The risk of division spilling over from the stands

The risk of division spilling over from the stands

Sunday’s events at Toumba Stadium in Thessaloniki will have repercussions well beyond the soccer pitch, as the law dictates that the action will now unfold in the country’s sports and criminal courts. What is at issue here is not just be the fate of PAOK, but also the pitch invasion by its armed owner, Ivan Savvidis – a tangible illustration of the oligarch’s belief that he is above the law. The danger here is that this whole issue could turn into a political screaming clash, regardless of which team is granted the league title by a court decision. Worse, it could sow division between north and south.

The phenomenon is not new, but this is the first time that we have seen politics invade the pitch to such an extent since the end of the 1967-74 junta. On the one hand, there is widespread belief – whether justified or not is irrelevant – that the leftist-led government is trying to influence the outcome of the Greek Super League so that Savvidis takes the trophy home. On the other, many PAOK fans are convinced that the “central powers” in Athens are conspiring to snatch the title from the Thessaloniki-based club.

The protagonist of Sunday’s events, moreover, has made a point of interfering in politics and making an already tense political scene even more so by praising the prime minister and disparaging the main opposition leader.

The reason why he did this, of course, is that he believes it will serve the significant investment interests he has developed in the country – with the help of the political leadership. Where he was wrong, though, was in expressing his political preference and tacitly influencing hundreds of PAOK fans who regard him as the club’s savior and who will be willing to help him protect his business interests if called upon to do so.

The war drums are already thumping on the stands of the die-hard fans, as vulgar slogans against politicians and even a few of a decidedly neo-Nazi bent are getting louder. MPs, mayors and political climbers, meanwhile, are being asked to pick sides – at the risk of a solid beating.

The movers and shakers have a lot to answer for in the politicization of hooliganism and the rising violence and vulgarity of politics. Sunday’s events are just one piece of evidence.
Thirty thousand PAOK fans, who on Sunday morning were encouraged by their leader to behave themselves – and, to be fair, did – watched him a few hours later storming onto the pitch and started pushing and shoving people.

Soccer stands have always been fertile ground, and especially in periods of crisis, for fanaticism and extreme nationalism that then spills out into the streets and sometimes even into the battlefield, as was the case in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Greece is on the brink right now and this kind of division is the last thing it needs.

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