A Greek tragedy


Of all the teams left in the Champions League this season at the second round stage only one had not featured on the TBIR radar.  In fact out of the top 20 leagues in Europe I had seen games in all but one.  And to make it worse it was easy to get to, offered some cultural diversions and I actually spoke quite a bit of the language.  And the answer is in the following order – Olympiakos, Athens, Greek.  So when I suggested experiencing some Greek, CMF misunderstood my intentions and slapped me around the face and implemented a mandatory ten day ban on all matters from the bottom drawer.

A big sprawling mess

But when I was allowed back in and explained what I was planning she lifted my suspension and even suggested that I take Football Jo along to ensure I didn’t get into trouble.  Football Jo and trouble go hand in hand so it was sure to be an interesting trip.  We picked the ideal weekend, with two of the big three at home.  We had originally wanted to take in the experience of an Athens derby, but that had been played last weekend when we were hobnobbing with royalty at Bishops Stortford.  Instead we waited for the fixtures, hoping to see AEK Athens and Olympiakos playing on different days so we could take in the two biggest stadiums in Greece.  But just to prove that it isn’t just the Murdoch empire that rules the game, Greek TV decided to play all games on our weekend at Sunday at 7pm.  It would have been mildly irritating having to chose which game we went to if it wasn’t for the fact that our flight home was at 7pm on the Sunday!  Still at least we may get a brief view of the grounds as we soared overhead on Luton’s finest – what a consolation.

So my Generalistic sense came to the fore.  We had three options.  Go and not see any games but enjoy some Greek hospitality and culture; Re-arrange our trip so that we flew back on the Monday and then see AEK or Olympiakos; Abort the whole trip.  The latter option meant I would be wasting around £200 spent on non-refundable flights and hotels; Option two was a non-starter as for some reason Athens on the last weekend in March had become incredibly popular and there were absolutely no flights left at all, so option one was the only route. As Danny Last from European Football Weekends summed up, “It’s a real Greek tragedy”.

The new Olympic Stadium

But all was not lost.  I managed to find a couple of 2nd division games on, a tour of the respective Olympic and Olympiakos stadiums as well as shoe in some sightseeing and some plate smashing.  At this point I should also explain why the Beta Ethniki league is the best in Europe.  Being on a par with the Championship in terms of status (but not attendances with an average here of just 2,000 putting it almost on a par with the Blue Square Premier), you are looking forward to away trips to the delights of Scunthorpe United, Middlesborough and even Plymouth.  Well how would you feel about 4 trips a season to partyville central?  The Greek 2nd division includes teams from Crete, Corfu and two from Rhodes – immediately this has become my favourite league in Europe.  Sure, La Liga in Spain has Mallorca and Tenerife, but this has double the amount of fun.

What’s that I hear you say?  Why can I speak Greek? (tenuous link I know)  Well I shall tell you dear readers.  Back in the summer of 1993, bored by the endless parade of women I was dating, West Ham returning to the old second division, and the prospect of life under a Labour Government I headed off to the Greek island of Kos for a summer season working in a bar.

I wont bore you with all of the details (but you can read an exclusive view of the whole summer in a new blog, Season in the Sun) but suffice to say that when I came home some months later I returned with a nice bank balance (with all my food, drink and accommodation paid for there was little else I needed to spend my money on), 19 stitches and various bits of glass in my knee (after an unfortunate plate glass window incident), a decent suntan, a new 17 year old girlfriend (later to become CMF) and a knowledge of the Greek language thanks to a boss who thought it was hilarious to teach all of his staff proper sentences mixed with profanity – “I’d like a big fucking portion of chips please, you bastard” was one of his favourites he taught us, and then laughed when we were chased out of the local kebab restaurant with a huge knife.

Looking back now, life seemed so perfect.  Endless days of sunshine, free drink and getting paid to entice women into our bar or into our luxury apartment on the beach where we could impress them with views of the sunrise (ok, it was a half built hotel where we put a couple of deck chairs on the 1st floor and then asked drunk girls if they would like to see the best bit of morning glory in Europe).  But it was hard work, moping up the remnants of the night before at 7am when you had only rolled in an hour before.  And every two weeks you had to go through the same ritual of impressing a new batch of potential customers, promising them free drinks, free entry into clubs and of course free access to our love shack.  And where does CMF come into all this?  Well as she will read this she would never forgive me if I shared all of the details with the interweb but put these words in order to understand where and why I met her:-

“Schoolgirl, on holiday with her mates parents, lying drunk on the bar, having Tequilla body shots done off her naked midrift”

Nice view from our roof terrace

Phew – think I may have got away with that one!  So anyway back onto the trip. After the usual uncomfortable squeeze on Luton’s finest for nearly 4 hours, we arrived at the hotel, located in the shadow of the Acropolis which officially had the “hottest room in the world”.  Air conditioning in the last week of March – you are having a laugh son – turn that knob on and you are greeted with a gust of hot air.

Saturday morning dawned, and after a quick breakfast we were up and running.  Day one was a trip down to Piraeus for a visit to the Karaiskakis Stadium, home of Olympiakos.  The green metro line ran all the way down to Falirou which was literally next door to the stadium.  But this is Athens dear boy.  Nothing is so simple.  For our €3 day trip ticket we got to experience the dreaded “bus replacement service” but with a difference.  Our bendy bus was merrily making its way around the side streets before it went round a corner and the tail of the bus grazed an illegally parked.  Grazed was the word but this didn’t stop the whole bus, various members and various random passers by becoming involved in a huge heated debate whilst we sat on the bus.  Eventually we were told to get on the bus behind and make our way via a different route.

Can they brand anything else?

We arrived eventually at Olympiakos’s stadium and searched for the museum entrance.  We walked virtually a whole circuit of the stadium to no avail.  Now based on the fact the Greek word for museum is in fact museo I fail to see how non-English speaking security guards managed to direct us to a restaurant and the VIP boxes.  So we went back and eventually went into the club shop where we resisted the urge to buy an Olympiakos branded coffee machine, condoms and worry beads.  They showed us the entrance to the museum which was of course still shut.  It was only 11.20am after all and despite it being advertised as opening at 11am.  “Maybe 10 minutes” said the Greek girl from the shop with a hopeful shrug.  Yeah right.  But Football Jo had a better idea – “Let’s go to Piraeus”.  Sure it was only one stop on the metro line that was working and it was on the sea front but I think her hope that it would be similar to Marbella or Monaco was a bit far fetched and a brief 30 second walk from the station to the edge of the road was enough to send us back from where we had come. Remind he never to listen to her travel advice again.

Zeus's house

We came back into the city, via train, tram, bus and metro and had a wander around the central monuments, pausing to look at Zeus’s old house.  Heat, Chat, Hello and all of those tat mags would have had a field day with the old God of the Sky, as he managed to father a whole dynasty of Greek Gods.  He was responsible for the likes of Athena (God of posters), Apollo (God of space rockets), Artemis (God of screws), Hermes (Goddess of scarves) , Persephone, Dionysus, Persus, Heracles, Helen (Goddess of Mirren), Minos and Muses (Goddess of British three piece rock bands).  There is not a lot left today, obviously trashed in one of his legendary parties, bar one or two columns but it is still an impressive site.  We wandered past the old Olympic Stadium, still looking fine after over a century of sitting next to smog choked roads, and saw our second bus/car crash of the day.  Again, every one got out to give their opinion, ignoring the traffic all around them.  The police were quick on the scene but simply chose to sit in their car and watch in amusement and grown men pointed, prodded and gesticulated like mad.

A stadium? In a quarry? Why not!

Our one and only game of the weekend was somewhere in the eastern outskirts of the city.  Athens is a massive sprawling city of 3.6 million people which extends northwards and westwards, but to the east the city is hemmed in by some huge hills.  Our venue was Ethnikos Asteras who play in their fantastic rock hued stadium, known simply as the Michalis Kritikopoulus stadium.

Pick up any map of Athens and you will no doubt spot one thing.  It tends to be all in Greek, which can make it difficult to find addresses written in plain old English.  Uncle Google was no help in finding the ground, but I knew a man who could.  Step forward George Xenides and his website Stadia.gr, possibly the best football stadium guide site bar Budget Airline Football.  Clear as day there were the directions and so we headed off to find this gem of a ground.

Ethnikos Asteras 0 Olympiakos Volos 0 – Michalis Kritikopoulus Stadium – Saturday 27th March 2010

Home of Ethnikos Asteras

This was to be a real David v Goliath encounter.  Volos riding high at the top of the league, Asteras near the bottom.  When we walked up to the gate we were amazed to see four huge riot vans full of police.  Surely the away team weren’t that much of a threat?  After all it wasn’t exactly a local game, having faced a 320km ride down from the coastal town of Volos.  Despite playing in the red and white striped famed by Olympiakos of Piraeus, there was no more similarities.  We paid our €15 each to get a gem of a ticket.  Big, colourful and with print in braille (not often you “see” that these days) and walked five paces to the gate where the security guard ripped the work of art in two – shameful act!

Disproportionate policing?

We headed up into the cafe bar, which wasn’t exactly rocking but had a few interesting displays around the walls.  Pendants from a few more famous visitors, although I doubt Barcelona, Man Utd or AC Milan had actually come to play in the quarry before.  Still a beer is a beer and after a couple we headed up into the stands.  Lovely stadium when the sun is shining with a view of the mountains around Athens, but I’d hate to be here in the winter with no cover at all from the elements.  The away fans had the corner of the stand and consisted of around a dozen non-playing players and a group of a dozen older Greek men who stood at the front of the stand.  Separating us was a huge barbed wire topped fence and two lines of armed riot police.  A bit of overkill I think.

What can be said about the game?  Well, it was 0-0 and both

The closest we got to a goal

sides had chances to win it.  First touch all round was poor and passes often found touch rather than the player.  The home side had a tricky little winger, Garcias, who caused some problems when he didn’t have the ball and they had a typical English eighties centre-forward – aka 6ft 3inches, beard and sweatbands…oh and crap.  The highlight of the game was undoubtably the home fan, complete with a classic shell suit pink tracksuit top who answered every chant from the away fans with a “Malakas”, or “Malakis” retort (translation is someone who is keen on ownism).

So not a bad way to spend a sunny afternoon I have to say and as we left we saw the riot police deployed in the car part to protect the posh cars rather than trying to keep the fans apart.  Thirty minutes later and we were propping up the bar at the James Joyce in Monastiraki.  With Chelsea scoring goals for fun on one screen and Gabby Logan smugly telling us that Stoke were beating West Ham we tucked into the beers to forget our pain, and in my case to try and ensure some decent nights sleep once I returned to Dante’s Inferno.  Of course, the every so helpful cleaner at the hotel had been concerned for my welfare and had turned the heater on when she cleaned the room some ten hours previously which aided to a night of very little sleep, but at least I lost a few pounds in weight.

The most famous building site in the world?

Sunday was a sightseeing day, and after an early morning hike up to the Acropolis before the tour parties descended, then down into the Agora we went our separate ways.  Me to the Olympic Stadium complex, Jo to the hotel roof with her Sunday People.  Of course I forgot to factor in the “bus replacement service” again, and so the normal twenty minute trip north took over an hour, although we failed to hit any other vehicles this time.  Considering the amount of money and effort that went into getting the facilities ready for the 2004 games it is a crying shame that today virtually everything lays unused.  The centre piece of the complex is the Olympic Stadium, now hosting games for AEK Athens and Panathinaikos and is impressive, shimmering in the bright sunshine.  I started walking around the edge of the ground, looking for a sneaky unlocked gate to entry by but found nothing.  Thirty minutes later, after completing almost a whole circuit and returning to where I started was a wide open gate – if I would have walked the other way I would have seen in within a minute.  Still not one to miss a chance I confidently wandered in, onto the running track and took my pictures, departing as I saw the first signs of a security guard wanting a “quick word”.

Gate 13

AEK Athens were due to play later in the evening and you have to say that average crowds of just over 13,000 are a complete waste in such a huge stadium.  Panathinaikos on the other hand are trying to move forward.  Whilst their spiritual home, the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium (home of the infamous Gate 13 supporters) is no longer suitable for their needs, they are in the process of building a fantastic new stadium in the west of the city at Votanikos which should be ready at some point next season.

So back into the city for a few hours of sitting on the roof terrace supping some Mythos beer and ripping apart Jo for her love of Jordan/Cheryl/Kerry/Angelina/Victoria (delete as appropriate) and giving her some guidance on her ongoing quest to find a man.  I told her it was not a good thing to put on her list of “requirements” that they should be “hung like a Stella can”, nor should they be willing to partake in clothes peg rituals (for an explanation of this click here to read of her antics in Nuremberg) but she insists these are deal breakers (and she wonders why she is still single!).

Anything for the weekend?

A good weekend in the end.  A bit of culture, a bit of football, a few beers, some decent food and most importantly when the rest of the UK got soggy, some decent sunshine.  Athens is an intriguing place – chaotic but in an orderly way, spotlessly clean (we say cleaners working at every metro station), busy but friendly locals.  δεν είναι όλα για το ποδόσφαιρο!

For more photos from the day, click here.

About the Michalis Kritikopoulus Stadium
Kessariani Municipal (formerly “National”) Stadium is located at the east edge of Athens, on the foothills of Mt Imittos, in an old quarry. The stadium is part of a sports centre which also includes a training ground, a five-a-side field and also an indoor hall.

The stadium is named after Michalis Kritikopoulos, a great football player of the 1970s who came from Kessariani and played for Ethnikos Asteras and Olympiakos. Kritikopoulos died in 2002, while playing a charity game with Olympiakos veterans on the island of Andros.

Ethnikos Asteras FC moved in 1998 to the (then) newly built Kessariani Stadium from their historic home, Near East Stadium. The new stadium initially had only two stands, the east and the west, holding 1,815 and 1,512 spectators respectively. Construction of a third north stand, behind one of the goals, commenced in 2001, but works didn’t finish before 2005. The new stand added 1,524 seats to the stadium’s total capacity. The stadium is owned by the Municipality of Kessariani.  At the north end is a good size bar and a childrens play ground.

How to get to the Michalis Kritikopoulos Stadium
The stadium is located in Kessariani, a district 4 km east of the Athens city centre. To get there by car, drive along Vassileos Alexandrou St, in front of the Hilton. Keep going until you reach a set of traffic lights at the junction with Imittou St. You must cross into Ethnikis Antistaseos St, the main street of Kessariani. The stadium is at the far end of this road, after the last houses of the district. If you are not in central Athens, you may use Imittos Ring Road and exit the motorway towards “Kessariani”. Drive on for about 1 km and you will get to the stadium.

Alternatively, you may use line 3 of the Metro and get off at “Evangelismos”. From there take either bus #223 or #224 to their terminus, which is right outside Kessariani Stadium.  The journey takes around 10 minutes from Evangelismos and is covered by your Athens €3 daily transport ticket.

How to get a ticket for the game
With a capacity of 4,851 and an average gate of just over 500 it is not hard getting into a game here on the day.  On the occasion the club draws one of the big boys (record attendance was a cup game versus Olympiakos back in 2001) then getting a ticket from the stadium in advance is a must, otherwise on the day of the game buy your ticket from the small office by the main entrance for €15.  Normally only the west stand is open.

The above information has been supplied by the fantastic website Stadia.gr

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