Sunday, April 12, 2015

Iraklis 1908 FC – Apollon Kalamarias FC (22-03-2015)

Greek football has its fair share of problems, including bankruptcies, corruption, and fan violence. The latter has become so bad that the Greek Football Association decided to suspend all leagues for one week and afterward play some games without spectators. This all happened two weeks before I had to be in Greece for work, having scheduled two weekends in the country to see a lot of games. In the end, I got to see one, which is better than nothing.

Despite a large police presence, I saw several small fights on the way to the stadium. They were mostly between small groups of teenagers. Still, this was a game of Iraklis 1908 Thessaloniki FC, the third team of the second city of Greece, not known for its violent fans (unlike PAOK or Aris). My colleague, an Iraklis supporter, had bought tickets earlier that day (€15 for main stand), so we passed by the not too busy ticket office and entered the big Kaftanzoglou Stadium.

While built in 1960, when it became the home field of Iraklis, it has been seriously renovated for the 2004 Olympic Games and is now a modern stadium that holds 27,770 people. This seems quite ridiculous for the third team of a city, which plays in the Football League (Second Division). Still, Iraklis has a good chance at promotion to the top flight of Greek football next year, given its standing and the fact that two teams have already withdrawn from the Super League during the season because of financial problems.

The teams get onto the pitch with the song “Bad Medicine” of Bon Jovi. The players are accompanied by people with Downs syndrome, who get a lot of applause from the roughly 6.000 people (my estimate). The audience is very male. At the main stand, where we sit, are mostly older home fans, while the younger fans are behind the goal (including the ultras). Apollon has taken some 100 people, mostly young, even though the come from a suburb of Thessaloniki.

The game has slow pace and some poor passing. After some 25 minutes a great through ball by Iraklis finds no one in the center of the box. Apollon responds directly with a good long counter, but a poor last ball. 

After some 30 minutes an Iraklis free kick is deflected by an Apollon defender, brought back into the box, and finished with a half-volley in the far corner: 1-0. The game goes back and forth slowly and imprecisely. Maybe that is the reason that people around me ('dad ultras') start to taunt the away fans and have to be pushed back by the police. A bit later a harsh Apollon foul leads almost to a fight on the pitch and two yellow cards for Apollon players, who don't really respect the authority of the referee (they push him with their chest as they argue). Half Time score: 1-0.

The second half starts hectic. An Iraklis corner leads to 2-3 half chances, but no second goal. Some ten minutes later the visitors shoot a free kick from 20 meter in the far corner, but it is too slow and stopped by the goalkeeper. In the next ten minutes Iraklis has two soft chances.

In the 69th minute a terrible back pass leaves an Iraklis player alone in front of the goalkeeper at 35 meter and he scores cool from 16 meter: 2-0. Given that Iraklis is much better than Apollon, that is the game.

Apollon has now totally given up and the only reason that they don’t get slaughtered by Iraklis is that the hosts are wasting chance after chance out of sheer laziness. In the 89th minute they do finish a great through ball from close distance: 3-0.

A minute later all last doubts are taken away, when an Apollon player gets his second yellow card of the game and has to leave. Three minutes into extra time Iraklis gets a free header at the goal, but misses. Final score: 3-0.

While the quality of football was really poor, in terms of stadium, fans, and ambiance Iraklis FC is more a first than second division team. They are worth a visit, even if the setting is not really that of a third team of the city.

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