The very first picture, I saw someone who looked just like my brother. He was in what looked like a riot. Smoke and carnage all around, he wore a green and orange bomber jacket and was throwing rocks at god knows who. I copied the link and sent it to my brother without saying a word. I thought maybe this was just in my head.
His response: “Haha… I am in one of those pictures.”
My response: “First picture, top right, eh?”
Within two minutes I discovered that my brother used to be an Ultra. The real kind. For the past twenty-six years, I had no idea. I had no idea I had a Green Ultra in my family. I’d seen his collection of football shirts. I’d seen the season tickets, well-used but intact. I was aware that he’d made away trips with Panathinaikos around Europe. I wore his double-faced green and orange bomber, the uniform of the Green Ultras…
Maybe our nine year age gap blinded me. I thought he was just into football…
In Greece, more than anywhere else, football fans are polarised.
Olympiacos was founded in 1925 and based in the port of Athens, Piraeus. Clad in red, they’ve always been a symbol of the working class.
Panathinaikos, their bitter rivals, see only green. Founded in 1908, Panathinaikos is still associated with the old Athenian aristocratic society. Since the 1930s, for all their differences, it was in violence where fans of both clubs found common ground.
Established in 1966, the supporter group of the Panathinaikos is known as Gate 13. The oldest fan association in Greece, it consists of eighty Green sports clubs throughout Greece and Cyprus—football, basketball, volleyball, water polo, athletics, swimming, weightlifting, and archery are only a few of the clubs housed under its umbrella.
This past December I came to Gate 13’s base, a little coffee shop just a stone’s throw away from Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium—the oldest active football stadium in Greece—where Panathinaikos have played since the early 20s. You can tell it’s an old stadium because it has been left in a state where the blocks of flats surrounding it are higher than the actual stadium. And by this I mean that every time there is a game the flats of the top floors can watch it from the comfort of their own balcony. At the front is the buzzy Alexandra’s Avenue, but if you take a walk around the back of the stadium you see the quiet streets are covered in Panathinaikos’ graffiti.
Athens is a city of extremes; you have the cradle of democracy alongside a strong anarchist movement. The stress emerging due to the crisis and the calmness of the nightlife, which begins at midnight and refuses to go to sleep until 9–10am. The headquarters of the Hellenic Police is opposite the former home of Panathinaikos’ Green Ultras.
I am at that former home. Home of Mad Boys, the infamous club under the wing of Gate 13, and now the official coffee shop of Panathinaikos fans. It’s small, painted in dark green of course, and filled with memorabilia like a small museum, displaying Panathinaikos victories, athletes, fans, and hooligans. Next to me, four former Green Ultras, from four different generations, active from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties through to the start of this millennium. They’re here to tell me their stories—and my brother’s.
It was the first time I had met them. All in their late-30s to mid-40s now, they were all really kind and positive, happy to talk to me to my surprise but, as they say, Panathinaikos was their life. I swear if you saw them now you would never think they had any association with hooliganism. In their hands they hold memorabilia, from old tickets to the jerseys. They show me pictures from back in the day.
“We were utter morons. Every time we were playing against Olympiacos, we were thinking about it a month in advance. We were counting the days: Twenty days to go, ten days to go… ” said Andreas, who was active in the late-80s when he was just seventeen with his best mate Tasos.
Andreas is well collected and doesn’t have the style you think of when you’re thinking about hooligans. Definitely not macho; on the contrary he is positive and smiley, wearing glasses, a white shirt and jeans. In his mid-40s, he is kind and incredibly passionate when he talks about Panathinaikos.
“Panathinaikos was our life. We were meeting almost every day, talking about the match, what we will think will happen, what preparation we needed to do. We had a good team back then; we were one of the best teams in Europe and playing in the Champions League.
“Matches took place on Sundays at four in the afternoon. We’d meet at 11am, with the demo starting at midday, we started from the beginning of Alexandra’s Avenue, close to the Pedion tou Areos [one of the biggest parks in Athens]. First we were two hundred strong, then five hundred… Soon there were five thousand Panathinaikos. And people were still coming via bus. We were chanting, throwing smoke bombs…”
“Nobody stopped you doing this at eleven in the morning?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Only the police were provoking us so we were throwing rocks at them.”
“I remember an incident,” he added, “where my mother was with her friends for tea close to where the march was taking place. Police started provoking us, so we took their shields, their truncheons… And then I realised a tear gas bomb was being thrown right at me. I had no choice but to inhale it as I was too close, but all I was thinking was what my mother would say if she found out.
“I calmed down and we quickly took the train to Victoria station, going towards the Olympic Stadium, but the Olympiacos fans were on the same train. So, Panathinaikos fans burned that train…”
“Hold on,” I said, “How do you even burn a train?”
“Well, there were a thousand of us on the train and another thousand outside with smoke bombs and flares. To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult. So, the Olympiacos fans ran towards the tunnel, and I remember hearing voices coming from behind me: ‘Turn the power down… Turn the power down’, so the trains couldn’t move any further.
“We had more freedom back then,” he says, looking down. “For the past seven or eight years, away fans have been banned from matches, but there are still some fights organised outside of the stadiums by the club’s fans. We had no interest in the match back then: all we cared about was getting onto the pitch, stopping the game, and having a fight with the opposition.”
Another incident came back in ’86 when Panathinaikos were playing against Panionios, a smaller team from Athens. The current employer of David N’Gog, they’re still best known for providing a home for Álvaro Recoba after Inter had no more use for him.
“We were four thousand strong, and they were a thousand. Panathinaikos’ Ultras were the crème de la crème of hooligans back then. We were turning police cars upside down and causing chaos. I remember for two whole minutes you could see nothing but the tear gas in the streets. Then I overhear that one guy from our club, Policarpos, had stabbed two Panionios’ fans. They didn’t die, but he stabbed them.
“There were no cell phones back then, so I had to find a phone booth to call my mother to let her know that I’ll be home late. At that point, it was already eight or nine in the evening.
“Hi Mum, how are you?”
“Where are you?” she said. “There has been some stabbing amongst Panathinaikos and Panionios fans!”
“Nah, things are quite calm here… I’ll be home in a bit.”
“Policarpos was a bit simple,” said Andreas, finishing the last of his coffee. “He was short with thick glasses, and we were always protecting him. He was running through the streets shouting ‘I stabbed them! I stabbed them with a screwdriver!’”
Panathinaikos Ultras were known for their green and orange bomber jackets. PAOK, another rival team, wore blue and orange jackets, so the elite Green Ultras would turn theirs inside out, wearing the luminous orange side on the outside. Blending in was not on the agenda. One thing held sacred was the team’s scarf. The Panathinaikos scarf was the honour of the Ultra and a trophy for their enemies. It was like the ultimate disrespect for an opposition Ultra to nick your scarf. If you managed to grab one of another team, ritual demanded that during the game it be strung from the front of the gates and burned.
Banners were another key item. In the cafe that day, Panathinaikos Ultras were hiding the banners to get into the stadium. Inside the folded banners they hid flares and smoke bombs and who knows what else.
There was also, typically, a meeting before the game to fight. Besides some hashish, drugs weren’t a big part of the scene at the time in Athens. In the mid-eighties through to the mid-nineties, there were no fascist movements associated with the Panathinaikos Ultras or any other Ultras. Being fascist at that time was considered to be shameful and laughable: as it should be. Fascism was rife in the early-seventies, but nowadays the Ultras are predominantly of an anarchistic nature with a mild scene of synthetic drug-taking—although taking pills has become more common. Nowadays, Antifa fans of Panathinaikos are one of the active anarchist clubs. They talk openly about politics, even when it’s not football-associated, and have a strong political agenda against the extremist nationalist party of Greece, Golden Dawn, and a pro-refugees stance.
The elite Ultras organised the fans. The frontline was always the Ultras who held rocks, flanked by fans with smoke bombs and flares on both sides, with those unarmed out back and between. They had them drilled like an army.
We stop talking about the riot etiquette while Tasos folds his old Panathinaikos scarf. I ask about the away trips, and Andreas shows me more pictures from the Panethinians on tour.
“In the European Cup were drawn to play against Bulgarian team Zvezdets, who are based in Sofia. Back then Bulgaria was still under communism. I was with the Cockneys club, one of the elite clubs amongst Mad Boys, Athens Fans and PA.LE.FI.P. I was lucky enough to be on the bus with the elite of the hooligans” Andreas says.
“Three days before the game, we were hanging around with another seven-eight Ultras, and one suggested that we go and break into the Olympiacos clubhouse in Omonia. Bored, we went and we broke in.”
“Any particular reason why?” I asked.
“No, not really.”
In Greek, Omonia means peace.
“There was no one in, and there were no phones, so we were quite chilled,” he said. “Anyway, the day finally came where we were to go to Bulgaria. On the way, we broke into a couple of off-licences and took beers. When we reached border control, Tasos and I were told we had insufficient papers since we both lived in Australia for a while when we were young. We’d checked the day before but were told that since we were going to Bulgaria for the day, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
But it was. Of course it was.
At the border, they told Andreas and Tasos: ‘You two can’t go through’. So, the elite Ultra turned and said to the guard, ‘Do you want to break down this place, or you would like to let them go through?’ It was a rhetorical question: there were 170 Gate 13 buses carrying almost 15,000 Green Ultras outside…”
To this day, Andreas claims, the club’s following is still that high. And whenever Panathinaikos play in Europe, a group of four thousand Ultras will head to the game.
“When we finally got there we got a little lost in translation…” said Andreas, laughing. “The Bulgarian greeting in Greek is the equivalent of the V-sign, so we started a big fight over it. At one point, actual tanks blocked us and led us to a ski centre, trying to isolate us.”
At the ski centre, the authorities said that the tickets “hadn’t arrived yet”. The elite Ultras demanded that everyone left immediately, that they should go to the stadium and get in regardless. So, that’s what they did.
Once inside, they were told that since Bulgaria was a communist state, it was an army secured stadium and they probably shouldn’t say anything bad about communism.
“But we had these one dollar notes with us, and we were burning them in front of them to tease them,” said Andreas. “It was -2 degrees, but we all took our shirts off, and we were chanting like crazy all match”, to what translates to:
‘It’s a magic weed, give me some to drink
so I can dream of my Panathinaikos and say to God,
that I love you like heroin, like a hard drug
like hashish, like LSD
for you all the world gets high
Panathinaikos I love you
Wherever you play I shall follow
Panathinaikos here, Panathinaikos there
Wherever you play, we will be together.’
“By the way, we lost two–nil, so we started a fight”, Andreas comments.
Yiannis, one of the younger ones, active in the mid-nineties to the late-noughties mentioned his most hardcore game, in 2002 against Fenerbahçe. “We were 3,000 fans; I was with the Mad Boys Club back then. We go into the stadium, and we soon realise that we had the Turkish on the upper floor right above us. They were throwing rocks, nails, oranges at us; they were holding a huge banner with Mohamed killing Greeks. The police were standing there pretending that nothing had happened. We got back in our buses and they’d broken all our windows.”
“It was the adrenaline,” says Tasos taking up the story. “If you would ask me now, I would never do what I had done, but Panathinaikos was our life”, Tasos says, and they all agree. “Now they’ve banned away fans, but if the police wanted to stop all this back then, they could have done it. It would’ve been easy. For some reason—mainly political reasons—they did not want to. They wanted hooliganism; they wanted fights. They wanted people to consume themselves.
“One time when we played AEK, I found myself in a field, and a policeman pointed his gun at me. I turned to him and said: ‘Go on shoot’.”
He still doesn’t know if the gun was loaded or not.
This piece originally appeared in Mundial Issue 009, which is mega sold out. You can pre-order Issue 013 here, and subscribe to get the magazine sent to your door all year round here. If you prefer to make your purchases physical, you can find your nearest stockist on our swanky interactive map. Peace.