No Pyro, No Party. Many supporters say it but few mean it like the Greeks. Two weeks ago I entered into the world of Greek ultras.
I have no idea what to expect as I emerge from the metro station and make my way to Panathinaikos’ famed Gate 13. With three matches left in the play-off group to secure the final Champions League spot, Panathinaikos need just one more win. The day’s match against PAOK from Thessaloniki, I am assured, is going to be relaxed. They were talking about the supporters; partly because visiting fans are no longer allowed in Greek football. I don’t have a ticket, only a promise, a whatsapp contact, no wifi, and vague directions of “meet me by the hot dog stands outside Gate 13. I’ll find you, don’t worry.”
Greece’s football league is notoriously top heavy. One of Athens’ three big clubs, alongside Olympiakos who are from the port of Piraeus and AEK Athens, Panathinaikos has won the Greek Superleague 20 times and 18 Football Cups. Only PAOK, Aris and Larissa have on the very rare occasion broken the dominance of the Athens teams. Two other teams in the Superleague also play in greater Athens: Atromitos and Panionios but it is the rivalries between the big three that draws the most attention.
Panathinaikos plays in Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium in central Athens. Also known as Leoforos, meaning Avenue, the compact and urban stadium is the hub of supporter culture. The surrounding neighbourhood along Alexandras Avenue is filled with bars home to the team’s supporters. The stadium’s walls are adorned with murals depicting the club’s history. Gate 13 is a literal place, the entrance to the curved terrace behind the west-end goal. Off of a narrow street, lined with bars, souvlaki carts, and the odd hot dog stand Gate 13 also has a distinct character. Here graffiti takes over. The images: a face covered by a gas mask, bandanna’d characters holding flags and flares, PANATHINAIKOS in sparkling letters, and of course the club’s iconic shamrock tagged over and over again. This is the space of the ultras.
As I walk up and down the street looking for my contact, I start to feel conspicuous in my strategically chosen navy blue San Lorenzo jersey, which I thought would help. It indeed is drawing the glares from people around me. While only a small number are wearing the official jersey of the club, it is clear that green is the preferred colour. I’m approached by a guy and his friend; neither the likeness of the small picture on my cell phone. Oh no, I think to myself, and I quickly wonder if I should retreat to find the official box office.
As he gets in close, he lifts his arm, points to the shirt and says “San Lorenzo!” before launching into one of the club’s songs, his mimicked Spanish could fool you into thinking he is fluent. Greek supporters are knowledgeable about global football culture and are aware of the attention given to their ultras. Argentina has provided source material for some of the terrace songs.
I try to carry the conversation: “you like San Lorenzo?” I ask.
“No,” his eyes narrowed, “there is only Panathinaikos.” I figure I have just lost the opportunity to make a new friend.
Emboldened, however, by my brief encounter, I decide to stay. Shortly thereafter I’m found by my contact, who sells me a ticket that his small supporters group have been given by the club. I’d noticed similar transactions occurring all around me. Gate 13 appears, from my limited observations, to be a fairly broad umbrella of diverse groups of supporters (though I’m sure there is a hierarchy). “You actually go in Gate 14,” he clarifies, “but don’t worry once you are in you can just go to the middle. That is where the Gate 13 is.”
Ticket in hand and in-spite of the humid late-spring temperature, I put on the green PAO (Panathinaikos Athletic Club in Greek) jacket I have brought with me, drink a quick beer and go to find a spot on the terraces. Pushed through the metal turnstiles by people behind me I’m met by three rows of police searches. Apparently large flares are kept in your front pockets or somewhere on your back, or at least that is where the police pretend they will find them. Then it is a few steps up and through a short tunnel, you come out into the stadium, an intimate space for 16 000 people, the largest number of whom are found behind either goal.
Mediterraneans are known for turning their football matches into multi-hour events. Forty minutes before kick-off a loud hiss erupts from the already half-full stadium as PAOK’s goalie comes out to warm up. I move up and towards the middle, finding an empty row sandwiched between guys waving madly at the field. A young woman a row in front unfurls a homemade Irish flag with the word “HOOLS” written in the middle. Even larger flags, which wont stop waving once the match gets underway, are being carried in below me. A little further down, children beat on the two base drums, having learned the repetitive drum beat that keeps these sections rocking like a galley ship.
By the drums another small faction is getting together, the back of their shirts reads in English: “SOLIDARITY IS OUR WEAPON.” Many Greek ultras have supported the apolitical movement. Some clubs are associated with a place on the spectrum. AEK with left-wing politics. Others have claimed that while most of Olympiakos follows the apolitical stance, their ultras in Gate 7 have made space for members of the fascist Golden Dawn. With the economic crisis ongoing, the composition of all the supporters groups keeps changing. Panathinaikos used to represent mainstream and Athen’s middle-class currents but during political riots in 2008 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by the police. Since then and with the ongoing economic problems, supporters culture in PAO has taken on an anti-authoritarian undercurrent. “FUCK THE POLICE” is a common graffiti.
Besides a few really engaged fans starting songs and chants in little pockets around the section, most friends are still sitting and chatting. The result—an eventual birth into the Champions League—doesn’t seem to be in doubt. Everything jumps into action, however, when the players end their warmups. The children are replaced on the drums, the large flags lifted, and a young capo climbs up onto the stand at the centre of the section. As if conducting an orchestra, everyone stands up, as he speaks into a megaphone. I don’t speak Greek but I’ll pretend it’s a message of welcome and some simple instructions for the evening affair. He then lifts his two arms into the air and everyone around me follows suit.
Panathinaikos’ supporters are the originators of one of football’s most famous chants, and arguably, remain its best performers:
The horto magiko (ΧΟΡΤΟ ΜΑΓΙΚΟ), or magic weed, has spread around the globe including many imitations in North America.
It has inspired supporters of one football’s other major teams, Rio de Janeiro’s Fluminense pre-Maracana renovation:
The intensity begins to build. Like a tourist I’m waving my camera around trying to catch some of the action. Amongst the chanting of players names, including Croatian star Danijel Pranjić, is some yelling and the guy beside me taps my arm, says something in greek and then “no camera.” I try to ask why but I’ve exhausted his conversational abilities.
The performance is not to be spectated but participated in, there’s no space for tourists.
Referees emerge from the tunnel and smoke begins to pour into the air. White and green. A few sparks set off hand-held flares. Behind me a guy struggles with his, the ignition pin didn’t set off the expected foot of fire and rain of sparks. Banging it on the seat, I take a step back. Probably not a bright idea but he is furious to have missed his moment.
Panathinaikos players run onto the field. There will be no rest for Gate 13 over the next 50 minutes as they relentlessly keep singing. This is a place where the capo takes on a meaningful roll. He is responsible for knowing when to move onto a new song, keeping up with the emotional runs of the game, and knowing how to keep a song going. No song lasts less than a few minutes. Endurance is key.
Being Greek, there is also some form of democracy on the terraces. His ability to connect with the whole of Gate 13 is what keeps him on the stand. Periodically groups from various parts of the terraces begin new songs, the capo waves at those in front of him to quiet down so he can hear what’s happening before deciding if its the next song or not. When it works, he gives a big thumbs up, pulls up the megaphone and gives everyone else the cues.
It’s not only song selection, though, that makes the capo is so central for Greek ultras. Providing instructions for the complicated choreographed clapping, hand movements, and back and forth between sections keeps the capo fully engaged.
Panathinaikos presses into the lead in the 10’, a goal by Marvias off a rebounded shot by Pranjić, right in front of the Gate 13 banners. A deep guttural “EOOHHH-EhhhOOHH-EOHHHH-Ehhoohhhhh-wa” explodes as the terraces turns into a mosh-pit, people’s jumping and pushing is only impeded by the broken plastic chairs which have seen this on multiple occassions.
A second goal in the 20’ by young Greek international Niko Karelis off another big rebound by PAOK’s goalkeeper Itandje, who made similarly erratic mistakes during Cameroon’s early 2014 World Cup exit, secures the lead. Now its non-stop party time. I lose focus on whats happening on the field, enveloped into the organized chaos around me.
In my delusions, I start to believe I can sing in Greek and like a preschooler, I try to keep up with the clapping rhythms. I’m not sure what those around me think/if they even care. Being anonymous in the crowd, letting the sound pour inside of you, and getting lost in the emotions is one of the most powerful parts of the ultras experience.
After a brief rest during half-time and the sun now dipping behind the hills, Gate 13 is back onto its feet ready for another 45 minutes. It starts with a few sporadic canisters of green smoke, a guy running along the front with one pot of white smoke pouring out. I notice half the people around me start pulling their shirts over their faces, covering their mouths with their scarves. Loud concussive booms explode by the field. The ball boys hardly flinch.
Before I know it, I can’t see more than 10 rows in front of me. We are in a thick cloud of green smoke. Shooting lines of light pierce through the cloud. The girl who has been waving her HOOLS flag has put it away just for this moment. Fire is spitting out of her hand; a small circle is opened up around her to avoid the sparks. The guy behind me is again banging his broken flare, hoping for some sort of spark. This time his flare isn’t missed. There are so many all over Gate 13. Clearly the police knew where to look.
The spectacle lasts a few minutes, during the whole time we are sing the horto magiko, before the cloud finally dissipates out of the stadium. The slight smell of sulphur still lingers.
The rest of the match we spend in back and forth songs with different sections of the stadium. I hear some melodies familiar to me from Argentina but the lyrics were lost on me. The match ends 2-0. Some few hundred clearly do not want to leave and keep singing for five minutes after the final whistle. Greek ultras have been known to stay for dozens of minutes after a match singing but today the party ends relatively on time. I find my way to the metro station people seem relatively tranquil until they get down onto the platform.
A train pulls up and is packed with supporters. Cars start bouncing. I’m only a few stops away, but at each stop, the doors of the train open and songs pour out. The people waiting are bemused or frightened. As I get off at my station, I notice guys are taking off their jerseys and pulling out street clothes from backpacks. I infer that random confrontations and violence is a part of the Greek football for young men and having seen the layers of back and forth tags between Gate 7 and 13 I can tell that much of Athens is split between the two historic rivals: Panathinaikos and Olympiakos.
In contrast to many Western European football stadiums, Greek ultras have preserved a strong place for themselves in the stadium. Social problems run through the stadium and ultra life but it also is vibrant and passionate support that keeps these clubs going.
In 2012, Panathinaikos ran into severe economic problems and was on the verge of collapse; problems on the pitch signalled major issues off it. Fans and supporters formed the Panathenaic Alliance with over 8600 paying members, gained a majority ownership of the club and voted for the Club’s President. Today around 9000 members provide 2.5 million Euros each year and participate in the running of the club.
Here is a video of some of the Gate 13 action caught on a camera from outside of the section:
Panathinaikos’ Canadian Connection:
Panathinaikos is universally recognized for its iconic shamrock and the colour green. There is no definitive inspiration for the club’s adoption of the shamrock in 1918 but in one story there is a Canadian connection. It goes back to 1906, when Hamilton born Billy Sherring won the marathon race of the 1906 Olympics. Storming into the oval of Panathinaiko Stadium accompanied by Prince George for the final 50m, Sherring, of Irish descent and a member of the St. Patrick’s Athletic Club, destroyed his opposition. The oversized green shamrock of his athletic club on his racing shirt became an ironic symbol of victory in the press images.
Michalis Papazoglou, a member of the club’s football team as well as its track and field program, eventually proposed the shamrock as a symbol for Panathinaikos in 1918.
Post by Matthew Hawkins.