The day 21 Greek fans went to the Karaiskakis Stadium and never returned

The day 21 Greek fans went to the Karaiskakis Stadium and never returned

Olympiacos striker Maik Galakos had just scored his team’s sixth goal in the derby against AEK Athens at the old Karaiskakis Stadium. It was the 84th minute of a game between the two main contenders for the Greek league title. Olympiacos were a mere two points ahead at the top of the table and a victory would bring them a step closer to their second consecutive title.

It was a sunny day in Piraeus, the famous port in Athens and home to the team donning the red and white stripes. The game was held on a Sunday – “football Sunday” as they tend to call it in Greece – and tickets had already sold out. Indeed, as many as 35,450 fans would attend the match, which was considered the biggest encounter in Greek football at the time.

Despite the quality of both teams, Olympiacos were in control of the game and dominated throughout the 90 minutes, Galakos netting a hat-trick. The fans went ecstatic; celebrations had already begun, and everyone wanted to hail their heroes. “O-ly-mpia-cos, O-ly-mpia-cos” was heard echoing across the stands, as hundreds of supporters rushed out from Gate 7 to take a front seat outside Gate 1, from where the players would depart after the game.

At the time, fans would opt for a ticket at the Gate 7 end as it was the cheapest option. Gate 7 would attract people from every background; from workers and pensioners, to elderly or students. The night before the game, an 18-year-old Olympiacos fan, Spiros, told his good friend Manolis that he wanted to meet his idol, Galakos.“I want to kiss him, just touch him and I won´t wash myself until next Sunday,” he confided.

Galakos would exit from Gate 1 – but Spiros wasn’t there. Heading to the exit, a steep stairway led to the turnstiles and then to the outskirts of the old stadium. Dozens of fans had slipped over and fallen on the stairs on their way outside Gate 7. Euphoria turned into tragedy in a matter of seconds.

The exit door was half-closed: fans couldn’t find a way out and 19 people lost their lives on the spot, as dozens of others trampled on them, creating a pile of bodies between the stairs and the turnstiles. Another two passed away in hospital. In all, 20 Olympiacos fans and one AEK Athens supporter lost their lives.

Police ripped out one turnstile. Swollen bodies were dragged out and left on the floor. Ambulances would arrive, but it was already too late. 

The biggest tragedy in the history of Greek football took place on 8 February 1981, at 16:58. “I dragged Spiros like a sack outside the gate, and took him in my arms,” Manolis recalled. “He felt nothing. I placed his head on the wall. I cried. I took him in my arms; his head hung down. I took him to the first ambulance I saw in front of me, but they had two children [inside]. I shouted: ‘Take him, take him, please. He’s not talking, he’s not moving, take him!’”

The ambulance drove Spiros to the hospital but he succumbed to his wounds hours later.

Hundreds of people gathered at the hospital, queuing outside the rooms where the bodies of the dead were placed. Some of them were crying, others were sitting quietly, staring into space unable to believe what had happened. “As they rushed to celebrate the triumph, they were smashed at Gate 7, falling on top of each other,” ran the headline of the Greek sports newspaper Fos the next day. “Horror, horror, horror,” read Avriani.

Greek society was in shock, while Greek football was on the edge of collapse. The Sports Secretary-General at the time, Kimon Koulouris, called a meeting with the victims’ families. Members of the Greek Olympic Games Committee – who owned the Karaiskakis Stadium – Olympiacos’ directors and other competent authorities also attended.

A compensation fee was agreed, but the case wasn’t brought before a civil court until 20 months after the tragedy, in October 1982, when the prosecutor called for it to be reopened. 

Among the accused were the Olympic Games Committee, the General Secretariat of Sport and several police officers. Allegations and blames were thrown back and forth. Some placed responsibility on the police who failed to manage the fans’ exit. Others pointed the finger to those who constructed the stadium, while there were voices that blamed the five guards who oversaw security at Gate 7.

The verdict was delivered months later: everyone implicated was cleared of charges.

The Old Karaiskakis Stadium was demolished several years later for the new Olympiacos ground to be built from the scratch. Fans rushed to Piraeus to pick up a piece of concrete before everything was turned to dust; everything but the Gate 7 turnstile, which is currently placed outside the new Karaiskakis Stadium, accompanied by dozens of scarves and flags in memory of the 21 victims.

Fans, members of the victims’ families, players and coaching staff from both Olympiacos’ football and basketball teams gather there every year, on 8 February, to pay tribute to those who gave their lives while celebrating their team’s victory. Eight years before the Hillsborough disaster, Greek football experienced a tragedy of its own.

Back in 2005, before the Champions League game between Liverpool and Olympiacos – with that famous Steven Gerrard decider – the Kop unveiled a tifo that included the message “96+21 YNWA” to pay homage to the victims of both tragedies. Two years later, Liverpool fans travelled to Greece to attend the final against AC Milan. Dozens of them went all the way to Piraeus to place flowers and scarves at the memorial outside the Karaiskakis stadium.

In response, Olympiacos fans created a banner reading “Justice for the 69” and another saying, “Brothers, you show us the way – 21+96 – You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Both banners were unveiled in the ultras end, which is covered with hundreds of red seats, 21 of which are painted black and form a number seven in memory of the victims.

Following the 1981 disaster, Olympiacos main ultras group named themselves Gate 7 and pledged to never forget those who took their last breath at those stairs. Almost three decades have passed, but fans still spend several minutes during games dedicating chants to the 21 victims.

No matter the football ground, regardless the country or the opponent, they look at the sky and share their long-overdue wish. “God, do me a favour and make my crazy dream come true: I want to see, along with our victims, Olympiacos play the [European] final,” goes one of the chants.

Olympiacos have never reached a European final. In fact, the closest they ever got was when they were knocked out by Juventus, 3-2 on aggregate, in the Champions League quarter-finals back in 1999. The fans’ desire has yet to be fulfilled.

Game after game they point to the sky, eyes half-closed, goosebumps all over their body, shouting louder than the previous match. They are convinced that the 21 victims can hear them. They know that they are following Olympiacos games from up there. They are certain that their dead brothers have reserved a premium seat in paradise. From there they can watch the team, whose name could be one of the last words they ever said.

By Panos Kostopoulos @Panos88k

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