Athens, Greece - In the heat of a football match, as smoke flares burn and flags sway bearing the team's green, three-leaf-clover, Panathinaikos' hardcore fans sing a ditty that loosely translates to this:
Forever by your side, I throw reason to the winds,
I shall follow wherever you play,
You're the rarest of weeds, clover, you've stolen my mind,
I shall sing my love for you to the heavens.
The fans who sing this look a thuggish lot. They dress in black tracksuit hoodies and scarves to go unrecognised by police and surveillance cameras. During matches they lob powerful squibs onto the field that echo and resound around Athens' vast Olympic stadium. They insult their opponents by chanting slogans against their arch-rivals, Olympiakos, as though lesser competitors were simply a marking of time between the matches that really matter.
The contrast between Panathinaikos, which means "the All-Athenian", and Olympiakos, which, despite its name, hails from the port of Peiraieus next to Athens, could hardly be greater. Panathinaikos has lost 14 of the past 20 Greek championships to Olympiakos and two to its other rival, AEK. While Olympiakos has held onto its top players during the economic crisis, Panathinaikos has shed more than half a dozen - two of them prized strikers. Another seven key players face a 50 percent salary cut.
"We need to gather our fans together, and I think they will behave very differently in a historic playing ground, because this is where Panathinaikos came of age."
- Vangelis Konstantinou
Olympiakos has built lavish training facilities near its stadium, while Panathinaikos has to rent a campus belonging to the team's outgoing owner. Most rankling of all for Panathinaikos fans, however, is that Olympiakos took advantage of the 2004 Olympics to build itself a state-of-the-art stadium, while Panathinaikos cannot even afford to rent one.
In March, the team will stop spending one and a half million dollars a month to lease Athens' Olympic stadium. Its season tickets have fallen by two thirds in two years, and the 3,000-odd fans it manages to rustle up for each game these days look paltry on television in a facility built for 70,000. So Panathinaikos is moving back to its hallowed home ground in the city centre.
The Avenue, so called because it sits on a major city artery, is a humble facility. Built for 15,000 in the 1920s, it sits across from decrepit refugee housing that went up around the same time to receive Greeks expelled from Asia Minor. Weeds have taken root in its concrete stands. Broken plastic seats and smashed beer bottles testify that Panathinaikos didn't even bother with upkeep on this stadium after its last game here in August 2010.
Still, the Avenue has something of a mystical force, harkening back to a time when Panathinaikos was burning a trail in Greek football. During the great depression, it sported Greece's first turf pitch and stadium lighting. Greece's first home matches against other European teams were hosted here. And the Avenue sits at the heart of Panathinaikos' power base.
"We need to gather our fans together, and I think they will behave very differently in a historic playing ground, because this is where Panathinaikos came of age," says veteran player Vangelis Konstantinou, who now acts as team leader.
Fans agree. Two years ago, they presciently rented a clubhouse just down the road from the Avenue. "For us fans it can only be a good thing," says Antonis, a square-jawed 28-year-old, who helps run the clubhouse. "It's a much hotter venue than the frigid Olympic stadium, and it's a return to our natural space, to the heart of Panathinaikos."
The clubhouse is home to the most ardent of fans - those who sing stanzas combining reverence for their team with profanity for Olympiakos. Many are in their 20s and have come of age during the crisis. They have known only unemployment, so much of their view of the world comes through the team's tribulations.
That view is disillusioned and defiant, and surprisingly similar to how Greeks see their country on the broader scale. In short, they believe Panathinaikos was betrayed. "The team wasn't hit by the crisis. It was hit by internal enemies," says Antonis. "Football in Greece isn't clean. You steal games to get to the top of the Greek championship, and reach the European championship where the money is." Half a dozen others sitting around the table agree.
|The Avenue is a more modest facility, where the club will
return to its grass roots [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
"People are sold on the idea that Olympiakos has to win the Greek championship because it has a bigger fan base, and if they are unhappy they will burn all of Greece," adds Stamatis.
Panathinaikos fans are critical of the Greek shipping family that has owned the team since 1979. They believe the Vardinoyannis clan have underinvested. Even worse, they suspect collusion with Olympiakos to fix championships. "I feel that some players are having me on," says one of the fans around the table.
After Panathinaikos fans took to the streets in 2008, the Vardinoyannis family declared that it would sell them the team. It transferred its 54 percent stake to a nonprofit body named Panathinaikos Alliance, and launched a campaign in May to sell them to the base.
The move will sever the soccer club from Panathinaikos' other sports teams, perhaps leaving them even more impoverished than they are today. One recent blog posted by a basketball player mentioned, "we scrounge fivers off each other to get through the day".
To date, however, the campaign has been a failure. Barely nine thousand people have stepped forward. The three million dollars they brought in are dwarfed by the team's outstanding debt of $35 million, much of it owed to the Vardinoyannis family for rental of the training grounds. "He’s taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other. Anyone who buys shares now is a fool," says Yannis. Clubhouse fans are willing to give the Alliance a try, but they would like to see the family assume the debt. "Anything other than Vardinoyannis is good, quite simply," says Antonis.
Their view of a team betrayed is curiously similar to many Greeks’ view of the country. Parliament has just indicted a former finance minister for failing to collect tax revenues from the rich, while imposing austerity measures on working families. Some opposition parties want to indict two former prime ministers for submitting to an austerity programme dictated by the International Monetary Fund without proper public consultation. A former board member of the Hellenic Statistical Service is suing its then-chairman for allegedly bloating Greece's 2009 deficit. Her theory is that this made it easier to destroy Greece's creditworthiness and pitchfork it into austerity. Greeks aren't generally inclined to believe in coincidence, innocence or good faith; but the sense that betrayal is behind every failure has now become endemic.
The Panathinaikos Alliance allows shareholders to vote for the team's management with a minimal investment of 85 euros. It may yet appeal as an attempt to return to transparency and simplicity. Its founding statement says it is "the expression of the simple, direct and honest desire of millions of Panathinaikos fans to taken the fate of the team in their hands… to bring Panathinaikos back where it belongs: at the pinnacle of European football".
Konstantinou was enrolled at the age of 15 and remained on the team's roster for 21 years. He looks back with nostalgia on a postwar era when teams and players alike were less mercenary. "In those days you had empty lots in every neighbourhood, kids went out to play football, and there were talented individuals who shone. Teams scouted for these kids and enrolled them in youth leagues... You played for the team that signed you up, and eternally bound you. You only left if the team didn't want you or if you grew old."
He looks forward to a time when Panathinaikos will build an academy to cultivate talent and loyalty once again. A team whose lucky number is 13 and whose symbol is the humble three-leaf clover may yet be capable of such surprises.
Follow John Psaropoulos on Twitter: @thenewathenian