Pint Pots as Gas Masks for the Gods of War
Aris 1-1 PAOK (23:10:11)
A ring of fire, flares, fireworks, tear-gas, an ambush.... welcome to one of the maddest places in the world to watch football, Thessaloniki. Fasten your seat belts as Graham Kenworthy takes us on an exhilarating ride....
Being a teacher one thing I can’t really complain about are the holidays but, occasionally, there are drawbacks, created by the dates you can take for trips being dictated and inflexible. So, for the past couple of years, when the rest of the EFW crew have been planning their festivities across Eastern Europe, I’ve been unable to make it and have been left trawling the fixture lists in search of an attractive alternative for the half-term break or ‘Potato Picking Week’ as it was always called in my youth. Last year I was blessed with the outstanding option of a weekend in Belgrade incorporating the Crvena Zvezda v Partizan ‘Eternal Derby’, a couple of third division games and the Serbian Rugby League Grand Final. This year the fixtures proved to be equally kind with the standout game being another high ranking but high risk match - The Derby of Northern Greece - Aris v PAOK in Thessaloniki. This was a game I had long had an interest in but due, in part to it’s fearsome reputation, and also because I thought tickets would be impossible (the capacity is a mere 22,800), it’s one I never thought I’d get to. Added complications to planning this visit were to be the economic situation in Greece and the prospect of general strikes being called at short notice. Fortuitously we manage to avoid any of these potential hurdles.
First step was to secure tickets, following a swift bout of e-mail tennis with Nick, the fantastically helpful Commercial Manager at Aris, we were guaranteed a pair of 30 euro seats. Safe in the knowledge that we would ‘get in’ our flights and accommodation were duly booked, out via Zurich, back via Dusseldorf, with 3 nights in the 4* Hotel Anatolia sandwiched between. My travelling companion was to be my son Matthew, aged 20 but already a relative veteran of almost 40 games outside of the British Isles. In recent times our football weekends have been of almost military precision, full to the brim trying to squeeze in as many games as possible, dashing across cities to lower division matches, rushed stadium visits and swift sight-seeing photo stops. This time we made a conscious decision to limit ourselves to just the main event, taking a couple of relaxing days in the city building towards the Derby on Sunday night. As it turned out this was actually quite easy to adhere to as there were no other games in the area over the whole weekend. Although the lure of a brief sojourn to the Kaftanzoglio Stadium, home of the third team in Thessaloniki, Iraklis (recently relegated from the Super League to the regional leagues) and venue for the Leeds Utd v AC Milan 1973 ECWC Final proved difficult to resist.
The game, and clubs, are not commonly acknowledged therefore a little background information and historical context, is perhaps needed:
Aris FC - ‘The Gods of War’ - were formed in 1914 and became the first ever Greek League title winners in 1928. Their support is now solidly united under the banner of ‘Super 3’ a group which was created in 1988 in order to prevent the all too frequent internal fighting which took place amongst Aris fans through the years preceding this. The club crest incorporates the team colours of yellow and black and a seated Ares – the Olympic God of War. However, most importantly for me Aris fans are renown for their pyrotechnics, Nick from the club had ‘warned’ me to ‘expect many flares’ and, unwittingly, totally sold the game to me in that one sentence. Big games at Aris are often accompanied by the stadium being described as a ‘Ring of Fire’.
PAOK - Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Kostantinopolitón were founded by Greek refugees, fleeing from Istanbul, in 1926. Their stadium, little more than a mile from the Aris ground, resides under the sinister moniker of ‘Toumba’ and they have a nickname which they have often lived up to of ‘The Black Devils’. The PAOK emblem, features a two headed eagle or, as Aris antagonistically title it, a chicken.
The game does have a notorious history, there have been serious disturbances both on and off the pitch, never worse than after a 4-1 Aris victory in 1998-99 which saw some of the worst crowd violence in Greek football history. Understandably away fans are now outlawed and even the wearing of club colours is discouraged away from the stadium.
Having not arrived until the early hours of Saturday we decided upon a leisurely morning of strolling around the city, then a ‘dummy run’ to the Aris stadium to be combined with collecting our tickets. The #10 bus runs from the centre directly to the Kleanthis Vikelidis or Stadio Harilaou. It takes around 30 minutes to wind through pleasant, residential streets to the East of this generally wealthy, cosmopolitan city. From the bus stop it’s a mere five strides to Aris Mobile, which doubles as the ticket collection office. With our tickets safely tucked away we explored the area around the ground which nestles between apartment blocks. The club crest, colours and other assorted Aris symbols were in abundance; even a childrens’ playground has been transformed into a kaleidoscope of yellow and black. Perhaps most intriguing were the signs for the ‘Fans Infirmary’, and Aris Boxing Club, not your standard fare at a football stadium. After dining at a fantastic taverna, recommended to us by the girls in the ticket office, we returned to our hotel and spent a while perusing the Super 3 website, indignant with it’s almost military style calls to arms such as; ‘We expect to see 11 Warriors of God……’ or ‘We are ready and aware of what to do in the grandstands, to melt the team with the chicken breasts’, not the sort of rallying cries you hear everyday. So the scene was set and we were thirsty with anticipation which we attempted to quench with plenty of the local Mythos beer and a few ouzos that night.
Super 3 Psycho Boys - tick.
God of War (paint job)
The Aris Angels
The early part of match day was spent viewing the impressive 2nd Century BC Roman forum followed by a walk around the port, shopping and market areas. This was where we saw, aside from the huge piles of rubbish on every street corner, the only indication of any recent problems. Many of the windows in the more exclusive stores had been shattered, although Marks & Spencer (yes M&S in Thessaloniki) had wisely battened down the hatches with secure metal shutters. We finished our sight-seeing by enjoying lunch, and more Mythos, alongside the Ana Poli castle with resplendent, panoramic city views.
What a load of rubbish...
...Ah, that's more like it. Στην Υγεια σου!
We had been advised to get to the ground early to sample the famous pre-match atmosphere and it didn’t disappoint. Papanastasiou Avenue runs like a spine down the back of the ‘Harilaou’ and scattered like vertebrae liberally along it, are numerous bars, restaurants, cafes plus the usual collection of vendors offering nuts, grilled chicken, a variety of other snacks, beer and…….huge piles of polystyrene. Every few strides it was piled high in rough hewn squares, usually pinned down with a knife plunged through the middle, with mostly young women trying to convince people to buy their wares. Comfort in your seat here must be more prevalent than ‘styrophobia’. At the centre of everything is the Beer FC 1914 bar, set into the back of Gate 2. It is a fabulous football bar, free programmes were distributed inside the doors, memorabilia on the walls told of Aris v Boca Juniors and other great nights, big screens showed QPR v Chelsea live (sadly we’d missed the earlier Man Utd v Man City game), hardcore punk music at ear-splitting levels dovetailed with classics from The Cure and New Order psyching fans up to the max and beer at, 2 euros a pint, flowed freely.
Polystyrene for sale. Anyone?
A fabulous football bar called Beer F.C. You couldn't make it up.
Outside, on the street, there was a real buzz but it was positive and exciting. However things changed somewhat when the police riot vans, and heavily armed officers, who had been situated a couple of hundred yards away, moved across and blocked off the end of the road. Clearly this was the arrival of the PAOK team and officials. Chants rang out and missiles were thrown. Starting with bottles and cans it rapidly escalated into flares and fireworks then, finally, a burning litter bin was hurled into the fray causing the roof of one of the riot vehicles to catch light. Understandably the police did not take kindly to this and the next thing we knew our eyes were burning and we were coughing and spluttering. Being tear-gassed is not something you experience everyday and it doesn’t come highly recommended. I guess from the Aris supporters reaction that this is relatively commonplace, there was no stampede to escape, just a change of direction and stoical trudge away from the scene. Those with plastic beer glasses found a unique use for them fitting them snugly over their nose and mouth, creating a makeshift gas mask. We made our exit from the chaos to the relative sanity behind the stadium close to our Gate, number 9, where we ate huge double sausage sandwiches covered in salad, condiments and chips, washed down with a couple of cans of beer – to clear our heads - all served by a man with a double chin so large it moved long before he did.
Entry to the stadium was swift with no security checks only a till roll, to use as ticker tape, thrust into Matthew’s grasp by the steward. We headed eagerly up the stairs and took in our first views of the ‘Castle of God’. The stadium has three uncovered stands each overlooked by apartment blocks, is compact, tight to the pitch and atmospheric - in other words perfect for football. We were in the front row, top tier of the main covered stand, directly above the press box and home dugout, giving us totally unobstructed views. To our right was the famous ‘Gate 3’ where we anticipated that the majority of the pyrotechnics would take place. In the centre of that stand was a space, akin to Argentina, reserved for the drummers and leaders of the chanting. To the fore, tied to the fences amongst the many fine banners, were several PAOK flags to be burned in sacrifice at an appropriate point. Unusually the most overbearing sensation was of the brightness of the floodlights, so powerful you needed to shade your eyes from them. We stood for a while just taking in the sights and sounds as the crowd warmed up their vocal chords in unison to the players preparing their bodies.
The stadium rapidly filled, even the section usually occupied by visiting fans was taken up by Aris supporters. The air of anticipation was palpable and then it was time for the entry of the teams. As Aris emerged from the tunnel, Gate 1 welcomed them with fountains of ticker tape as till rolls cascaded from the main stand, but all eyes were drawn to Gate 3 in expectation of the ‘Inferno’ to come. As if sparked by some unseen signal hundreds of flares flickered, then burst into light, until the whole end was simply a mass of flames. Red, pink and grey smoke overpowered the night sky leaving the fans, who had climbed the surrounding fences, silhouetted in a hellish glow. Simultaneously fireworks began exploding in deafening blasts, not just a handful but from all parts of Gate 3, jetting through the smoke and flames into the pitch black night, clearly ‘Light the touch paper and stand well back’ simply does not translate into Greek. This fiery reception continued for several minutes and, as it died down, so the noise levels rose and a crescendo of ‘Oh Super Aris’ echoed from every stand, with the drums beating out a tribal rhythm to underpin the chants.
God of War
So to the match which, in truth, would always struggle to live up to its introduction. The teams were comprised of 9 home-grown players plus 10 other nationalities and neither side had made a convincing start to the season, with Aris yet to win. Following the now seemingly obligatory huddle the game kicked off. Aris forced the PAOK keeper into early desperate action and he made a brilliant save. From the resultant corner Nikos Lazaridis (no relation to Stan) headed home for a second minute lead. Cue crazy celebrations, incredible noise levels and, like a nasty rash that won’t go away, Gate 3 ‘flared up’ again, in almost as impressive fashion as before. The scoreboard behind having to work overtime for its GOAL! message to be seen through the plumes of smoke, PAOK flags burned as frenzied fans mounted the fences to celebrate such a start. The remainder of the first half was largely uneventful, Aris were creative in midfield and solid defensively but unwilling to commit enough players to attack. PAOK were allowed too much possession and grew in confidence as a result. Irrespective of the state of play Gate 3 maintained their superb support, singing out loud and strong. Half-time came with the score still 1-0 but, shortly into the delayed second half - PAOK officials had objected to a very offensive banner and the referee had left the field until it was removed - there was an equaliser. It was almost identical to the Aris goal but the response to Papazoglou’s header was in marked contrast. The whoops, yells and celebrations of the PAOK players cut through the initial silence then the expected torrent of abuse and small missiles burst forth. The remainder of the game was played out with Aris pressing but never really threatening a winner and, at the full time whistle, there were disappointed boos from some sections. The players may have failed to heed the battle call but Gate 3 could hold their heads up high, they had played their part in full, giving their all with incessant noise for the full 90 minutes.
So the game was over, we took our time leaving, wanting to savour the occasion but eventually, reluctantly boarded the #10 bus again. As expected it was packed to the rafters and took a while to get free from traffic, just the regulation scenario after any big game; however this journey was to take a rather disturbing twist. The #10 is the only bus that goes directly from stadium to city, naturally everyone travelling on it has been to the game and is an Aris fan. So, as it entered the downtown area, now about half full with people relaxed and ready for home, just after pulling up at a stop there came a shocking and frightening incident. About a dozen PAOK fans, some on motor scooters, most on foot, ambushed and attacked the bus, some came on board through the middle doors and starting punching anyone in range, others dragged Aris fans off the bus and waded into them outside, two fighters careered down the bus and fell out of the front doors as the driver, reacting quickly, floored the pedal and sped away. Fortunately we had been seated to the front, towards the driver and, save for being shocked, and a little shaken up, we were unscathed but angry at such cowardly and premeditated acts. It had been an unexpected and distasteful ending to an otherwise memorable night making it a relief to get back to the sanctity of our hotel.
Thessaloniki is a fine city, not tarnished with the usual trappings of tourism. The residents are friendly and welcoming. People we met at the game were astonished that we had come from England just to see the match. The pyrotechnics were fantastic, the best we’ve ever seen, and the atmosphere was outstanding. It is a place I would highly recommend for football but only for someone who is not faint-hearted and is relatively experienced in travelling to games abroad.
The hottest ticket in town
Previously on EFW: Aris Fans - The Best in Europe?
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