 1963/64, and their first league and cup double in 1968/69, they began to set their sights further afield.

They had competed in the 1960 edition of the European Cup, but it was the arrival of The Galloping Major Ferenc Puskás as manager in 1970 that heralded their most successful continental campaign ever. In his first season, Puskás led To Trifylli – The Shamrock – to the European Cup final at Wembley against Johan Cruyff’s Ajax where they lost 2-0, but in doing so recorded the best performance of any Greek club in Europe. For all the Olympiacos domination of domestic football, they have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage of continental competition.

For any club with normal expectations, 10 league titles in 37 years is not a bad return, but for Olympiacos it represents the worst drought in the club’s history. From 1960 to 1997, the Piraeus club watched as AEK and Panathinaikos enjoyed their own success, winning nine and 15 championships, respectively. Far worse than suffering a relatively poor run of silverware in this period, however, was the worst tragedy to befall Greek football.

On 8 February 1981, Olympiacos faced AEK Athens in a league match in front of a full house in their Karaiskakis Stadium. A 6-0 thrashing of their local rivals set them up for a successful league and cup double, but as the final whistle blew, disaster was unfolding inside gate seven. The exit was locked, and after one fan tripped amid the stampede to celebrate on the streets, dozens more were sent crashing down the steps as wave after wave crushed forward without realising the full extent of how many lay underfoot. Nineteen fans died at the stadium, with two more succumbing to fatal injuries in hospital, while at least 55 were seriously injured. Olympiacos’s leading ultras are named Gate 7 in memory of the event, the darkest and most tragic day in the country’s sport.

Two years before, the Greek Championship had been professionalised, but the running of Olympiacos in the 1980s was anything but professional. No fewer than 14 managers were appointed in these years, and although there were four consecutive league titles at the beginning of the decade, the corrupt presidency of George Koskatos nearly bankrupt the club. Koskatos was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1989 for embezzling $200 million from the Bank of Crete, which he had bought in 1984, and left Olympiacos in a dire state.

Their worst ever league campaign came in 1988 when they finished eighth, despite having been crowned champions the year before, and in 1986 they were humiliated by The Shamrock in the cup final 4-0; it could have been even worse as Greek legend Dimitrios Saravakos also missed a penalty.

After the newly-elected Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis facilitated the handover of the club’s control to telecommunications billionaire Socrates Kokkalis by agreeing a favourable deal to pay off debts incurred from the fraudulent reign of Koskatos, things began to slowly improve for Olympiacos. It took until 1997 for them to break their longest run without a championship, but since then they have won every title bar two. It had been a long road for a club that had started with ambitions to be run for the fans – one of the clubs absorbed into the original incarnation had been the Piraeus Fans Club in the early 1920s.

Giorgos Vardinogiannis had purchased Panathinaikos on the advent of professionalism and oversaw an altogether more stable period. Glamorous European forays to the European Cup semi-final in 1985 and the UEFA Cup quarter-final in 1988 saw famous wins against Juventus, Auxerre and Feyenoord. The 1995/96 Champions League campaign saw them take a semi-final first leg 1-0 lead back to Greece after all-time top scorer Krzysztof Warzycha’s away goal threatened to knock out the reigning champions, the legendary Ajax team of the de Boers, Kluivert, Davids and Litmanen, before they were torn apart at the Apostolos Nikolaidis.

Eventually, Vardinogiannis could not compete with the financial muscle of Erythrolefkoi – The Red and Whites – but his nephew Giannis took the bold decision to set the club on a path towards broader ownership when he raised $80m by selling 50 percent of his family’s shareholding in 2008. Four years later, a violent derby with Olympiacos was abandoned after Panathinaikos fans bombarded police with Molotov cocktails, knives and flares, prompting the board to resign en masse.

Left with nobody to steer the ship, TV company owner Giannis Alafouzos stepped in with an innovative plan to convert Vardinogiannis’ shareholding into a fan ownership scheme. Alafouzos was appointed president of the Panathinaikos Alliance 2012 as over 8,500 members bought a stake in the club to help keep it afloat. In doing so, the Greens became only the second fan-owned club in Greece after Aris Thessaloniki.

With over 50 penalties, over 60 red cards, 11 cup finals, multiple domestic titles, nearly 200 confrontations and three abandonments, the Derby of the Eternal Enemies is never going to die out. While social, political and economic changes may have seen the background of the clubs’ supporters become more homogeneous, the fire is very much still burning between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos.

With the lack of sustained competition from the rest of the Greek league, one senses that they need each other as much as they hate each other, even if the last few years have seen Pana struggle on and off the pitch. The Long Walls that once entwined the ancient cities together may have long since crumbled, but the clubs remain inextricably bound together.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed