Thursday, 12 February 2015

Thessaloniki Football Weekend

The Greek economy isn't the only thing suffering, the country's professional football leagues suspended when a refereeing official was beaten up outside his own home and whacked by a match-fixing scandal in which nearly two-thirds of players believed results were determined in advance. Plus ça change, you could say:  Christos Michas, referee for the 1973 European Cup Winners' Cup Final, arrived by plane before the match with the AC Milan squad, dismissed Norman Hunter and two Leeds United penalty appeals and later received a lifetime ban from UEFA.  "A diabolical travesty," Peter Lorimer says. "It was wholly, indisputably and wretchedly bent".  The game ended with Milan collecting their medals to a cascade of boos, their team bus stoned and spat at as it left the ground. "A disaster from beginning to end," wrote the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, "a night of rain and rage".

 Sneaking in at Iraklis 1908's Kaftanzoglio Stadium

The final took place at the home of Iraklis Thessaloniki, formed in 1908 out of a Macedonian music and literature club and Greek Cup winners in 1976 with the sublimely gifted Vasilis Hatzipanagis in their side.  In 2011, Iraklis - ironically the one top-flight team not mentioned in a UEFA file listing 54 suspect results - were demoted from the Super League over "various alleged misdemeanours", failed to get a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and started the next season in the fourth-tier Delta Ethniki while negotiating a merger with second division Pontioi Katerinis. The new club kept hold of the Iraklis name, badge, colours, history and stadium, took over Pontioi's place in the league and are currently unbeaten since September, through to the Greek Cup quarter-final and six points clear at the top of the Football League.

Part of the graffiti wall in Kalamarias.

"The only thing they deserve is contempt," says a supporter of Apollon Kalamarias.  "Iraklis is the shame of Thessaloniki.  They sold out their history when they bought Pontioi."  Formed in March 1926 by Pontic Greek immigrants from the Greco-Turkish War (the club colours mix red for the blood of those massacred in Turkey and black for the eternal mourning of a community for whom every game is played several hundred miles from home),  Kalamarias have spent much of their history shuffling between the first and second flights. In 2009, unable to pay debts of €5 million, Apollon was stripped of its professional licence and forcibly demoted to the amateur divisions.  "We did not change," the fan says.  "We did not erase our debts by extinguishing the name of our club."  While Iraklis prosper, Apollon languish in the Football League's relegation places, their single-sided Kalamaria Stadium a thirty-minute ride on the number 5 bus in a seafront suburb between the city centre and Thessaloniki's airport.

View from the Ano Poli (Upper Town). 

The city's third Football League team, Agrotikos Asteras, are one place lower and six years younger than Kalamarias, formed by refugees from Izmir in 1932.  Semi-finalists in the 2005-06 Greek Cup, where they lost 3-1 over two legs to AEK Athens, the green-and-whites play at the 2,200-capacity Evosmos Stadium, its seats donated by Iraklis when their Kaftanzoglio Stadium was refurbished for the 2004 Olympic Games.  The ground is in a western suburb, north of the port and Ampelokipoi (where Thessaloniki's other Iraklis, a Football League Two side, are based); the club's ultras, the Green Ghetto, are fiercely anti-fascist but number no more than 50 people in a city dominated by the big two of Aris and PAOK.

Tying banners at Aris.

PAOK are another of Thessaloniki's immigrant clubs, their black and white stripes symbolising mourning for a lost home and the hope of a brighter future.  Founded in Istanbul, PAOK relocated during the population transfers that followed the Greco-Turkish War and have always viewed themselves as outsiders.  "The orginal fans were Greeks but were badly welcomed here because the local communities thought that they were Turks," one member of the Gate 4 Ultras explains.  "We are the only club in Greece against the rotten system of Olympiacos, the team of the state.  We don't care about championships and cups, but what PAOK represents.  Everything we won, we deserved. We are PAOK because of the history, the struggle, the idea beyond this team."  Twice national champions and four-time winners of the Greek Cup, the club were banned from European competitions in 2006 after building up debts of over €30 million, but have since stabilised under the presidencies of Euro 2004 champion Theo Zagorakis and Ivan Savvidis.  Their Toumba Stadium, built by supporters in the late-1950s,  is within walking distance of Aris, Iraklis and the centre of Thessaloniki; with Aris marking their 100th anniversary by dropping two divisions, it's also currently the only ground in the city where you can watch top-flight and Europa League football.  Ticket booths are open from around four hours before kick-off on matchdays or you can print-at-home from the club's website. 

Outside the Toumba

Thessaloniki's Macedonia International Airport is linked to Stansted, Gatwick and Manchester by Ryanair and easyJet flights.  It's a 40-minute ride into the city centre on the number 78 bus (ticket machines onboard), which runs 24 hours and stops directly outside arrivals, on the main shopping street, Tsimiski, and at both the train and intercity bus stations.  Most of the city's best bars (try Pulp or Beer Store) are either facing the promenade between the White Tower and the port buildings or in Ladadika, a narrow tangle of cobbled streets two blocks west and one inland from the start of the port and the Holocaust Memorial at Eleftharias Square, where you'll also find the most central stop for the bus back to the airport. A five-minute walk along Ionos Dragoumi,  the Pella Hotel is a good budget hotel option, though the beds are even harder than the defence in that 1973 Leeds team.  If you want to splash out, the Electra Palace is the best in town, while the The Bristol, a five-star boutique hotel, is in the middle of the action in Ladadika.  There's also a hostel, Little Big House, uphill from the centre between Kaftanzoglio Stadium and the UNESCO-listed old town, the Ano Poli.  The tourist information centre keeps irregular hours, so download a map before you go from here or here. 

Finally, there's a separate post on Aris FC here.

Sun, sea, beer, football and anti-fascist ultras: there's a lot to like about Thessaloniki.

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