Think of Greece in 2012 and the word ‘crisis’ and scenes of rioting Athenians loom large. In the capital and away from the sensationalist international headlines, the increased number of wandering beggars and homelessness mean it’s not hard to see that the societal edges are frayed, but the people remain friendly and life largely rolls on, as does the football season.
The country itself may have mixed feelings on its continuing European relationship, but having made a mediocre start to the Greek Super League season Panathinaikos are using the Europa League as a welcome break from their own domestic crises.
Due to financial problems that seem finally to have been sorted with the club now having become supporter-owned, the recent heady heydays of fielding the likes of Gilberto Silva and Djibril Cissé (okay, I’ll admit my tongue is in my cheek just a little for that second one) already seem long gone, and having made an unspectacular start in the group the Trifylli needed the points in a tantalising-looking clash with another footballing giant, Rome’s Lazio.
As well as their off-field issues Panathinaikos are another club in stadium limbo. They have outgrown their treasured former home ground but are not able to get close to filling a much larger place nearby. Their Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium had become increasingly outdated as repeated modernising of the limited space available brought the capacity down to well below 20,000. A new stadium is mooted but barely at the planning stage, seeing a shift to the 2004 Olympic Stadium as the only viable current solution.
Sublime as it looks brightly lit-up on the walk in, the stadium provides an awful setting for football with universally atrocious views. Contrary to the ideals it is said to represent, the Olympic venue makes the game seem slower, the volume lower and the atmosphere far weaker. The soaring roof is for show not showers and does little to retain any sound created by the home fans.
From the off in this Greco-Roman wrestle it’s the Italians who try to pinfall their opponents. They quickly gather a fine collection of corners and test the handling of home goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis. However they needn’t break into too much of a sweat as the hosts are more than willing to do the hard work for them. An optimistic ball over everyone sees Karnezis scamper to clear from the edge of his box, finding his team mate Giorgios Seitaridis. The defender then plays a measured backpass directly towards goal, but where the keeper no longer awaits. It creates a good ten seconds of open-mouthed astonishment around the stadium and it’s a further five seconds before the Lazio players come to understand that they are now ahead in the contest.
Going behind prompts the home side into mulling over the idea of pushing for a leveller, but they think better of it. Maybe they’re aware that the real fireworks will be saved for half time.
The players troop off for the interval, as do many of the supporters, nothing unusual yet. The stadium is one where the toilets and kiosks are communally provided in a ring outside the arena itself, making for free passage to walk around outside of the tribunes.
In the thirty-six hours prior to the game there had been several reports on Greek television of the Lazio fans provoking violent skirmishes with local police and fans, and the notorious Gate 13 Panathinaikos ultras clearly felt that it was their duty to respond. Minutes after the players are gone a sharp bang rang out, swiftly followed by the haze of green flares behind the stands at the away end. Soon fireworks also shot up. There’s no question of it being the travelling two hundred Lazio fans who are hemmed in by two rows of riot police high in the upper tier. Us among the seats scrambled to the back to see what was up. Most of us were unable to see much beyond the flares heading skywards to know exactly why the spartan cries were being shouted so loudly.
The ultras soon filtered back in and it began to feel like a football match again. The home side were still only half trying to regain parity, and it looked as if they were going to comfortably continue their winless Europa League start. However, with ten seconds of normal time left, the ball dropped to Toché in the area from a swung in free kick and the Spaniard poked home an aesthetically displeasing equaliser.
The cheers didn’t last nearly long enough though and the metro journey home saw a resumption of Panathinaikos hostilities. The vast majority of the supporters riding back into central Athens were entirely peaceful and the ultras were generally merely vocal, but on one occasion an Olympiacos fan on the adjacent platform foolishly taunted his rivals, which prompted a small group to rush down from our side, under the tracks, and up to violently quieten the man who had affronted them, only stopping when some security guards intervened.
It was another occasion that promised to display much of what’s great about the game yet, not for the first time, the match itself took something of a backseat to the events going on around it. When chatting over the night’s happenings with a Panathinaikos fan the next day he put it simply: “Some fans just want to make trouble”. Regardless of the team, the shirt colour or the country it’s amazing just how often that phrase needs to be used.
Iain is a football writer currently traveling around the world. Find him on Twitter here.