Athenian wars

Hooliganism in the city that is hosting the Champions League final is getting worse. Unfortunately, as Paul Pomonis reports, government action seems sure to be ineffective

Speaking in the aftermath of the police death in Sicily in February, Giorgios Orfanos, Greece’s minister for sport, unfavourably compared the measures the Italian government had just announced with his own anti-hooligan policies. “Our decisions have been much more radical than a league shutdown. As a result, football-related violence in Greece cannot even compare with what is going on in Italy,” he said, adding: “For the last three years the number of sport-related violent incidents has been dropping… We have an ongoing problem and we’re dealing with it aggressively.”

It was an uncharacteristically upbeat statement from a usually cautious politician. Unfortunately, it was also one that would come to haunt Orfanos in the wake of the recent massive hooligan fight, dubbed “The Battle of Paiania” by the media, after the Athens suburb where it took place.

Although sports here have been marred by large scale unrest for the best part of 30 years, this particular incident stands as a pinnacle in Greek hooligan wars. In what seems to have been a meticulously organised fight, 500 followers of bitter Athenian rivals Olympiakos and Panathinaikos clashed in the early afternoon of March 29, two miles away from where a women’s volleyball match between the two clubs was scheduled to take place. They were armed with knives, sticks, baseball bats, flare guns, petrol bombs and even stun grenades.

After 20 minutes of intense fighting, 25-year-old Panathinaikos supporter Michalis Filopoulos lay dead on the tarmac. Dozens were injured, including passers-by. Tensions ran so high that hours afterwards the police still ordered rival fans to separate hospitals to avoid further escalation. Although many were stunned by the brutality of the fight, few could claim they hadn’t seen it coming. Despite Orfanos’s optimistic statement, the government had little to show in its battle against hooliganism. Its initial toughness was soon replaced by a marked reluctance to clash with the ­business ­interests that ­control Greek football.

Characteristically, this season Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and the national team have all been hit with disciplinary action by UEFA. There has been violence at European matches, including the fire-bombing of a Shakhtar Donetsk fans’ coach in December. Worse still, the increased levels of ­co‑ordination and sophistication employed by gangs have led to a permanent war of attrition, involving regular tit-for-tat arson attacks and pre-arranged fights. The latest battle was the replay of a similar fight 15 months earlier, which left 13 people in hospital, including a Moscow hooligan leader invited especially for the occasion.

For a government that came to power on a law-and-order ticket, the Paiania fight turned into a source of considerable embarrassment. This was especially true as the Olympiakos contingent had been allowed to arrive at the scene in an impressive cavalcade of 200 motorbikes, crossing 20 miles of the busiest arteries of Athens totally unhindered by the police.

The moral hysteria generated by Filopoulos’s murder ensured that the government’s response would play to media sensationalism rather than address the roots of the problem. On April 3, after Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis ordered a symbolic two-week shutdown of all team sports, Orfanos presented the guidelines of the government’s latest initiative. The measures, ironically echoing those taken in Italy two months earlier, included a blanket ban on away fans, the installation of a new CCTV system in 22 sporting venues throughout the country, a new fan ID scheme, the implementation of electronic ticketing (whatever that may be) and the dissolution of all 250 official supporters’ clubs.

Clearly torn between its eagerness to appear to be doing something and its reluctance to deal with potentially embarrassing issues (two of the 13 hooligans arrested at the scene turned out to be full-time employees of Olympiakos) the government chose to target fan activity in general.

Although there is no denying that certain supporters’ clubs have been hotbeds of hooliganism, in certain cases with the tacit support of the clubs’ directors, past experience has shown that pushing all organised fan activity underground is both risky and ineffective.

Moreover, by focusing exclusively on supporters and conveniently ignoring all other aspects of the problem, notably endemic corruption, the government is practically guaranteeing the failure of its ­anti‑hooligan campaign. Greek football is again engulfed in its traditional end-of- season sense of gloom. Even the prosecution of Filopoulos’s killers is reportedly hanging by a thread, following a legal blunder by the police in the initial stages of the criminal investigation.

Few fans know what to expect from the new legislation. What everybody seems to agree upon is that as of next season attending matches in Greece will be an even more unpleasant experience than it has been so far. Colin Moynihan, the former British sports minister who provided the Greek government with expert advice on fighting hooliganism, must be enjoying himself.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month