Letter from Thessaloniki

The north-south conflict in Greece in general – and in soccer in particular – has consistently played a momentous and divisive role in this country. Simply put, it’s different up here from down there. Soccer in the north is an interesting beast. It is not just a game. Nor is it a pastime. It’s a way of life. Far more than it is in Attica. It is a cocktail, a mixed drink of family pride, politics and pageantry. It is even religion. «I’m from Kalamaria, that’s why I am Iraklis! You know, it’s the team known also as ‘The Old One’»… says a local fan with eyes spiking with shots of antagonism, arrogance and pride. The club’s colors have traditionally been blue and white, to resemble the Greek flag. Named after Heracles, the mythical Greek demigod, this soccer club is the oldest in Thessaloniki, founded in 1908 when the city was still under Ottoman rule. The club has won one Greek Cup in 1976, and one Balkan Cup in 1985. Thessalonians felt they were in reach of the Greek Cup two days ago, when the other big local soccer club, Aris, played on Friday against Olympiakos – and lost. Shining in all athletic activities just after the end of World War I, and after a golden era from the mid-70s to late 80s, Aris, named after the god of war, was originally established on March 25, 1914, during the glorious days of the Balkan Wars. There were just three teams that competed for the Greek title after the World War II (1946). Thessaloniki champion Aris, Athens champion AEK and Piraeus champion Olympiakos. Three times the Thessalonians were proclaimed the national champions. And the Athenian (or rather of Piraeus), currently oh so glorious and so shamefully moneyed, Olympiakos was beaten twice. These are forgotten glories. A lot of people still remember this. Local newspapers and the Athenian press wrote victorious headlines to mark the victory of the «yellows,» Aris’s major success. «Up here, you’re not born a boy or a girl, you’re born a ‘skouliki’ (‘worm’ is an epithet used for the opponents of Aris), or a ‘Gyftos’ (‘gypsy,’ used by those who detest PAOK). Or they are called simply the ‘Turks.’ Here it’s not painting your face. It’s about painting your chest!» PAOK (Pan-Thessalonian Athletic Association from Constantinople) – beware not to confuse it with the political party PASOK – had been formed by Greek refugees from Asia Minor in the wake of the Greco-Turkish war. There was a time when PAOK had grown to become the greatest soccer club in Macedonia. Apart from having won the Greek championship, PAOK is still the only major soccer club to have a women’s team. For Athenians, Thessaloniki soccer fans may always be «Bulgarians.» Should one watch more closely, however, the Slavic-sounding names come from the south as well. The other day, it was Darko Kovacevic who gave Olympiakos the lead in the 33rd minute and Michal Zevlakov who added another goal in the 52nd. Both foreigners. Also northern European soccer teams usually comprise a healthy mix of home-based players and foreign – mainly Slavic – imports. Although the south ultimately – and sadly – won, northern soccer wasn’t dragging its tail at all. It was all-night partying. Friday night fireworks lit up the sky above the Kaftantzoglio Stadium as the Serb Predrag Djordjevic lifted the trophy. A massive police operation was mounted around the stadium in Thessaloniki, with more than 2,000 police officers in place. Aris as well as Olympiakos have always attracted a fringe element of fan violence. Happily nowadays, serious incidents at domestic games are largely a matter of the past. As the general buildup toward this summer’s European Championships continues and anger over the privatization of the country’s telephone company, OTE, by selling a strategic stake to Deutsche Telekom builds, we are seeing unprecedented displays of anti-German sentiment in Greece. But there is a powerful counter-weight to such movement. The magic name is Otto Rehhagel, the German coach of the Greek national team and one of the longest-serving bosses at international level. On the grand scale of things concerning soccer, the Greeks are still very much an unknown quantity at the international level. Rehhagel was the crucial figure behind Greece’s 2004 European Championship victory. Thanks to «The German,» having reached 2008, Greece seems to have strolled to qualification with consummate ease. For Thessaloniki this will be the next big event to be watched on television. Despite his meager resources, the average Thessalonian is well-fed, rather poorly educated, reasonably satisfied and hardly modest when it comes to soccer. It is a well-known fact that when Greeks stay at home, they watch a lot of TV. And viewership has been rising steadily in recent years and is going to reach peak figures this summer with the European soccer championship. The only other place where Greeks spend more time than in front of the TV, according to statistics, is in bed. To the distress of the Macedonians, Olympiakos secured its fourth straight Greek league title last month. And now this – it got the Cup as well. It was the 23rd time the team from Piraeus won the Cup in the 66-year history of the competition. The world’s self-styled «beautiful game» is much more than a game in the north.