Wednesday 16 July 2014

Greek Football League Teams in Thessaloniki

In recent years when we are on holiday I've taken my running shoes along, and if my kids have had the audacity to have a long lie some mornings, I'll take myself off for a wee run about town. If you are only in town for a few days I think that you can get under the skin of a city a bit if you head off the beaten track and go where the locals go. As a follower of Partick Thistle Football Club, if you were visiting my city I think you could do worse than seek out the football league grounds here to see a bit of Glasgow (to save you the bother of finding a map, I've done it for you). Last year these morning runs took me to the backstreets around the grounds of St Pauli in Germany and to AZ, FC Groningen and Telstar in the Netherlands.

Greek football

Athens viewed from the Acropolis
As a Grecophile I like to keep an eye on a couple of twitter feeds which have news on Greek football, although they are as interested in Greeks playing in foreign leagues as they are in their own domestic league. This year I was in Greece whilst their national team had a decent run in the World Cup. Unfortunately whilst we were in Athens they were eliminated by Costa Rica. The Greek league itself is rather stifled as a competitive league by the dominance of the "big clubs" from Athens.

Panathinaikos and Olympiakos logo
Club badges of Panathinaikos and Olympiacos
Within the past 21 years Olympiacos have won the league 16 times, Panathinaikos 4 times and AEK Athens only once. 1988 was the last year that a team from outwith Athens won the league (in Scotland the last time the league was won by someone outwith the Glasgow "Old Firm" was even longer ago, 1985 when Aberdeen won).
Club badge of AEK Athens
The Greek league has a pyramid system, with the top "Superleague" composed of 18 teams who play 34 games in a season, with 3 teams relegated to the "Football League" below. The upper leagues compete for the Greek Cup, and the multiple lower leagues, which become regional the further down you go, competing for the Greek Amateur Cup. The league system is currently ranked 12th by UEFA (11 places ahead of the Scottish League) giving them 2 Champions League places. 

In European competition their greatest moment came in 1971 when Panathinaikos were defeated in the European Cup final at Wembley by Ajax. The great Ferenc Pusk├ís was the manager at the time, and the Panathinaikos supporting father of a Greek friend has told me about following his team to London that day. More recently in the Champions League era, Greek teams have twice made it to the quarter finals and once to the semi-final.


My plan had been to get up and jog about the grounds in Athens early one morning when we were there. However, British Airways scuppered this plan by stranding our luggage at Heathrow Airport for 4 days, by which time we had moved on from Athens. So once I had got my running shoes back, we had arrived in the second city of Greece, Thessaloniki (Thessalonica).

Roman arch and rotunda (which later became a mosque and then a church) in Thessaloniki.

This port city in Macedonia, northern Greece, has a population of almost 800,000 people. Thessaloniki was founded almost 2500 years ago by King Cassander of Macedon, who married Alexander the Great's half-sister Thessalonike. It became the capital of the Greek provinces in Roman times under Emperor Galerius and Saint Paul came to the city in 49AD and produced his "Letters to the Thessalonians".

Thessaloniki viewed from the Byzantine and Ottoman-era fortress walls

Later it became the second wealthiest city of the Byzantine empire. From the 15th century it was under Ottoman rule for around 500 years, about 100 years longer than southern Greece was. In 1881 it was the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey. The 20th century started with the Balkan Wars in the region. Then in 1917 a huge swathe of the old city was destroyed by a great fire. After the First World War the break up of the Ottoman Empire led to the city becoming Greek again, with a massive "population exchange" occurring between Greece and Turkey. 

Holocaust Memorial by the waterfront, Thessaloniki
Bombed by the Italians and then occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, over 50,000 Jewish residents of the city were deported to their deaths by the Nazis.

Now the city's port is becoming a major hub for trade in Southeastern Europe. Thessaloniki is home to two of Greece's largest universities and as a result has a relatively young population, which means it has an excellent variety of tavernas, restaurants and bars to choose from. The large shopping streets in the city centre can snarl up with traffic during the day and the city is currently building an underground train system, although when I was there last week this appeared to have ground to a halt over uncovered archaelogical finds in the middle of Egnatio Street.

Sunset over the port at Thessaloniki

Like the rest of Greece people have been badly affected by the economic crisis, with youth unemployment levels being very high in the city. However on visiting the city again this year after a gap of almost 20 years I found it as lively, as handsome and as friendly as ever. Okay, I'll admit I'm biased as I spent some time here as a student and have many Greek friends in the area, but I do think it is a city that more people should look into visiting. It is becoming easier as from the UK, Easyjet fly to Thessaloniki airport from Manchester, BA from Gatwick and Ryanair from Stansted.

Night view of Thessaloniki for the upper town (Ano Poli).

Football in Thessaloniki

As is the case in Spain, many Greek football teams are part of a multi-sport club which share a common identity and facilities. The three main football teams in Thessaloniki are Aris FC, Iraklis FC and PAOK. All three were founding members of the Greek football league in 1927-28. Unfortunately their associated sports clubs appear to be having more success than their football teams recently. Basketball is big in Greece. Aris BC dominated the Greek basketball league for a decade and won the European Cup Winners Cup at that time. Once in the 1990s I arrived at Thessaloniki airport at the same time as a new signing for them, to find an airport full of chanting basketball fans greeting him. Iraklis BC won the inaugural basketball league championship in Greece, and their volleyball team have been crowned European champions before.

Iraklis FC

The badge of Iraklis FC 1908

The oldest of the football teams is Iraklis FC. Founded in 1908, whilst the city was still under Ottoman rule as the "Ottoman Greek Association of Thessaloniki, Hercules" they play in the blue and white of the Greek national flag and have Hercules resting on his club on their badge.

Financial chaos at the club over the last 10 years has led to relegation and bankruptcy, but at present they appear to be getting back on track after a merger with the smaller Pontioi Katerinis club. The new club goes under various names, such as PAE Iraklis 1908 but in most respects is a continuation of the old club. They will start the 2014-15 season in the Football League, the second tier of Greek football.

Their home ground is the impressive Kaftanzogliou Stadium, which was renovated for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

Kaftanzogliou Stadium, home of Iraklis
It has a capacity of almost 28,000 and is a frequently used athletics arena, with a running track separating the fans from the pitch. On the morning that I was there a group of young army cadets appeared to be using the athletics track of the stadium, whilst a more middle aged selection of joggers were using the adjacent sports field for training.

Aris FC

Club badge of Aris FC
About 3.5km away from Kaftanzogliou stadium lies Aris FC. Founded in 1914, the club is named after Ares, the god of war. The club badge features a seated image of the god "resting, always on guard to fight if necessary" as the club put it. Until this season they were in the Superleague, but after finishing last in the 2013-14 season they have been relegated to the Football League.

Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium, home of Aris.
An average home crowd last year of just over 7,000 made their way to the 20,000 capacity Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium. Their colours are yellow and black, recalling the Byzantine colours of old Thessaloniki which can still be found on the two-headed eagle flags at many Greek Orthodox churches in the city. About 10 years ago financial difficulties led to the creation of the Aris Members' Association, giving fan control of the club.

When I ran past their ground I have to say it looked decidedly shabby after visiting their near neighbours, but with the current lack of cash it seems this is where they stay for now.


Club badge of PAOK

Lying almost halfway between these two grounds (making it an easy circuit to get around all three grounds in one morning run) is found PAOK Football Club at Toumba Stadium.

PAOK in recent times have been the most successful of the Thessaloniki teams, and for the 2014-15 season will be the only city team in the Superleague. Founded in 1926 the name (roughly) stands for Pan-Thessalonian Athletics Club of Constantinopolitans. As the name suggests football is not the only sport at the club. They also have basketball, cycling, handball, volleyball, athletics, wrestling, hockey, weightlifting, swimming and water polo clubs. Playing in black and white stripes their badge is (like AEK Athens) the two-headed eagle. This and the name hark back to the club's roots as Hermes Sports Club, in a Greek community of Istanbul, founded in 1877. The post-war emigration of Greeks to Thessaloniki brought the club to the town under its new name.

In what is becoming a recurrent story here, the club came close to financial ruin 10 years ago, but appears to have stabilised and continues to work towards paying off previous debts. This includes the stated aim of recruiting more players through their academies than from expensive foreign imports. Old club favourite, and native of the city, Dimitris Salpingidis returned as club captain recently after being sold to Panathinaikos in 2006 in a bid by the club to raise cash.

Toumba Stadium, home to PAOK
(The "mia kardia" sign means "one heart" I think)

Last season they finished second in the league. The teams which finish 2nd to 5th in the league play-off for the remaining European places. They lost out to Panathinaikos for Greece's second Champions League place, with Olympiacos taking the other Champions League berth. This means that they will join the Europa League at the play-off round in 2014-15. The stadium capacity is 28,000 and the average home gate last year was just over 13,000.

It took me a while to click that the graffiti proclaiming "IRA" on various walls in the city is presumably from the fans of Iraklis. PAOK and ARIS graffiti was also much in evidence, usually followed by the gate number where the loyal fans who made their scrawl gather, for example Gate 4 is where the largest group of PAOK fans gather. As a boy who grew up in Glasgow of the 1970s and 80s, after seeing IRA daubed on various walls I had initially expected to turn a corner to find UDA, FTP or FTQ across the next wall.

Visiting these grounds in Thessaloniki, the funny thing was that you could just about throw a blanket over the three of them. It is clear that the financial difficulties football clubs have faced in Scotland are just as apparent in Greece, and the solution being sought of bringing through young players to the first team is here also seen as the solution. Two parts in place in the Greek league structure have been suggested as solutions for Scottish problems. They have a pyramid system in place, and a larger top league, where teams play each other only twice. Two automatic relegation places and a play-off for the team in the third bottom slot mean there is a churn of teams to the lower leagues. Due to successes in previous years in Europe, the champions go straight into the Champions League group stage, whilst the next four teams have a play-off of 3 home and 3 away games to decide who gets the last Champions League slot and who slots into the which of the 3 Europa Cup slots Greece has. In recent years this has meant that once Olympiacos have won the league, other teams still have something to play for.

One thing is clear, the Greek national team seems to be over-achieving when you look at it compared to the Scotland team (or the England team for that matter). There are many more Greeks playing successfully in foreign leagues than there are Scots doing the same. Whether the league set up, youth development or just pragmatic management of the international team is responsible, surely we can learn something from them. Since they first appeared at a major championship in Euro 1980 they are now regular qualifiers for the Euros and World Cups. Crowned Euro 2004 champions, the Germans knocked them out at the quarter final stage in Euro 2012 and in this summer's World Cup in Brazil, despite their acknowledged  lack of superstar players, they still made it to the knockout stage.

Whether it is for football, history, nightlife or archaeology, I recommend that you wander the streets of Thessaloniki sometime soon.