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Monday, December 02, 2002

Sports

The Rematch


Stelios Vasilakis wrote the following upon returning from Athens on special assignment for greekworks.com.

The rematch between Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos in Athens on November 14 came in the same week that the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, announced the organization’s proposal for a final resolution of the Cyprus issue. With this and the incidents during the first game in mind, I was convinced that the organized Panathinaikos fans – who had decided to boycott the game because of high ticket prices and the condemnation, by Panathinaikos’s president, Angelos Philipides, of their “patriotic” stance in the game in Istanbul – would eagerly join the protest against Annan’s plan called by the Greek communist party for the same evening as the game. After all, the fans, some journalists, and a number of politicians (Theodoros Pangalos, most prominently) had justified the events at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium as a defense of national dignity, which presumably had been offended by the Fenerbahce fans who had unveiled the banner saluting Mehmet the Conqueror’s capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Soccer Nation
Pangalos characterized the fans’ reaction as acceptable in the face of such an insult. What the former foreign minister ignored, of course, was the fact that such “insults” constitute a commonplace among hardcore football fans, and they are usually not taken very seriously. AEK’s fans have been called Tourkoi (Turks) by fans of opposing teams for as long as I can remember, and the fans and players of teams from northern Greece (PAOK, Aris, Heracles) have been called Voulgaroi (Bulgarians) by the fans of teams from central and southern Greece for just as long. The standard reaction by fans of the northern teams has, under the circumstances, been not only creative but unusually anti-nationalistic. They not only accept their characterization but identify with it: every time they’re “insulted” as “Voulgaroi, Voulgaroi,” they respond by raising Bulgarian flags!

What occurred in Istanbul and two weeks later in Athens was nothing else than typical fan behavior, despite the attempt by – or, maybe, wishful thinking of – the press and politicians to attribute political and even nationalistic dimensions to the events. The fact is, for soccer fans, there was nothing political or nationalistic about throwing chairs at an official before the game in Istanbul – whether he was a referee or Greek foreign minister George Papandreou – or spitting at an opposing Fenerbahce player every time he tried to throw in the ball from out of bounds during the Athens game. We’ve seen this before from fans (the word itself comes from that other word, “fanatic”) and we’ll undoubtedly see it again.

No surprise, therefore, that Panathinaikos fans did not join the protest against the United Nations’s Cyprus plan, but rather chose to join those who had seen the match in a joyous and noisy procession toward Omonoia Square for a celebration. I followed the fans, trying to get a sense of the crowd’s mood. Following the trend that had started to develop inside the stadium during the last few minutes of the game, the fans’ attention shifted from Fenerbahce to their archrival across town, Olympiakos. By the time we reached Omonoia – and in the celebration that unfolded there – Turkey, the Turks, Fenerbahce, and politics could not have been further from people’s minds.

The slogans through which the fans expressed their feelings revealed their contempt for Angelos Philipides and Olympiakos, as well as their joy in their team’s great performance that evening and its triumph over Fenerbahce. Despite the hype that had surrounded the game, and the fans’ behavior during the prior two weeks, it didn’t take long for the fans to become what they really are: fans, totally absorbed and occupied by the game and their team.

Age-old enmities on the soccer pitch
But let’s take things from the beginning. I came to Athens to cover the second leg of UEFA’s 2002-2003 tournament between Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce. My colleague, Alexander Kitroeff, had covered the first game between the two teams in Istanbul, and developments during the first match, which brought politics into the contest, had generated unusual anticipation (even under the circumstances) for the rematch at Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.

For fanatical soccer fans, rivalry expressed in various forms of competitive violence constitutes the ultimate way to show one’s devotion and support of a team, and it is constantly and systematically provoked and sought. As Peter Pericles Trifonas has argued in regard to hooliganism and competitive violence in football (Postmodern Encounters: Umberto Eco and Football, p. 41):

The aim is to better an equal for the right to claim honor and status within and among rival hooligan “mob” formations. Violence is not directed towards the public. There is no honor in that. Hooliganism has its own code of acceptable violent behavior, e.g., conflict must be among willing competitors, weapons are eschewed for fists, the spontaneous engagement of rivals is a priority if it all possible.

Such is the nature of fanhood and fanaticism that some form of confrontation between Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce fans was inevitable despite the fact that this was a match between Greek and Turkish teams, with all the possible political and social conflicts implied in that. As Alexander Kitroeff pointed out in his article in greekworks.com (“Offside: Greek-Turkish Soccer Diplomacy,” November 15), the ill-conceived idea of using the game to support several initiatives – the Greek campaign for an Olympic truce during the Olympic Games in 2004, the joint Greek-Turkish bid to organize soccer’s European Cup in 2008, and, ultimately, rapprochement between the two countries – brought politics into the game and turned what should have been a “normal” confrontation between fanatical supporters of Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos into a confrontation between Turks and Greeks.

In the two-week period between the first game in Istanbul and the second one in Athens, fan behavior became overly politicized and scrutinized. Indeed, Fenerbahce claimed that its fans were so scared by the prospect of attending the game in Athens, and of possible confrontations with Panathinaikos fans, that it decided not to allow them to accompany the team. Facing a potential public-relations and political disaster from the prospect of violence before, during, and after the game, it became essential that Greek security forces take no risks. Overly anxious at the possibility of embarrassing incidents, the Greek police treated the game as a high-security situation, making sure that fanatical activities were kept under check.

When I went to Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium the day of the game to pick up my press pass, the heavy police presence was a clear indication that Greek security was taking the rematch very seriously (a little too seriously for me). All this became evident in the evening as fans began to approach the stadium. The perimeter around Apostolos Nikolaidis was off-limits, at a ridiculously long radius, to anyone without tickets, and the evening turned into a nightmare for anyone who lived around the stadium and was just trying to get home. The press had mentioned that the police was treating the game as a test of potential security measures for the 2004 Olympics. If that is in fact the case, I find it hard to believe that Athenians will stay in town during the games under such conditions.

Basic civil liberties were both ignored and violated in the name of security. Viewed by the enormous police force around the stadium as potential provocation, Greek flags and banners with slogans were removed from Panathinaikos fans at security checkpoints. Upon entering the stadium, one immediately became aware of the police’s determination to prevent incidents. The entire bleacher section facing north behind the goalposts was off-limits to fans (a very inventive security measure indeed): keeping as many fans out of the stadium as possible would surely make for a calm evening. If one added the extremely high ticket prices (the cheapest ticket was 80 euros), in order to keep the organized and most boisterous fans away from the game, Panathinaikos’s management got exactly what it wanted: a mostly benign, non-confrontational mood throughout the game. Of course, any home-field advantage the home team might have had was also taken away, but this turned out to be a non-issue for Panathinaikos.

Play ball!
It was a beautiful night for soccer. Evening games played under optimal weather conditions can be magical, and this was such a night. Watching the game under such perfect weather (72 degrees) in a half-empty stadium made me depressed about the degenerate state of Greek soccer. Being there, however, also reminded me why Apostolos Nikolaidis is such a great stadium. It is without doubt, as a friend mentioned to me, a derelict field, but also a charming one. Situated in the heart of Greece’s capital, Apostolos Nikolaidis was and remains an essential part of civic life. With the new metro stop right next to it serving as the main route for fans to get to the stadium, one begins to enter into the mood of a game and absorbing its vibes long before one enters the actual field. The hundreds of fans watching from the balconies of surrounding apartment buildings remind everyone that the game constitutes a quintessential communal experience, and that it is an inextricable part of city life.

Apostolos Nikolaidis might lack the amenities one now finds in modern stadiums (bars, luxury boxes, etc.), but this makes for a pure experience. This is a place to watch soccer, and to allow oneself to become totally absorbed and overcome by it. Having recently watched a college football game from a luxury box in Austin, Texas, where football is God, I was fascinated by the experience, once more after such a long time, of a place where the game remains the only spectacle, and where fans are totally immersed in it. If only they had kept the old timeclock, and had not replaced the old scoreboard with the obnoxious video screen blasting commercials throughout the game – but you can’t have it all.

And what about the game itself, and what transpired on the pitch? If the score of the first game, 1-1, suggested an interesting rematch, I was greatly disappointed. The minute after kick-off, it became clear that Fenerbahce’s players had an enormous amount of respect for their opponents, which turned out to be disastrous for the Turkish team. With the halfbacks moving in the defensive half of the pitch, and the forwards stationed around midfield throughout the game, there was no pressure applied to Panathinaikos’s defensive unit, allowing the team’s backs to move forward and apply constant pressure on Fenerbahce’s defense. Keeping possession of the ball for most of the game, and assisted by Fenerbahce’s usually competent goalkeeper, who seemed to have had a bad night, Panathinaikos finished the game in unusually easy fashion. Even after Fenerbahce scored to make the game 2-1, and momentarily gave the impression that it might turn things around, Panathinaikos scored fast to reassert its dominance. Indeed, by the beginning of the second half, the game had turned into a boring and unexciting affair. Final score: 4-1 in favor of Panathinaikos. It was left to the hardcore supporters of Gate 13 to entertain the crowd with their improvisational slogans – which they did in fine form.

What about the fans’ behavior during the game? I did not see anything extraordinary, anything that I had not seen before. Collectively spitting on the other team’s player while he’s attempting a throw-in? It’s been a standard feature of this stadium for a very long time – and it’s all part of the pleasure of playing in a pitch without a track-and-field area around it to create a buffer zone between players and fans. Offensive slogans directed against the other team? A standard practice that no one takes seriously anymore. All in all, the fans’ behavior was as restrained and nonviolent as possible. One might argue, of course, that the heavy police presence prevented fans from becoming uncontrollable, especially because there were practically more policemen in and around the stadium than fans. Having been to a lot of soccer games, however, I know that if fans want to become violent and confrontational, they find a way to do it despite the size of the police force around them. In the end, this entire security extravaganza was much ado about nothing.

Reading the following morning’s coverage of the game, I got the feeling that the whole country had experienced an enormous sense of relief at the absence of violent incidents during the whole affair. As I kept reading, however, I couldn’t help feeling that if a violent confrontation between a few Greek and Turkish soccer hooligans can cause irreparable damage to Greek-Turkish relations, we are in deep trouble after all.

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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