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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Sports

Greece’s European Soccer Myths


Greeks – some of them at any rate – may be anti-American or anti-Western, but they are less likely to be anti-European. Imperialism and interference in Greek affairs is American or Western, but “Civilization” remains European. This hypothesis may need some research to back it up, but in terms of popular culture, namely soccer, the evidence is irrefutable.

Greek soccer culture is unambiguously pro-European. Hard-core supporters of the AEK Athens soccer club embarrassed the Greek soccer world recently by trying to burn an American flag. There is no chance, however, of a European Union flag or the flag of UEFA, the European soccer federation, being handled with such disrespect in any of Greece’s soccer stadiums. Historically, Greek soccer has always aspired to a higher “European” standard.

Panathinaikos, one of Greece’s major soccer clubs, is living proof of this Greek sports-level pro-Europeanism. The green-and-white-colored Athens club is considered Greece’s “ambassador” in Europe, and it has earned many kudos by distinguishing itself in European club competitions. Panathinaikos lags behind Olympiakos in domestic soccer titles, but the green-and-whites are proud to have consistently done better than any other Greek club in Europe.

It all began back in 1971, when Panathinaikos reached the final of Europe’s most prestigious club competition, the Champions’ Cup. Until then, Greek clubs had been nothing more than punching bags in that competition. Each year, the team that won the Greek championship entered the European competition only to be ousted, predictably, in the early rounds, having suffered defeat at the hands of either prominent or obscure opponents.

In the 1970-71 season, however, Panathinaikos got past the early rounds and met English champion Everton in the quarterfinals. Instead of losing, the Athens team raised eyebrows across Europe by narrowly eliminating Everton and going through to the semifinals to meet the formidable Red Star Belgrade. Incredibly, Panathinaikos managed to overcome a bad defeat in the Yugoslav capital and win by a wider margin in Athens, thus achieving the unthinkable: A place in the European final.

Cinderella dressed in green and white had not only made it to the ball, she had made it to the most legendary dance-floor of all time. The 1971 final was played in London’s awe-inspiring Wembley Stadium, the home of English soccer. The stadium, which had hosted the Olympic Games in 1948, was used exclusively for the English national side and England’s Football Association Cup final, an annual event attended by the royal family. The hyperbolic Greek press outdid itself, announcing that Panathinaikos had not only made it to the final, but had also made it into the “temple of soccer.”

Overwhelmed by the occasion, Panathinaikos succumbed to a superior Ajax Amsterdam side whose performance heralded a decade of Dutch wizardry on the world’s soccer stage. It did not matter for the Greeks. Not since the Serb defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389 has a fall so emphatically been turned into a glorious myth. The team of green-and-whites returned to yet another hero’s welcome in Athens and the Greek equivalent of knighthood: their identification in the public’s mind as Greece’s European team, or, as one sportswriter put it, “Greece’s ambassador in the salons of Europe.”

Both the aura of appearing on Wembley’s hallowed turf in 1971 and the belief that Panathinaikos can do well in Europe continue to burn brightly. No other Greek club has gone so far in any European soccer competition, and Panathinaikos has twice come close to emulating its historic exploit. In 1984-85, it reached the semifinal round, but was eliminated by English powerhouse Liverpool – another heroic defeat.

It did not really matter that in the years that elapsed between those two bright spots, the Athens team had not distinguished itself on the European stage. The myth was intact. Bad losses could be put down to bad luck or conspiring referees. Success, on the other hand, simply confirmed that Panathinaikos was Greece’s European ambassador. AEK Athens, for instance, reached the semifinals of another European tournament in 1977, but this did not earn it European status in the eyes of the Greek sports press.

Panathinaikos has the most suitable of all soccer pedigrees to claim the lofty title of the country’s “Europeans.” Middle-class Athenians formed the team back in 1908 and, in a gesture of Europhilia, the team soon adopted the Irish green three-leaf clover as its emblem. In the 1920s, when several refugee-based clubs such as AEK appeared in the Greek capital, Panathinaikos emerged as the club favored by the city’s indigenous elite. This was the time when the greatest rivalry in soccer was born: Middle-class Athenian Panathinaikos versus Piraeus’s upstart petty-bourgeois Olympiakos, the people’s team.

The concepts of bourgeois Panathinaikos and lower-class Olympiakos would not survive the scrutiny of an undergraduate sociology seminar, of course, but it is appearances that count. Wealthy businessmen own both teams, and both enjoy a following among a range of social groups. Granted, Olympiakos’s support is in evidence not only in Piraeus and southern Athenian suburbs but also in the provinces, where there is a history of antagonism toward Athens. In contrast, support for Panathinaikos is centered in Athens and is relatively weaker in the provinces.

During the Sixties, a picture of Olympiakos on the wall of the apartment of the Melina Mercouri character in Never on Sunday no doubt enhanced the club’s image as the people’s team. While both clubs can boast their share of support among movie stars, however, the preferences of politicians are, for obvious reasons, a more carefully kept secret. An exception is Georgios Rallis, the conservative former prime minister who is a declared Panathinaikos fan. And few Greeks are aware that the youngest child of former King Constantine, Phillipos, is described as a “strong supporter of Panathinaikos” on the former royal family’s Web site.

The Greek public’s grudging acceptance of the then-European Community (now European Union), which became more sincere as funds began flowing into Greece, also legitimized Panathinaikos’s “Europeanism.” Political slogans such as “Hellas-Europe-Karamanlis” were translated into “Hellas-Europe-Panathinaikos” during the green-and-whites’ matches.

In his study of how the press made football America’s spectacle, entitled Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, Professor Michael Oriard points to a crucial difference between entertainment and sport. Both are central to modern popular culture, but unlike fiction or the movies, sport is unscripted. The good guys are not always guaranteed to win or get the girl. There is an element of luck and chance that may wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. The Dallas Cowboys may be “America’s Team,” but they are not always the winning team.

Likewise, Panathinaikos’s performance in European competition has often left much to be desired. But a combination of the Wembley legacy and a flash in the pan at regular intervals keeps Panathinaikos’s European identity alive.

In the mid-1990s, Panathinaikos reached the semifinals again. By this time, the competition had changed its name to the Champions’ League, and it involved many more teams and qualifying games. The green and white team met its old rival Ajax, and a historic Greek victory on the road in Amsterdam appeared to signal revenge and yet another appearance in the final. However, an early Ajax goal in Athens unsettled the Greeks and a collapse late in the game sealed their fate.

Although the 1990s witnessed the ascendancy of Olympiakos, the decade still managed to contribute to solidifying the European moniker of the Piraeus team’s great rival. Whenever Panathinaikos stumbled and threatened to tarnish its image, Olympiakos came to its rescue, determined to spurn European success. Domestic dominance enabled Olympiakos to make regular appearances in the Champions’ League in the late 1990s. But not only was the team from Piraeus unable to win on the road, it also suffered devastating defeats with scores that evoked the very early appearances of Greek clubs on the European stage. For example, Olympiakos contrived to go down 5-1 both in Spain and Norway within the space of three weeks in 1997.

Having learned from its mistakes, Olympiakos did much better the following year and reached the quarterfinals. It was five minutes away from eliminating Italian giant Juventus and moving on to the semifinals, however, when its defense allowed a crucial goal five minutes before the end.

The first phase of the 2001-02 Champions’ League completed in October has furnished yet more proof of Panathinaikos’s European confidence and Olympiakos’s inability to do well beyond Greek borders. Both teams were in separate groups that involved four teams in a home-and-away, round-robin format. Panathinaikos opened with a sensational victory on German soil and never looked back, beating England’s Arsenal on the way to topping the group and becoming one of 16 teams remaining in the competition.

Olympiakos, by contrast, fell again. They were seconds away from notching their first road victory in the League in a game in La Coruna, Spain, but allowed the home team a last-breath equalizing goal. After losing their unbeaten home record to Manchester United in mid-October, they were eleven minutes away from holding England’s champions to a draw at the latter’s famed Old Trafford Stadium. They then promptly allowed three goals, putting the teams from Manchester and La Coruna in the final round of 16 with Panathinaikos – at Olympiakos’s expense, of course.

Thus, once again, life has imitated Greece’s European soccer myth. Olympiakos has stumbled, but Greece’s green and white ambassador marches on in Europe.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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