Sunday, July 30, 2017
Last time I was in Athens, two years ago, there were no games to see, so this time around I was happy to see that the season wasn’t all over yet. The Superleague Greece (First Division) was in the play-off stages, with the game between the big teams from Athens and Thessaloniki mired by violence. As I have seen all the major teams of Athens already more than two decades ago, I decided to go and see a game in the Football League (Second Division). My Dutch friend WL, who has lived in Athens for decades, went with me, which was not just good for company but also for directions – turned out that the bus line we needed had been discontinued a year ago. So, after two different buses, and an almost one-hour travel to the outskirts of Athens, we arrived in a very sleepy suburb of Acharnes, where the effects of the economic crisis are much more visible than in the heart of Athens.
Athlitikos Omilos Neos Acharnaikos was created in 1938, but only founded in 1959 – I also don’t know why. Until 1961 they were known as Yperochi Menidi – Menidi is another name for Acharnes. Their colors are green and white and their logo is a four-leaf clover, which makes them look very similar to Athens powerhouse Panathinaikos – although they are not officially connected. Until the 1990s they played in local divisions of Athens.
After a cup of coffee in a far too modern café close by, we return to the stadium, where we buy tickets (€5) for the main stand, which turns out to be the only of two stands open today. Fortunately it is covered, as it looks like the rain will return during the game.
Acharnes Stadium is an old concrete stadium in a residential area, probably from the 1950s, which has seen little investment since its opening. It has a capacity of 4,450, but today there are barely 250. Only some 5 percent are women, rest mostly older, local men. No one had the made the almost 300 km (180 miles) track from Karditsa in the North of Greece.
The weather has been terrible all day, i.e. cold, grey and rainy, and the pitch is in a horrible state. This doesn’t help the already limited players:both teams are on the lower end of the table. The pace of the game is low, the control poor, and the passing cautious. And then, out of nowhere, in the 8th minute, the hosts shoot from 25 meters and the goalie completely misses the ball: 1-0. I start to wonder about the Chinese gambling mafia.
In the 11th minute a free kick of Acharnaikos goes nowhere. Fifteen minutes later a good attack by the hosts is shot at the goalie from close range. Another ten minutes passes in which little happens and most of the audience remains low-key, mostly passing time by talking with each other.
In the 35th minute an Anagennisi corner is missed by everyone and a minute later their free kick is headed well over. In the 38th minute two players get injured and stay on the ground for a while. Then the official clock is moved to 45 minutes and it turns out it was running 8 minutes slow. Half time: 1-0.
The second half continues where the first half left off: slow pace, poor control, cautious passing. In the 53rd minute Anagennisi has two attacks, one is headed out by the hosts, and in the rebound a visitor volleys the leg of an Acharnaikos player rather than the ball. Overall, the game is full of injuries, which makes it even slower.
The visitors are pressuring, as the hosts mainly defend. Anagennisi mainly pumps in crosses, which are (easily) headed out by the Acharnaikos defenders. At one attack the home goalie almost fumbles, at another he tips the ball over the goal. In the 66th minute Anagennisi has another attack, this time ending in a low and slow shot, which is saved by the goalie. In the 75th minute the guests finally score; once again the attack is over left and this time it s finished in the right corner: 1-1, which is also the final score.
Acharnaikos is a great destination for an adventurous groundhopper, but might not be worth the trouble for the average football fan. I’m just happy WL went with me and didn’t even complain!
Friday, July 28, 2017
This May I had to be in Istanbul for work and there was no way I was going to pass on the opportunity to see a game… or so I thought. Because going to a game in Turkey has become almost impossible these days. Since supporters of all three major Istanbul teams played a major role in the Gezi protests against Erdogan, the government has responded by taking full control of the football experience. You have to get a special pass, which you can only order online, and requires all your personal details, including passport – the system is not made for non-Turkish citizens, which makes it all worse. I had a Turkish student help me with all of this, but that made it only barely workable. Anyway, that same card is the only way you can buy tickets, again online, making this as much about corruption as about security.
Istanbul traditionally has two really big teams, Fenerbahçe SK and Galatasaray SK, and a third, slightly smaller team, Beşiktaş Jimnastik Kulübü. Beşiktaş is a district known for its independence, and its people, including the football fans, have been among the most vocal Erdogan opponents. But Beşiktaş has also become a powerhouse in Turkish football, playing in a new stadium, Vodafone Park (bit better than the previous name, Vodafone Arena), and having won the Super Lig (First Division) last year.
My student arranges a ticket through family connections – tickets went on sale less than a week before the game and were sold out within 10 minutes. Not surprising as Beşiktaş is again set to win the league and this is the third last game of the season. They play Kasımpaşa Spor Kulübü, a mid-table team from another district of Istanbul, also on the European side of the city.
We arrive early some 2 hours early at the stadium and go directly to the ticket office. It takes my student quite some convincing to get my pass, which also functions as my ticket, but it works. After that we go to the packed fan shop, which is huge and slow, where I buy a jersey. This all takes so much time that we now have only 30 minutes left until kick-off. After some serious security measures, where cards are scanned and security personnel can check your picture, we finally get into the stadium.
As the tickets were sold out within minutes, the student was only able to get tickets for some of the most expensive places – fourth row in the middle. They cost a staggering 320 Tl (ca. $90) each, but it was all worth it. Vodafone Park is an ultramodern multi-purpose stadium at the site of the old stadium, of which it integrated a few parts, situated inside the historic district of Beşiktaş. It has an official capacity of 41,903, because the club was founded in 1903, even though the real capacity is 43,500.
Although the stadium is officially sold out, there are still quite a lot of empty seats. Overall the audience is very heavily male and, seemingly (upper) middle class – which could be in part because of where I sit, but the district of Beşiktaş is more middle class. After listening to a lot of singing, sitting through the commercials and national anthem – a bizarre ritual they share (only?) with South Korea and the United States – the game finally starts.
And how! After 1 minute and 20 seconds Beşiktaş has a great rush inside, a double pass, and a finish from very close high in the goal: 1-0 and the stadium explodes. But exactly two minutes later a Kasımpaşa player gets free at 20 meters from the goal and shoots hard and low in the corner: 1-1 and the stadium is silent and in shock.
After about 15 minutes a shot by the home team was tipped over the goal by the goalkeeper. A few minutes later a sneaky through-ball puts the striker of the visitors before the goal, but he but cannot control the ball. In a direct counter-attack a Beşiktaş striker gets a great chance but heads the ball straight at the goalie. Five minutes later they hit the crossbar with a header. Then, after half an hour, a good attack by the hosts leads to a ball on the hand of a defender: penalty. While it is not well taken, it goes just under the goalie: 2-1! This is also the halftime score.
The second half starts well. A Beşiktaş cross is headed corner just next to the goal. The corner is headed over. Two minutes later, after foul on a Kasımpaşa player, Beşiktaş starts an attack through the center, and a little lob is finished with a clever flick: 3-1. Great goal!
The hosts keep at it. The striker gets passed two people and shoots high over the goal from within the box. In the 57th minute the visitors have a long but slow attack, but the shot from 20 meters out is an easy catch for the goalkeeper. After a few good shots on both sides, Beşiktaş scores again, but I miss the goal. It is scored by the former Dutch international Ryan Babel and it seems to have been a header: 4-1. After that Babel disappears and the home team is mainly playing for time. This gives the visitors a few chances, against very uninspired defending Beşiktaş, but they miss several times from close range. 4-1 is the final score.
As soon as the final whistle is blown the stadium explodes again. While Beşiktaş didn’t play a particularly good game, but mainly profited from a very mediocre opponent, they took a giant step closer to the title (which they would indeed clinch two weeks later in the last (home) game of the season). The crowd celebrated the team for many more minutes.
While I am normally not a fan of big clubs in big new stadium, let alone “arenas”, I have a special place in my heart for Beşiktaş. It is a club truly grounded in the neighborhood, with deeply loyal and loud supporters, who don’t shy away from mixing football with (opposition) politics – during the game almost the whole stadium sang an opposition (to President Erdogan) song. Definitely worth a visit for every groundhopper!