Anchovies, turncoats and lighters: Why Olympiakos vs Panathinaikos is more than a game

Athens: the cradle of democracy but also of a class war that rumbles to this day. From FourFourTwo magazine, December 2005

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It’s a baking hot August afternoon in Athens, and FourFourTwo is feeling ill at ease.

August 28, 2005 marks the first day of the new Greek season, and the city's Olympic Stadium is playing host to the country’s most eagerly anticipated game: Panathinaikos versus Olympiakos, rich versus poor, underachievers versus all-conquering champions, all played out before 60,000 bloodthirsty, baying locals.

If the fact that the stands around us are alive with flames isn’t of concern, the arrival, just yards from our seat, of a group of dangerous-looking youths carrying lighters most certainly is.

The Olympic Stadium before its refurbishment for the 2004 Olympics

“They've been waiting outside so they can sort out any Olympiakos fans looking for trouble,” smirks the man beside us, who moments earlier had been standing, jumping and swearing at the visiting players. “When they find Olympiakos fans, they steal their scarves or banners and burn them as a sign that they have won that battle.”

Sure enough, small pockets of fire rage around the stadium, each new flame greeted with another almighty roar of approval. The front of the man’s Panathinaikos shirt bears the legend ‘Everybody Sucks’. On the back it says ‘Except Us’. Welcome to the siege mentality of the Athens derby.

'The fans hate each other, the players hate each other and the managers hate each other too,' explains FourFourTwo’s neighbour, summing up the relationship nicely

Tension is never far from the surface when Athens’ big two meet. Rival fan gangs regularly clash before, after and often during games, and with a history of brawling between the players too, emotions are rarely kept in check. 

“The fans hate each other, the players hate each other and the club managers hate each other too,” explains FourFourTwo’s neighbour, summing up the relationship nicely. “We hate what Olympiakos represent, which is why winning this game is one of the most important things for us this season.”

According to Panathinaikos nut George, who runs the online community, the rivalry is very easily defined. “We are humans and they are dirt,” he spits, his voice already croaky from pre-match shouting. “Every Panathinaikos fan knows that he is superior, even when he meets a Gavros fan at the age of five.”

Panathinaikos fans: lighter-hearted

I was born hating Panathinaikos because my father hated them and my grandfather hated them. We were born into a low class and we are not as rich as them

- Olympiakos fan Markos

The word Gavros translates as ‘anchovy’, a reference to the fact that Olympiakos are located in the city’s port area of Piraeus. “The majority of Gavros fans have mothers who are hookers who ‘work’ near the port,” laughs George. “Their fathers are young sailors who slept with a hooker.” To spread the word, he rejoins his green-shirted crew as they belt out another chant based on prostitutes, sailors, and Olympiakos players.

Earlier, Markos, an Olympiakos regular, offered an alternative view. “I was born hating Panathinaikos because my father hated them and my grandfather hated them. We were born into a low class and we are not as rich as them, that’s the difference between them and us.” That social distinction provided the initial marker for a rivalry which has grown more fractious with every encounter.

Rapid degeneration

Panathinaikos – abbreviated to PAO – was founded in 1908 by a group of athletes born in Athens (hence the name), who sought a team to represent their noble standing. Olympiakos arrived some 17 years later, formed by residents of the port town of Piraeus who wanted an alternative – they named it after the Olympic games, the noblest expression of the sporting spirit.

Piraeus may only be 10 miles from the centre of Athens, but its inhabitants thought themselves independent of the bourgeois city-dwellers. The Athenians, meanwhile, considered the port to be where the poorest people lived and the loosest morals prevailed. The differences soon became apparent on the football pitch, as matches between the two degenerated into a battle of the social classes, a fight for pride and prestige as much as the result itself.

The first violent skirmishes between the club’s followers broke out in April 1933, when fans clashed furiously after a League Cup semi-final was abandoned at half-time because of a freak rainstorm. With the tone set, resentment simmered on a high heat until finally erupting again in March of 1949, when Olympiakos fans became angered that one of their players had been knocked unconscious and trampled over as the referee waved play on. Invading the pitch, they administered justice of their own by hospitalising two of the visiting players.

Olympiakos were reduced to nine men after half an hour. With the match suspended twice and the referee having to seek shelter from missiles raining down on him, the first half lasted 66 minutes

And so it continued, with general ill feeling periodically punctuated by acts of violence and bloodshed. At the Greek Cup Final in June 1962, two players were dismissed for fighting inside the first five minutes. Olympiakos were then reduced to nine men after half an hour after the red mist descended again, and with the match suspended twice and the referee having to seek shelter from missiles raining down on him, the first half lasted 66 minutes. 

After a 35-minute break for half-time, extended to clam both players and supporters, plus a further 45 minutes of football, the teams entered extra-time with darkness rapidly descending on the Nea Filadelfia, a stadium with no floodlights. The referee had no choice but to suspend the match, with both sides bitterly blaming each other for the violence.

The Greek FA, concerned about the implications of a replay, decided against scheduling a second game, hence the history books recording that Greek football had no cup winner in 1962.

Olympiakos fans: red or dead

If the Greek Football Association thought the fans would mend their ways as a result of that encounter, they soon knew better. Just two years later, the sides were drawn to face each other in the Greek Cup semi-final, in a match played out during a heatwave. With the game goalless and neither side seemingly interested in attacking, the crowd became restless.

Murmurings quickly spread that the match had been fixed so that both clubs could make money from a replay, and when a rare opportunity ended up in the stands, the spectators had seen enough. As one fan plunged his knife into the ball, others rampaged through the stands and onto the pitch, leaving a trail of burning seats and advertising hoardings in their wake.

In 1973, it was the players’ turn to misbehave, sparked by a dispute over whether Yves Triantafyllos’ 18th-minute equaliser for Olympiakos had crossed the line. As Panathinaikos defenders harangued the referee, play was suspended for 10 minutes and when it did restart, a PAO defender wasted no time in punching Triantafyllos in the face to earn both players red cards.

Ten minutes from time, tempers boiled over again when PAO appeals for a penalty were turned away. Amid the chaos, PAO’s Athanasopoulos was sent off for attempting to stop the fist-fight between two other players and, in protest, the Panathinaikos players walked off. The Sports Court later awarded the victory to Olympiakos.

Any sport will do

Since then, violent outbreaks have been depressingly common (notably in 1986, when Olympiakos fans took their anger out on their own players’ cars after a 4-0 Greek Cup Final defeat), and the rivalry has even infiltrated other sports. 

The intensity would still be present if these two teams were picked to play ping-pong

- Former Olympiakos keeper Dimitris Eleftheropoulos

“If these two teams were picked to play ping-pong,” says former Olympiakos keeper Dimitris Eleftheropoulos, now at Roma, “the intensity would still be present.” To prove the point, when the two sides faced each other in basketball’s EuroLeague semi-final in 1994, Olympiakos edged out PAO after another violent encounter. 

The fans, players and management of Panathinaikos responded by openly supporting Spanish side Badalona in the final, a very deliberate, very public snub which merely served to heighten the ill feeling between the clubs.

Nor have the men running the clubs done much to quell the hostility – quite the opposite, in fact. Olympiakos president Socrates Kokkalis rarely misses an opportunity to brand PAO “chickens” in the press, while Panathinaikos president Angelos Philippides outdid furious fans and players alike in March 2002 when he attacked referee Makis Efthymiadis for awarding Olympiakos a last-minute penalty in a 1-1 draw.

The violence spills into other sports: Panathiniakos fans attack police during a basketball game

Unbelievably, Philippides then had the nerve to claim that Olympiakos were only in the headlines because of the activities of their Ultras. “While Panathinaikos is putting Greek football on the front pages with its European successes, fans of another team are making front page news by bringing the game into disrepute,” he said after rioting Olympiakos fans broke shop windows after a league game at Xanthi.

NEXT: Those who dared swap sides