Panathinaikos 1 Kallithea 0 (19/11/2004)
While Greece may be viewed as an economic basket case in current times, roll back to 2004 and the mood was one of optimism. The country was still basking in the glory of the shock win at Euro 2004, and the city of Athens was still reaping the benefits of a general tidy-up from the Olympic Games that summer.
Even viewing the city through the prism of “afterwards”, it’s not difficult to imagine the city did need a fair bit of tidying. It looked a city where generally planning consent was granted via a backhander and no more questions were asked, with almost every square inch built up with anything developers could fit on it.
Yet it very much worked. It was a very vibrant city, with cafes and bars everywhere, punctuated by the craggy outcrops of rock which rose like islands in a sea of boxy apartment blocks.
Atop on of those rocky lumps is the Acropolis, adding instant charm to any street it’s visible from. The city’s cats seem particularly taken with it, with whole colonies living up there. It keeps them away from the city’s dogs I suppose, who roam the streets below in large numbers. The city authorities had threatened to round up and kill any strays before the Olympics, so the locals went round kitting them out with collars and address tags, making them technically no longer strays.
Round the corner from another of those large rocks, Lykavittos Hill, is the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, the traditional home of Greek giants Panathinaikos. Greek crowds might not be that impressive – when I went Panathinaikos were only averaging around 8500 – but it would be unwise to equate crowd levels with support for the club. The likes of Manchester United and Arsenal may have a monthly magazine out for sale in most newsagents here, but the interest in everything Panathinaikos is such that no fewer than three daily newspapers are dedicated to the fortunes of the club.
Unusually, I had a local guide for the game. I’d got chatting to girl from Athens on some unrelated subject on a football message board a few months earlier, and decided to meet up when I came over. We’d eventually embark on a doomed fling which was short and sweet, much like her as it turned out, but for those few days it was just about plutonic. Like many of those stay-away Panathinaikos fans, she was an avid daily reader of “Athletiki”, one of those daily papers, but hardly ever went to games. This would be her first game for about three years.
There were plenty are bars around this city centre stadium, but for some reason, Gina, my guide, decided to go for a more full on fan experience. Directly underneath one end of the ground was a bar for Panathinaikos fans. Unlike the almost trendy bars found out many English football clubs, this one, designed for the tastes of the less refined “Gate 13” supporters section, had the ambience of a dark heavy metal dungeon. Even Gina’s gift of a Panathinaikos scarf to wrap around my clearly non-Greek neck did little to ease my feeling of being more out of place than Wayne Rooney on an episode of countdown.
Once inside the ground, having negotiated a way past an angry steward who’d confiscated my loose change from a top pocket (banned in Greece in case you throw it at the players), it was a mixture of relief and regret that I was in a much more sparsely populated end than the Gate 13 end opposite. It did give me a good vantage point to view the flares etc at the other end though, although any renditions of “Horto Magiko”, surely the greatest football song of them all, were rather muted here.
I wasn’t sure where the away fans were either. While a game v Kallithea isn’t a heated derby in the same way that a match v the more distant Olympiakos from Piraeus is, it is technically still a derby. I was informed by Gina that despite being an Athens girl, and Kallithea a suburban Athens club, she’d never met a single person who supported them. Wherever they were in the stadium, they weren’t doing much to draw attention to themselves.
After correctly predicting – and promising – that Panathinaikos would not be thrashed at Highbury by Arsenal in the Champions League a couple of weeks earlier, I rather rashly promised Gina 10-0 win v Kallithea. This would struggle to happen even in my imagination, and was never likely in reality on the night either, even against a very limited Kallithea team.
If the 1-1 result at Highbury had been out of the top drawer, tonight’s was more out of the sock drawer, as they struggled time and time again to fashion chances, despite almost complete domination. The home support, noisily supportive at the outset, didn’t take too long to get restless. Naturally I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but the exasperated body language of the frustrated fan needs no translation. Indeed, it was even explained to me that the demanding nature of the Panathinaikos support was seen as a source of pride. It set them apart from the “idiots” at Olympiakos, who’d sing about loving their team even when they were 0-3 down.
Eventually the pressure did tell, even if it took long enough. A through ball played a striker in, and a controlled low shot was enough to take the lead. The low guttural roar for the goal, coming from deep within the body – typical for this past of the world – showed how much it meant, even in a poor low-key game such as this. With Kallithea offering nothing up front, it surely meant that even if my all too brief liaison with my guide wouldn’t have a happy ending, the game at least, would.