THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Changing venues, vandalism and an intimidating empty stadium – Ken Gall tells the tale of a bizarre trip to Athens

For the many students of ancient Hellenic civilisation among the Dundee Utd travelling support, the news that United’s Europa League away leg at AEK Athens might have to be switched to a venue 186 miles away caused consternation for those whose main worry until then was how to combine a visit to the Parthenon with an evening’s entertainment at Piraeus’s alarming sounding nightspot, the Kinky Opera.

The fact that this news was announced approximately 72 hours before the scheduled kick-off time, with some fans already in transit, caused further concerns. United fans googling desperately for information were directed to pictures on a Greek fans’ website that appeared to show Panathinaikos striker Djibril Cissé rolling up a length of green carpet. Worryingly, this was revealed to be the pitch at the Olympic stadium, the original venue for the Europa League tie. A friendly between AEK’s city rivals and Genoa had clearly shown that the recently relaid pitch was completely unplayable and potentially dangerous.

UEFA promptly quashed AEK’s nominated alternative venue of Volos on the grounds that it was unreasonable to add another lengthy journey to fans and players already setting off on a 932-mile trip to Greece. With the clock ticking, and potential expulsion from the tournament becoming apparent to AEK, a desperate search began. A deadline was set by UEFA by which time an alternative venue had to be agreed. There was a precedent – Andorra’s Santa Coloma had been expelled from the Champions League for a similar offence in July.

The deadline passed. AEK (whose value to UEFA in terms of TV audiences might conceivably eclipse that of Santa Coloma) had failed to find a venue. The deadline was extended. At this point, United chairman Steven Thompson let loose with both barrels. United, a club not known to be swimming in a lake of cash, had spent thousands on replacing ageing seats and floodlights at Tannadice to meet UEFA’s supposedly strict regulations prior to the home leg. Yet here were AEK, less than 36 hours before kick-off, searching around for a pitch like a pub team double booked at Hackney marshes.

Finally, the news was announced that the tie was to be played at Nea Smyrni, the home stadium of first division Panionios – AEK’s 13,000 season-ticket holders and United’s 600 fans would have to be accommodated in a stadium holding less than 10,000. Plainly irked by the prospect of AEK playing at their home ground, a number of Panionios fans then broke into their own stadium, dug up the pitch and smashed the goalposts.

Where now? United fans were becoming mildly excited by the possibility of their being awarded a 3-0 victory and progression to the group stages, a result considerably in excess of the expectations of those who had seen AEK’s comfortable 1-0 victory in the first leg. With UEFA’s second deadline approaching, the decision was made to play the tie at the home of Olympiakos – a modern, 33,000 all-seat stadium. Unsurprisingly, there was a catch. Olympiakos plainly had no intention of allowing thousands of AEK fans into their modern home. The Greek authorities, equally plainly, were not enthused by the prospect of a few thousand Olympiakos fans turning up on match night for robust discussions with their AEK counterparts on the whys and wherefores of UEFA stadium regulations.

And so it came to pass that the match would be played at Olympiakos, but with only Dundee Utd fans being allowed admission. With sirens screaming and every red light ignored, busloads of away fans were transported from central Athens to an empty stadium, to be greeted by hundreds of riot policemen in full gear. The travelling army was then held outside for 30 minutes before being allowed entry in single file. Fans were searched as they passed through the gates (presumably for weapons to be used on each other) and, on entry to a narrow corner of the stadium, were made acutely aware that any sudden movements would be punished with extreme prejudice.

After the match – a 1-1 draw, in which United’s fans did themselves proud and their players were far from disgraced – the final act in this bizarre performance was played out. Greek regulations stipulate that away supporters must be held in the ground for at least 30 minutes after a match as a security measure. And so, the unsmiling police formed a barrier preventing anyone from leaving until the allotted time was up.

Socrates himself – a man whose clarity of thought and precision of language still influences our world today – would surely have assented to the remarks of a turnip-tanned and over-refreshed young Dundonian waiting to leave the stadium: “Fitba in Athens, man – it’s no’ fuckin’ real.”

From WSC 284 October 2010

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