Letter from Thessaloniki

Last week Aris and Red Star – top soccer teams from Thessaloniki and Belgrade, respectively, both from the bottom-of-the-economy Balkans compared with their affluent European counterparts – met in Thessaloniki for an UEFA Cup match. Aris won the game, 3-0. Several hours before the game, a group of Red Star fans sitting at a seafront cafeteria in one of the busiest parts of the city were attacked with knives by some 10 men wearing motorcycle helmets – and this in broad daylight. Three Serbs were stabbed in the legs. A fourth Red Star fan, a woman, was unhurt. The attackers ran away. As our correspondent Stavros Tzimas noted, the assailants, according to those in the know, were hooligans who supported another Thessaloniki club which had teamed up with hooligans from a Belgrade club.  The incident happened before the game, which is rather unusual. The attack took place on account of the black jerseys worn by the two allies. What seems so strange is that the «blacks» hate two other teams: one also from Belgrade and another from Athens, who wear red. Of course this is just absurd. It sounds as though they are making fun of the people and the processes that form the operations of soccer as well of hooliganism. Now, rumor has it that it was PAOK fans (a black-dressed local supporters’ club) who attacked the red-adorned Serbs. «Yet the Crvena Zvezda – Red Star – team were playing Aris. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable for Aris fans to be attacked?» I ventured to ask. My fellow debater – most probably an Aris fan – responded with a rather incongruous question: «Do you know why the god of war, Ares, is naked and doesn’t carry his shield? Because he doesn’t need it. No, sir. He has the Aris fans to look after the team. And he knows that all the other fans can’t be compared to Aris fans… You can read that, and more on our website!» Browsing through the team’s website, I discovered that «there is no such power in the world as that of being an Aris fan…» and that «this fire can’t be extinguished. It’s invincible!» Now sports fans often seek to emulate the heroes they go along to watch. Yet gods are rarely your usual heroes. At least the ancient Greek gods, such as Ares, the god of war, who figures on the team’s logo. And the colors of the team are black and yellow; that is, they are reminiscent of past Byzantine glories. Aris has a long and proud record. It was once first in the local championship of Thessaloniki, totaling 14 wins. It also won the first championship in Greece in 1928, when the competition was established. The other big team in the north is PAOK. PAOK (All-Thessaloniki Sports Club of Constantinopolitans) was founded in 1926, after Greek refugees from Asia Minor settled here. Its colors are black and white. Because of its characteristic crest, it is also known as the «double-headed eagle of the north» – to distinguish it from the «double-headed eagle of the south» which, of course, is AEK in Athens. Soccer fans in Thessaloniki differ a lot.  Aris spectators are svelte and upper-middle class. [PASOK leader] George Papandreou could be one of them if he lived here. The deputy culture minister in charge of sports is a known Aris supporter, while his predecessor Giorgos Orfanos is a PAOK follower. PAOK supporters are burly and gregarious. Evangelos Venizelos is rumored to be one of these. This is a city in which the hatred among soccer fans is palpable. Only 10 days ago (on October 31), Bulgarian fans of FC CSKA and fans of Skopje club Vardar exchanged insults («Bulgari Tatari» and «Bulgarski picki»). Moreover, they sang, at a game in Skopje, nationalist anthems («Dear Motherland,» «Rise, Rise Balkan Hero» and «Macedonia is Bulgarian»). Furthermore, CSKA’s coach, Stojko Mladenov, disclosed that next time he would chose a Greek team when organizing a friendly game, probably Panathinaikos or PAOK. Nationalistic soccer hooliganism was one of the first issues to attract academics to the study of soccer, with sociologists, historians and psychologists developing hypotheses to explain why soccer hooliganism continues to occur. Most of them I consider with my empirically oriented mind as naive or illogical. I think it is more reasonable to support those who complain that such incidents are blown out of proportion by the media. The footage of the perceived scum of society fighting one another looks so appetizing and spectacular on TV. Doesn’t it?