Football Factory, Greek Style
A look inside a typical European derby, where hooliganism acts as a form of support.
For those who have grown up in a metropolis of the "Old World", little can be said to describe the feelings stirred by a real, European football (soccer, if you like) derby. The recent match between Greek rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos was a great example of such an encounter. For the record, on November 5 hosts Panathinaikos -- at the very same stadium that hosted the Olympic Games of Athens two years ago --defeated Olympiacos, thanks to a lucky own-goal netted early on into the second half. A crowd of 50,000 people created a booming atmosphere, singing chants, lighting fire-torches, and eating hot-dogs -- the customary snack that, as usual, filled the hands and bellies of thousands of fans. But the really juicy part is what happened before and after the derby itself, which by comparison seemed dull.
Like in any European championship league, each season has a minimum of two games played between two different clubs. In the case of Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, however, the action begins a couple of weeks ahead of their matches. The national Greek sports dailies number more than half a dozen, feeding without difficulty the diathesis of each group demanding special details about, and insight into, the event. Of course such intensity is to be expected. It can't be denied that cheering on a team means more than supporting a group of players; it's supporting a group of associations too.
At the beginning of the sport's history in Greece, for example, Olympiacos symbolized the working class with its daily struggles, while Panathinaikos epitomized the upper middle class society. No longer, of course, do such class differences divide the clubs' supporters, but many times faithful from both sides like to reproduce these old sentiments. Olympiacos' friends will always feel like the depressed people ready for revolution; Panathinaikos' will continue to believe in their elegance. And AEK, the country's third biggest club, has a large base of supporters whose predecessors came to Athens as refuges after World War I. As such, their fans express nostalgia for the lost homes that their generation has never seen. All of these idiosyncrasies can be identified if only you listen closely to the hymns and songs of these clubs' supporters.
Still, the true field of their antagonism now surrounds which one of them is the most "European" club -- meaning whose team can have the greatest success in European competitions. Two years ago, Greek football reached its peak when the national team won the European Cup championship, producing maybe the biggest surprise ever in the sport. Before this, no other Greek team had ever done better than Panathinaikos' one time European Champions' Cup final participation in 1971. Indeed, the best part of the national team that won the European championship consisted of then Panathinaikos players. Meanwhile, Olympiacos won consecutive league titles to build up a rarely seen dominance in football, managing to clinch nine championships in ten seasons. In doing so, they were fast to recruit any former Panathinaikos player in their quest for victories, creating an even bigger rivalry between the two clubs' faithful.
But it is well known that what comes around goes around, and thus it was not possible for Olympiacos to stay at the top for eternity. Panathinaikos were the eventual winners in this latest derby, in a game whose on the field action hardly matched the surrounding fans' enthusiasm and adrenaline. Thousands of other Greeks followed their rituals of going to the local coffee shops, known as "kafeneia", to watch the game with friends, while others went alone to the stadium to avoid any distractions.
Personally, I, too found out once more that I am a maniac for the sport. The importance of a derby like this is its ecstasy, making you feel completely alive for two hours. Perhaps it's not a good thing that my life flashes in front of me every time I think of the games I have seen since I was little kid, and maybe I should have an appointment arranged with a good psychologist. But there are still many crazier than me. Just ask Nick Hornby.
Some fourteen years ago, the now-celebrated author's novel Fever Pitch was published. The Bible of the football fan, the book gives an incisive analysis of the ecstasy and agony of being a football spectator. No matter that Hornby was a member of the Arsenal faithful, his experience described the emotions of millions of other people around the globe. For me, it was a personal revelation to see somebody daring to talk about something as trivial and infamous as football passion. He detailed the lives of people who had no objection to watching a dreadful game between reserves on a freezing afternoon. He talked about obsession, and he was applauded for it.
Now, imagine this obsession in flesh and bone .You can meet it almost at any football venue, no matter who's playing. Since reading Fever Pitch and its Greek equivalent Oedipus Center-Back (written by Konstantinos Kamaras, the son of a former Panathinaikos player), I've realized that no matter how many degrees someone may have, or how important their occupation, he or she can never be expected to act the part when his/her club has a game to play. Such obsession, however, often turns out to be an excuse for fans' violent behavior: "I'm sorry I punched the referee, but his calls were really pissing me off." Just imagine trying to explain to a police officer that you hit someone because he had gotten on your nerves. Chances are you would soon be behind bars. Not in Greece, though. If you did that during a game, you'd have an excuse. Indeed, referees have paid the price for this attitude many times, as attacks against them by disgruntled fans are something quite regular.
Not surprisingly, as the date of the derby approaches every year, features about violence in football begin to infiltrate both television and the papers. It seems, unfortunately, that violence is part of the sport in Greece, as it is in the rest of Europe. In Britain, for example, the historic relationship between football and violence is well documented. Greece, too, sees organized clubs (gangs) of supporters of a particular team fighting one another on a regular basis. Still, many believe that this kind of violent behavior is the inevitable result that derives from these "boys'" derailed obsession with the sport.
But physical altercations aren't the only form of violence. Racist insults are also quite commonly heard at matches. Personally, I'm against any form of violence and every time I hear racist chant, which lately have become even more common, I feel sick enough to promise myself not to set foot again in a Greek game. Soon enough though, I realize the vanity of my vows and return in the hopes that I will figure out a way to help eradicate this phenomenon. Perhaps these incidents will be reduced at big derbies after a recent decision by the governing body of the sport not to allow the visitors' fans to watch their team away from home, something that's a tradition in European football. The thought is simple enough, though: no rival fans means no targets for home fans, and so no action for police forces. Still, the racist chants are not completely off the table. At the derby, Olympiacos' black players were hooted at like monkeys when they had possession of the ball, and were also encouraged to "go back to Africa".
Disappointingly, racist chants have appeared in most of the European championships. The main excuse for such behavior is that it's not actually a form of racism, as at the same time all the teams for which black athletes play are supported by their home fans passionately. But such a lame position seems more like saying, "Our black man is good, yours is bad. Our pet is good, not yours." Still, this could be a case more of ignorance than hatred. After all, these attitudes might indicate the growing social unease of another European country which has to deal with xenophobia in the wake of globalization. In today's European Union, one is able to meet a new diversity of people of different colors and, importantly, different cultures.
But it's not the goal of this writing to discuss the complications of a newly globalized world. Suffice it to say that football obsession per se is not bad. What's wrong, though, is when fans fail to control their other feelings and their obsession turns into madness. Scrutinizing the sport as a whole, I understand that many things have to be done yet in Greece. Racism and violence continue to occupy center stage, overshadowing the fact that football gives life to many people. In fact, it's a healthy experience to attend a game if it's not poisoned by these negative aspects. And why should we not enjoy it fully? We might finally do so by following FIFA's slogan to "kick racism out of football", and with it violence as well.