The Mother of All Battles. The Derby of the Eternal Enemies. It’s very rare for reality to match the hyperbolic rhetoric that’s bandied around by the sporting press, TV pundits and social media zealots in this day and age. Athens provides the setting for one of the exceptions and fittingly so. The ancient greek metropolis; realm of gods and heroes, legends and tragedies; is the stage for an epic rivalry that’s almost as fabled as the great works of Sophocles and Aeschylus. No, it’s not the cosy scouse love-in that is Liverpool against Everton, nor is it the slightly more contentious Team Edward versus Team Jacob. This one is the real deal. Panathinaikos versus Olympiakos.
Panathinaikos – Oi Prasinoi (the Greens) or To Trifylli (the Shamrock) – based in central Athens is the older of the two clubs having formed in 1908. Their traditional assosciation with Athenian high society – in contrast to Olympiakos’ reputation as the working class team from the docks of Piraeus – is often quoted as the basis for this most tempestuous antagonsim between Greece’s biggest and most successful clubs. However the class-divide between the supporters and their locales is somewhat exaggrated by the fans themselves (particlulary those of the red & white persuasion) in an attempt to distance themselves from their enemy. In truth, Olympiakos – the Erythrolefkoi (the Red &Whites) or the Thrylos (the Legend) – were founded by similarly distinguished members of society in 1925. Today, these supposed differences are almost obsolete. Supporters of both clubs come from all classes of the social spectrum and can be found mixed throughout the greater Athens area as well as Greece as a whole. As with most great football rivalries, it’s not about rich versus poor , it’s about green versus red.
A quick visit to the clubs’ websites or a scroll through Wikipedia will tell you almost all there is to know about the head-to-head record and respective achievements of these clubs, but statistics only serve to embellish the significance of this encounter. In truth, it’s the hatred that exists between the hardcore fans that justifies the moniker: The Mother of All Battles. Whereas a prawn sandwich being thrown from the stands at Old Trafford would be considered newsworthy in the UK, incidents of flares and bottles being launched at players, coaches and officials are considered the norm on derby day in the greek capital. The threat inside and outside the stadium is genuine. In 2007 a 22 year old Panathinaikos fan was stabbed to death during a clash with Olympiakos supporters. In 2012, the derby was abandoned due to large-scale brawls (and a pretty big fire) in the stands between Panathaniakos ultras and police. Very recently, in 2013, a bomb exploded at a fan club run by Gate 13 – the historical ultras group of Panathinaikos. Thankfully no one was harmed but the counterpart Gate 7 group of Olympiakos were the prime suspects. It should be noted that both sets of supporters produce brilliant visual displays and rousing vocal expressions of their passion and loyalty, and the majority of fans stay away from trouble, but it’s the aforementioned events that have led to a ban on away supporters at greek football matches for what are considered high risk games. Panathinaikos-Olympiakos is of course the riskiest of all.
There are many that like to distance themselves from such events. Those that condemn the incidents as being “disgraceful” or “abhorrent” are right, but there’s no denying that the danger surrounding this rivalry is what makes it not only notorious, but exciting, intriguing and vital to many. After all, it’s only human nature to be seduced by elements of menace and tragedy. Some prefer to be voyeurs, sitting comfortably and watching from a safe distance, while others succumb to wanton acts of destruction at first hand. Either way, sports fans are captivated by the most intense rivalries. So while the sanctimonious among us are right to say that the more unwholesome aspects of sport “are not part of the game”, they are failing to understand that the game is a part of us, just as the temptation to seek danger and controversy is also part of us. That temptation appears to be eternal, particularly in Athens.
Athens is home to many football clubs. What follows is a roll call of the city’s main teams.
Red & White
Stadium: Karaiskakis Stadium (32,115)
41 League Championships & 26 Greek Cups
Rivals: Panathinaikos, PAOK, AEK Athens, Aris
Stadium: Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium (16,003)
20 League Championships & 18 Greek Cups
Rivals: Olympiakos, AEK Athens, PAOK, Aris, Panionios
Yellow & Black
Stadium: Olympic Stadium (69,638)
11 Greek Championships & 11 Greek Cups
Rivals: Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, PAOK, Panionios
Nea Smyrni, southern Athens
Red & Blue Founded: 1890
Stadium: Nea Smyrni Stadium (11,700)
2 Greek Cups
Rivals: Apollon Smyrni, Panathinaikos, Atromitos Athens, AEK Athens
Peristeri, northwest Athens
Stadium: Peristeri Stadium (9,050)
No major honours
Rivals: Panionios, Egaleo
Blue & White
Stadium: Rizoupoli Stadium (14,856)
No major honours
Blue & White
Stadium: Gregoris Lambakis Stadium (4,200)
No major honours
Rivals: Egaleo, Panachaiki