In my last piece I wrote that life in Greece, despite the country’s ongoing financial crisis, was largely carrying on as normal. I’d like to retract that, Greece has since gone mental.
When I arrived last week there were audible grumbles, but now they have morphed into loud, embittered snarls and the country has plunged back into the mire. The government’s vote on austerity measures that will reduce wages while increasing prices is due to take place this week and the general public has gone on general strike in an attempt to change the likely political decision.
The result of the two-day strike is that the schools are shut, the newspapers haven’t been printed and there is absolutely no public transport, even the taxi drivers are in on the action.
There are clearly some pretty serious questions to be asked, and I too had an albeit relatively unimportant one of my own: how on earth was I going to get to the Olympiacos-Montpellier Champions League match?
The Greek champions are based in the working-class suburb of Piraeus, near the ferry port and about ten kilometres from the city centre. After some chats and thinking cap twitching I sided on finding a bike, but was rapidly shouted down on the idea by those suggesting that, due to Athens’ notorious drivers, it would quickly end with a squashed blogger on tarmac. Besides, I wasn’t the first person to think of it and seemingly every saddle had long since been perched on as a transport alternative.
Salvation came on match morning from a local tour agent who offered me a lift later in the day, his house being near the stadium. Salvation then left upon my evening return when I found that my saviour had already gone having knocked off early.
The albatross of self-propulsion was back, I was going to have to walk it. Being positive, the road was straight and direct and in just over the length of time it takes to play a game of football I was on the final approach in to the Karaiskakis Stadium.
To an outsider Group B may have had an air of being stitched up at the halfway point. The expected front-runners Schalke and Arsenal had already opened up a sizeable gap, but a last-minute Olympiacos win away at Montpellier on, to use UEFA speak, Matchday 3 gave the Greeks their first points in the group and the opportunity to mount a knock out spot challenge if they could repeat the feat and do a French double.
What’s more, Olympiacos have form, bags full of it. They’ve so far made an unbeaten start to their Super League championship defence and boast a record of eight wins from their nine games. Even Shakhtar Donetsk might turn a head to that.
I had been to Olympiacos’ domestic encounter on Saturday, an uninspiring 2-0 victory against Crete mid-table side OFI that would have to be labelled as routine. The fans saving themselves for Tuesday as much as the team, the stadium had only been half full, but the flares and flags from the home end had been more than captivating enough to make the trip worthwhile.
The arrival of Montpellier brought with it almost twice the number of fans, but big cup regulations meant the fireworks were banned, leading to a subdued feel in an otherwise pretty packed stadium.
The home fans instantly had something to shout about however, as Olympiacos picked up right where they had left off a fortnight ago in France. A fourth minute shot ricocheted off the post and the lead was taken when Paulo Machado tapped home the rebound. There was delirium, but it was a fairly restrained delirium.
The visitors knew nothing but a win was of much use and played some entertaining stuff but failed to restore parity before the break. Things were different in the second half though, twice they warned their hosts with good chances straight at Roy Carroll (yes, him), but the third opportunity was better still and when the referee pointed to the spot after too much defensive arm wrestling Younès Balhanda neatly equalised.
For us in the stands it felt like a real punch in the stomach. Having been ahead for over an hour we had the pleasantly refreshed group table already etched in our minds. What followed was fifteen minutes of pin drop breath intake. Suddenly we needed to win it again, nothing seemed so sure anymore. What’s more, Montpellier had enjoyed scoring and seemed keen on another.
Fortunately, for all their attacking flair (and even with John Utaka out injured) the French side always looked capable of a rick. A poor Olympiacos corner was criminally not headed away at the near post and was instead swept home in the middle, and two minutes later Konstantinos Mitroglou half-volleyed home a cultured third and the smiles and the noise were back. This Champions League lark’s not so hard after all and Olympiacos have a genuine chance again, just one point behind crisis-in-waiting Arsenal.
Now, to get home again. I tried to swap my heels for my thumb and hitchhike back into the city, but it’s not a skill I’ve ever excelled in and finding little joy I ended up reverting to blister-making. Still, if you’re intent on undertaking some sort of marathon Athens really should be the place to do it.
Iain is a football writer currently traveling around the world. Find him on Twitter here.