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The Elimination of Juventus from the UEFA Champions League Reflects the Results of the Uncontrolled Corporatization of Football in the Globalized Era

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By now, many are familiar with Juventus’ elimination from the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid after a heart-breaking last minute penalty allowed the Spanish side to pull one back and deny the Italians an epic comeback and a place in the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition. Despite losing 3-1, the Spanish side went through on aggregate (4-3) after their 3-0 defeat of Juventus in Turin during the first leg.

While the last minute decision by referee Michael Oliver to award a penalty to Real Madrid—which was subsequently converted by star Cristiano Ronaldo—seemed normal to Ronaldo (who “didn’t understand Juventus’ protests”), the same could not be said for Juventus’ talismanic goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon himself had some choice words for the referee, pointing out that:

 

I know the referee saw what he saw, but it was certainly a dubious incident. Not clear-cut. And a dubious incident at the 93rd minute when we had a clear penalty denied in the first leg, you cannot award that at this point. The team gave its all, but a human being cannot destroy dreams like that at the end of an extraordinary comeback on a dubious situation. Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest, but a garbage bin. On top of that, if you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this in a stadium like this, you can sit in the stands with your wife, your kids, drinking your Sprite and eating crisps. You cannot ruin the dreams of a team. I could’ve told the referee anything at that moment, but he had to understand the degree of the disaster he was creating. If you can’t handle the pressure and have the courage to make a decision, then you should just sit in the stands and eat your crisps […] It’s an issue of sensitivity. It means you don’t know where you are, what teams are facing off, what players are involved. It means you’ve understood absolutely s—.

 

While it is unclear what Buffon’s expletive of choice was here—I have seen other outlets referring to another four-letter word which begins with “F”—what is clear is that the referee’s decision here is emblematic of something much bigger than football. While it may not be quite as simple as Juventus President Andrea Agnelli’s assertion that UEFA’s referees are “against Italian clubs”, that a kind of implicit bias is in play seems to be very plausible. Indeed, one look at UEFA’s 2018 report on European club Football—which highlights “how UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations have created a more stable and sustainable financial position for European top-division clubs”—has some clues as to what the bias against Juventus might have been (For those interested, the report is available for download here; it makes for fascinating—yet depressing—reading).

Despite the innocuous-sounding headline—using words like “stable” and “sustainable”—UEFA’s report is, in reality, just an in depth look at how the globalization of football has created vast amounts of inequality within European football (just like cultural and economic globalization has created vast amounts of inequality in the world). Indeed, it seems as if the football world serves as a microcosm of the globalized world we all live in. A few of the charts in UEFA’s report show just why the referees may have—implicitly even—held a bias in favor of Real Madrid and against Juventus in this particular Champions League tie.

 

Attendance:

The first chart shows “The Top 20 European Clubs by Aggregate Attendances (2017). Interestingly enough, the first three—FC Barcelona, Manchester United FC, and Borussia Dortmund—are all out of the Champions League. Real Madrid—on this chart—is ranked fourth with an average attendance of 69,426. Juventus FC is nowhere to be seen on this chart; neither is AS Roma which—in an unexpected result—knocked out FC Barcelona on 10 April 2018. Perhaps UEFA could not stand losing another Spanish team in the quarter finals to an unprecedented comeback?

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Image Courtesy Of: https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/protecting-the-game/club-licensing-and-financial-fair-play/news/newsid=2529909.html#/

 

Revenue:

The second chart shows “The Top 30 Clubs by Revenue”. Here, again the top three are Manchester United, FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid. While Juventus is on this chart—coming in at number 10—a look at their revenue shows the amount of inequality in European football. While Juventus’ revenue in 2016 was 341 million Euro, Real Madrid’s was 620 million Euro—almost double that of the Italian side! Given that the top two revenue makers (Manchester United and FC Barcelona) have already been knocked out of the competition, along with numbers five, six, and eight (Paris Saint Germain, Manchester City, and Chelsea FC, respectively)—and that number 7 (Arsenal FC) did not even qualify for the Champions League this season—it means that Europe’s richest clubs were not very successful on the pitch this season. Indeed, the unexpected elimination of both FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC by AS Roma and Liverpool FC on 10 April 2018 changed the financial make up of the Champions League Semi Final. Perhaps, due to this, one more upset—in this case Juventus over Real Madrid—was just not acceptable.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/protecting-the-game/club-licensing-and-financial-fair-play/news/newsid=2529909.html#/

 

2018 UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final Matchups
(Listings According to Revenue: Richer Teams on Left):
Team Country Revenue/Growth Rate Team Country Revenue/Growth Rate
FC Barcelona Spain 620M Euro/11% AS Roma Italy 219M Euro/21%
Manchester City FC England 533M Euro/16% Liverpool FC England 407M Euro/5%
FC Bayern Munich Germany 592M Euro/25% Sevilla FC Spain N/A (Not in Top 30)
Real Madrid Spain 620M Euro/7% Juventus FC Italy 341M Euro/5%
Note: Winner in BOLD Italics

 

Popularity:

The third chart shows the popularity of club websites (in September 2017) according to millions of viewers. Here we can clearly see that Real Madrid’s website is, far and away, the most popular website. The Spanish side attract more than 8 million views, compared to just over two million for Juventus; in effect Real Madrid’s website is four times as popular as Juventus’.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/protecting-the-game/club-licensing-and-financial-fair-play/news/newsid=2529909.html#/

 

Followers:

 The fourth chart, which shows the number of followers on social media of major European football clubs and players, is perhaps the most telling. From the graphic, it is clear that both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have far and away the most followers on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the club’s two star players—Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid—are more popular than most European clubs themselves! As UEFA’s report notes, “Cristiano Ronaldo, the most popular player, has more Twitter followers than Real Madrid and FC Barcelona combined (65.3 million) and more fans on Facebook than any of Europe’s top-division clubs (122 million)”. Given this information, it is not hard to understand why Juventus might have fallen victim to a refereeing decision in Madrid; UEFA’s hallmark competition simply would not have been able to do with a tournament absent of either of modern football’s most popular players.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/protecting-the-game/club-licensing-and-financial-fair-play/news/newsid=2529909.html#/

 

Please keep in mind that this is in no way a “scientific” study; there are no claims for causality. Rather, this is an attempt to show just how some factors—mainly financial—could lead to implicit bias on the part of officials and, of course, the higher-ups in UEFA. This short explanation is to show how just as inequality in the world has increased due to globalization, so too has it increased in world football. And, in order to further this inequality, it means that the referee–in the case of Juventus’s match–had to ignore an historic comeback and instead put an end to it by calling a dubious penalty. Given the context of the match, it was certainly a horrendous decision. Sadly, in an age where money has taken a front seat and humanity has taken a back seat, it is not altogether very surprising.

While few in the mainstream media are willing to ask the tough questions, it is up to us—as independent writers, researchers, and thinkers—to ask the tough questions. In an age where corporate greed has allied itself to high ranking individuals in both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments, the news media is far from free. This is why bloggers (like myself) and independent scholars play an important role in provoking thought that is independent of financial interests.

 

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Legia Warsaw’s Fans, in an August 2014 Match, Send a Message UEFA Would do Well to Take Heed of. Like FIFA, UEFA Is Not the Fairest When It Comes to Balancing Corporate and Fan Interests. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.ultras-tifo.net/photo-news/2741-legia-warszawa-fk-aktobe-28082014.html

 

Author’s Note: Please, if you are interested in sharing any of this information—or using any of these ideas in your own work—please remember where you got it from. I have had unpleasant experiences with unscrupulous news outlets like The Guardian who have unabashedly stolen my work without giving credit to where they got it from in the first place. As I was filing my taxes today, I winced at the figure which showed how much money I had earned this year. Indeed, it was not a pretty figure for me to see what a year’s worth of work amounted to in US Dollars. Needless to say, I do not make a lot of money, and that is OK. But this is why I do not ask for money; rather I ask that—when and if you do find anything of interest in my writing—you at least acknowledge where it came from. Like so many other independent writers, I live with—and on—hope.

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The Two-Faced Nature of the Political Narrative in the United States Reveals the Depth of Corporate Media Control in the United States: The Perspective of a Marginal Sociologist

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The great American Sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote that the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) were analogous entities. Mills pointed out that while in the Soviet Union intellectuals were crushed physically, in the United States intellectuals were crushed morally; this is to say that if one said something against the dominant narrative in the USSR they were sent to a gulag (like Dostoyevsky), while in the United states they are shamed morally and—thus—lose their legitimacy in the public eye (one recent example would be the globalist news outlet The Guardian’s odd shaming of pop artist Taylor Swift for not voicing political opinions). Of course, Mills was not the first to note the odd similarities between the two world superpowers in the Cold War era; the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” noted the similarities between their very names.

And, in 2018, it seems that we are still noting the similarities between the United States—the “leader of the free world”—and the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia. Again, The Guardian provides a great example of the narrative I mentioned in the title: In a 2017 article, The Guardian slams the Russian media for being state-owned. Predictably, The Guardian’s analysis is blatantly biased, inevitably connecting the topic to—as the narrative would have it—U.S. President Donald Trump:

 

There are, of course, many lessons to be learned and many parallels to draw with the current fraught relationship between Donald Trump and the US media. But it’s important to keep in mind that Putin has amassed far more power than Trump can possibly hope to during his time in power. However, one thing is clear: both in the US and in Russia, the media are often distracted with outrage over absurd behaviour and nonsensical public statements while ignoring what those in power want to be ignored.

 

There is, however, a small problem with the globalist main (lame)stream media’s narrative here. It is that Donald Trump has so little control over the media in the United States. In fact, the situation is not at all parallel to that in Russia. The U.S. news media is against Mr. Trump’s position and, it seems, will go to extreme lengths to paint over the very real problem created by their inherent biases.

On 31 March 2017, Mr. Trump slammed Amazon.com for what he calls “scamming” the U.S. Postal Service. Of course, America’s state television channel (when a channel has contracts which guarantee it a monopoly on televisions in airports across the country, it becomes state media), CNN, slammed Mr. Trump for slamming Amazon.com! While Mr. Trump certainly has a right to criticize Amazon.com for its role in pushing out small businesses (how many bookstores exist in the United States anymore?) and for skirting around sales taxes—Amazon.com is, effectively, a faceless corporate monopoly which cares little for the people as long as it profits off of them—this (more important) problematic aspect of Amazon.com’s role in corporate America was not discussed in the U.S. news media (even though Mr. Trump’s political rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, agrees). This is because the U.S. news media is—like its counterpart in Russia—hardly free. Rather, it is beholden to political lobbyists.

 

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Mr. Bezos and Mr. Trump. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.stern.de/wirtschaft/news/amazon–trump-attacke-kostet-bereits-milliarden—persoenliche-fehde-mit-jeff-bezos–7922072.html

 

Please take the recent Washington Post article as an example. In his 31 March article, Philip Rucker writes:

 

Trump is typically motivated to lash out at Amazon because of The Post’s coverage of him, officials have said. One person who has discussed the matter repeatedly with the president explained that a negative story in The Post is almost always the catalyst for one of his Amazon rants.

 

While Rucker’s rationalization of Mr. Trump’s criticism of Amazon’s business practices (which are well deserved) leaves much to be desired, one passage in particular seemed to be an insult to any Washington Post reader with an independent mind. Rucker writes:

 

The president also incorrectly conflated Amazon with The Post and made clear that his attacks on the retailer were inspired by his disdain for the newspaper’s coverage. He labeled the newspaper “the Fake Washington Post” and demanded that it register as a lobbyist for Amazon. The Post is personally owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, and operates independently of Amazon.

 

If one were to assume—as the Washington Post would like people to—that there is no conflict of interest here, they would have to be extremely naïve, to say the least. That Mr. Rucker goes on to lament that Mr. Trumps tweets caused the company’s shares to fall goes to show that the Washington Post may—indeed—be a lobbyist for Amazon. Yet, instead of Americans questioning the legitimacy of their news media—and questioning corporations, like Amazon, for their role in shaping political opinion as purveyors of the culture industry—we see that most Americans are all too happy to support corporate interests over the people’s interest. It is made all the more shocking when looking at how the main (lame)stream media in the United States responds to events like this in other countries.

On 21 March 2018—just ten days before Trump’s fallout with The Washington Post—fellow traveler in the state media The New York Times was quick to criticize the take over of one of Turkey’s major media groups, Dogan Media, by a pro-government conglomerate owned by Demiroren Holding. The New York Times explained:

 

The Dogan Media group owned the newspapers Hurriyet and Posta, and two of Turkey’s main entertainment and news channels, Kanal D and CNN Turk. The government had accused the company of being biased against it and the governing party.

 

A well-respected Turkish journalist, Kadri Gursel (who was recently released from an 11 month stint in jail for being critical of the government), Tweeted that “The process of gathering the Turkish media industry in one hand according to the Putin model is completed”. Given that Dogan media owned much of the sports media in Turkey as well, it is clear that the new ownership of Mr. Demiroren, whose son Yildirim is the head of the Turkish Football Federation, will affect the Turkish football world as well. In a sense, it is a further “Erdoganicization” of the Turkish culture industry and, by extension, Turkish football.

 

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Both Mr. Demirorens and Mr. Erdogan. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.gundemotuzbes.com/dogan-medya-grubu-erdogan-demiroren-e-satildi/38776/

 

The point of this post is to show that when corporate interests take over the media in order to further political agendas in foreign countries, it is seen as an unquestionably bad thing. Yet, when the same thing happens in the United States it seems that people do not even bat an eye. Remember that Jeff Bezos—the owner of both Amazon.com and The Washington Post—has strong progressive leanings and his purchase of the Post has worried many commentators even in liberal circles. It seems that we should be more worried than ever about the connection between corporate wealth, politics, and the media. It is a connection that sociologist Thorstein Veblen made clear more than a century ago, and it is one which should concern people all over the world; as my example from Turkey shows, this problematic melding of news media, big business, and politics affects people regardless of their country of citizenship. If only the main (lame)stream media in the United States could drop their (perhaps racist) tendency to criticize other countries (like Turkey) at the drop of a hat and instead do their jobs—which is to keep their own societies honest.

 

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Sage Words From a Great Writer. Image Courtesy Of: http://dream-prophecy.blogspot.com/2015/12/cia-mind-control-over-american-and.html

 

United_States.jpg  This Is Why People Must Take Back Their Countries, Before They Are Subsumed By Commercial Interests at the Expense of Their Citizens. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/pictures/flags/unitedstates.html

Emile Durkheim, Donald Trump and Manchester United: A Short Essay on The Media and Corporate Greed

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Time to “Kick” Corporate Greed Out of Industrial Football? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2924895/Eric-Cantona-wish-d-hit-harder-Manchester-United-legend-shows-no-remorse-Crystal-Palace-kung-fu-kick.html

 

Business Insider recently published a piece with the headline “Manchester United is blaming Donald Trump for the club’s half-year loss of £29 million — here’s why”. Considering that the piece garnered almost 5,000 hits in just under 24 hours I might need to consider using sensationalist headlines myself, but I digress. According to the article, Manchester United FC had to write off £48.8 million ($67.9 million) and “because of US tax cuts imposed by Trump, United posted a half-year loss of £29 million up to December 31, 2017”.

Given that the club’s chief financial officer noted that “It should be beneficial to the club in the long-term”—which should not be surprising, seeing as how Mr. Trump’s tax cut was designed to favor corporate entities like Manchester United—the sensationalist headline was surprising. Indeed, it is so surprising that it is worth delving into. While the headline follows the tendency towards one-dimensional thought in the media—anything negative about U.S. President Donald Trump sells—it also does nothing to further the traditional “watchdog” role of the media. In the past, the media acted as a counterweight to the state/government/dominant narratives; now it seems as if the media merely trumpets out the same old familiar lines day in and day out. It is one-dimensional enough to turn one off from even reading the news—which would be a feasible course of action were it not so dangerous!

What is most disturbing about this headline, however, is that Business Insider (and other outlets who carried the story with nearly identical headlines such as The Daily Mail, Bleacher Report, and The Telegraph) conspicuously ignored the much bigger—and more concerning—picture for football fans and normal citizens alike.

Who, honestly, really cares how much Manchester United loses? Does a £29 million loss really mean a lot to Manchester United, the most valuable team in Europe according to UEFA, with a value of 689 million Euro and a yearly growth of 169 million Euro (32%)? The question journalists should be asking is just why we care that a football team—that is supposed to be for the people (just like our countries used to be)—needs to make such obscene amounts of money. It is this kind of corporate greed which has led the world towards a tipping point; capitalism cannot—and will not—be able to sustain continued growth to infinity. Just like the club revenues of football teams in Europe that have tripled this century according to UEFA, it is inevitable that the upwards trend will end. The question, of course, is when. And it is a question which journalists are clearly not willing to touch.

 

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Where Does it End? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.uefa.com/MultimediaFiles/Download/OfficialDocument/uefaorg/Clublicensing/02/53/00/22/2530022_DOWNLOAD.pdf

 

This kind of greed has had negative effects on working classes and middle classes all over the world, and that is why it is something—one would think—that journalists would make note of. In national terms, this has led to a “bloated” and “unaccountable government” in the United States; as the (conservative!) Washington Times notes

bureaucrats in the information business flout the law, as though they’re above it. While those in charge of our money use it like a never-ending water stream, that is unending and belongs to them [. . .] When the government views the citizen as the servant, we get weaponized law enforcement agencies to be used against us, and law-breaking agency bureaucrats and politicians who see our democracy as an inconvenience to be subverted.

This is why the issue of corporate greed goes far beyond the faux “left” and “right” dichotomy that, clearly, journalists love to underline in order to (you guessed it) sell more news!

Indeed, the United States—like much of the world—is facing absurd amounts of equality even though there is more than enough money to go around. According to the United Nations, the poverty and inequality in the U.S. is “shockingly at odds with [the United States’] immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights”. Similarly, the Economic Policy Institute found in 2017 that “in 2016 CEOs in America’s largest firms made an average of $15.6 million in compensation, or 271 times the annual average pay of the typical worker”. As the report shows, this is “light years beyond the 20-to-1 ratio in 1965 and the 59-to-1 ratio in 1989”. Indeed, “the average CEO in a large firm now earns 5.33 times the annual earnings of the average very-high-wage earner (earner in the top 0.1 percent)”. Clearly, the jump in discrepancy between CEO’s and average workers since 1989 (not coincidentally, the end of the Cold War) is not sustainable. What is more alarming, is that this absurd gap is not just confined to the United States; as Bloomberg notes (https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/executive-pay many European countries also have large discrepancies between CEO and average worker, even if they are not as astronomical as in the U.S. (Indeed, in Manchester United’s home country, the UK, the ratio is 201 to 1).

 

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Its Not Just an American Problem. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/130354.pdf

 

The scariest part of these figures is that while CEO pay has increased from 843,000 USD in 1965 to a projected 15,636,000 USD in 2016, the annual average wage for private-sector production/nonsupervisory workers increased from 40,000 USD in 1965 to a projected 53,300 USD in 2016. That is an astounding 936.7% increase in CEO pay between 1978-2016 and a mere 11.2% increase in average worker pay during the same time period. Needless to say, the issue is not that there is not enough money to go around; the issue is corporate greed. And it should be clear that this system is not sustainable, it will—quite literally—lead to the end of world civilization as we know it. And the solution will certainly not be found if the media continually ignores inequity in the favor of furthering their own bizarre sensationalist agenda based on the imagined “left” and “right” divide.

 

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It Is A Sad Sight Indeed. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/130354.pdf

 

Here, French sociologist Emile Durkheim is quite relevant. I quote from George Ritzer’s The Development of Sociological Thought (8th ed.), the text I use in my class:

In Durkheim’s view, people were in danger of a “pathological” loosening of moral bonds. These moral bonds were important to Durkheim, for without them the individual would be enslaved by ever-expanding and insatiable passions. People would be impelled by their passions into a mad search for gratification, but each new gratification would lead only to more and more needs. According to Durkheim, the one thing that every human will always want is ‘more’. And, of course, that is the one thing we ultimately cannot have. If society does not limit us, we will become slaves to the pursuit of more (Ritzer 2008: 81 [Emphasis mine]).

We would all do well to keep Durkheim in mind given the massive amounts of inequality we see in the world. It is our responsibility—as citizens—to keep our journalists aware that they exist to serve the people, and not their corporate sponsors. Their job is to print news that keeps business and government accountable, not sensationalism that panders to the zeitgeist of the day.

Why the Blast at Istanbul’s Vodafone Arena May Prove to be A Pivotal Moment For Turkey

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I arrived in Istanbul today for what I thought would be a relaxing vacation with my girlfriend. I jokingly told my friends something could happen, since tragic “events” have a way of ocurring when I leave or arrive in Turkey. Unfortunately tonight, I was proved right. And it pains me that my simple joke was prescient. I don’t write this post from Istanbul just because the attack happened outside of a stadium and that it relates to sport, I write it because it may truly be a pivotal moment in Turkish history.

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Image Courtesy Of: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/10/bomb-outside-istanbul-football-stadium-causes-multiple-casualties

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Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2372661/fifteen-dead-istanbul-football-stadium-bombs/

On the night of 10 December 2016, after Beşiktaş’s Superleague victory over rivals Bursaspor, a vicious attack took place outside of Beşiktaş’s Vodafone arena. At the outset the BBC reported 15 dead and 69 wounded from an attack that consisted of a car bomb and suicide bomber. As of 3:00am CNN Turk (a branch of Turkish State Media), was only reporting 20 wounded and no dead. At 4:27am, the same CNN Turk reported 29 dead and 166 wounded. So…why the silence until after four in the morning, when most (sensible) people are asleep? Why the changing casualty figures, when foreign media was reporting higher numbers? I believe this reluctance to tell the truth stems from the fact that the government knows that they are facing a huge—and possibly pivotal—challenge.

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At 3:29am there was no mention of numbers. Image Courtesy of the Author.

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At 4:27am, when most (sensible) people are asleep, numbers are announced. Image Courtesy of the Author.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a statement that read: “A terrorist attack has been carried out against our security forces and our citizens. It has been understood that the explosions after the Besiktas-Bursaspor football game aimed to maximise casualties. As a result of these attacks unfortunately we have martyrs and wounded.”

Sadly—like so much in Turkish state media—this statement doesn’t tell the whole truth. The fact that Mr. Erdogan claimed that the attack “aimed to maximise casualties” is, in fact, false, and therein lies the danger. If the perpetrators—whoever they may be—wanted to maximise casualties the attack would have taken place during the game, when the 43,500 capacity stadium was full. The fact that the attack took place two hours after the match and didn’t target civilians, but appeared to target police, shows that there was some sort of twisted restraint in this attack.

Here, it seems that the target of the stadium was chosen in order to send a message, a twisted and violent message that says “We can do worse damage if we wanted to. Right now we are attacking the state, not citizens. But if we want to target citizens, we can do that too”. Indeed, if the attack had taken place during the match, it would have been even worse (given that already 29 have been confirmed dead, the statement “even worse” is contextual). And that is the scariest thing about this attack. It is tragic that there were so many casualites in (yet another) senseless act of violence, but it is chilling that this may only be a prelude to much worse in Turkey. And if that is indeed the case, we as human beings, need to be aware.

Georgian Footballer Jaba Kankava Saves Opponent’s Life in Ukrainian Soccer Match

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Just a short shout out to footballers in Ukraine practicing fair play in the most real of ways, even while the future of the country remains in limbo. On the weekend during a Dynamo Kiev-Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk match Dynamo captain Oleg Gusev ended up on the wrong side of a strong challenge from Dnipro keeper Denys Boyko. What happened next was frightening, but it brought out the best in humanity.

Dnipro’s Georgian midfielder Jaba Kankava reacted immediately (and seemingly, instinctively) by reaching into Gusev’s mouth to grab his tongue before it was swallowed, saving the Dynamo captain’s life. A YouTube video shows the incident: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c39r13JBCyE.

Indeed, it was an amazing act in a country that has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Respect to Kankava for bringing Ukraine to the forefront of world news for the right reasons and above all for saving a fellow human being’s life.

Ukraina Stadium, Lviv, Ukraine – FC Karpaty Lviv

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A few shots of Karpaty Lviv’s Ukraina Stadium, and some of the graffiti from the walls surrounding the stadium.

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The Derby of Northern Greece: Aris Thessaloniki-PAOK Thessaloniki

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“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

–       Bill Shankly

The former Liverpool manager’s quote says a lot about the game I love. For many—including myself—football is a way of life. There is a special way that a football match can elicit emotions and feelings that need no description, things everyone can relate to in their own way. Feelings like seeing flashing red and blue lights reflecting off a puddle on the dark asphalt, or the feeling of snow falling all around you on an empty street in February. It is like standing on the shore and looking out at the waves, or staring up at a clear night sky in the middle of summer.  These are emotions that can take everyone back to a specific moment in their past, both the good moments and the not so good. The cruel nature of memories knows no discrimination.

One night in December I was flipping through the channels and came upon a football match on CNN International—the Match Against Poverty. The charity match, live from Brazil at an ungodly hour in Turkey, pitted two teams against one another—Ronaldo and friends against Zidane and friends. Watching the host of former greats on the battered pitch released a flood of memories, and even though the football on display wasn’t the best, watching it had a profound effect on me.

Watching the jerky movements of the former greats, many of whom had lost a step or two on their runs, took me back to the days I had watched them, the days when life had seemed so simple before the trials and tribulations of jobs and relationships, in short “Life”. Those were the days I wanted back and—if only for 90 minutes—I had a small taste of them.

The trademark bald head of Zinedine Zidane, the French Algerian star made infamous by a head butt in his final match, was there. For me, Zinedine Zidane was watching the World Cup final of France 98 at my grandmother’s house on a quiet summer night on the Aegean coast. Bebeto and Romario were both there, the stars of Brazil’s winning team in the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.  Bebeto and Romario take me back to that summer I truly caught the football fever, with everyone in Turkey calling me Tony Meola, after the goalkeeper for the US team. My dad always told me that the strange Italian name, with two vowels next to each other, was what explained the Turkish fascination with the name. I think they called me that because, as an American, I was only good enough to be stuck in goal when we played pick up games in the parking lot behind my house.

Two other Brazilians, Cafu and Djalminha, also made their appearances. Cafu is Italian soccer from the late nineties to the beginning of the new millennium, single handedly running the right flanks for AS Roma and AC Milan. Djalminha will forever be a fascinating name and the face of a Deportivo La Coruna that challenged the traditional greats of Spanish football by winning the championship in 2000. This championship came at the turn of the millennium, as I was starting my own collection of football shirts, and his long name was an interesting site on back of the classic blue and white shirts of Deportivo.

The Brazilian for me, however, that took me the farthest back was the troubled character of Mario Jardel, an example of how “Life” can affect us all, even professional football stars. In 2000, when I was 14, he came to Galatasaray in Turkey as the leading goal scorer in Europe and brought the European Super Cup to Istanbul. His clinical finishing was a joy to watch, and despite a lack of pace he always knew how to be in the right spot at the right time. And he always knew how to make the ball meet the net, no matter what. After Istanbul, however, he got homesick. A return to Portugal, where he had made his name, followed before his career declined. He had a weight problem and reportedly some marriage problems, and following Portugal he bounced around from England to Italy to Argentina to Brazil, then back to Portugal before Cyprus and then Australia. He then went from club to club in the Brazilian lower leagues, then back to Europe to Bulgaria where he played eight matches, and then returned to Brazil for his final act.

In this charity match his weight showed, and he was consistently late on runs and late on his touches, missing chances that would have been peanuts in his prime; the fact wasn’t lost on the announcers. It was strangely depressing to watch the once clinical striker looking like he would be better served in a weight loss clinic, and not on the pitch. Stumbling into the box, he receives a cross only to send it wide of the goal. Despite it all, it is watching matches like this that remind us of the trajectories of our own lives. Since first watching Mario Jardel calmly slip the ball into the Real Madrid net one August night in 2000, I now watch the same man struggle one December night twelve years on. Watching life played out on a green field a world away from me made me think: “I need to find a game and make more memories—and find a soccer shirt, naturally”.

In order to find “that game” (and shirt) I went where everyone goes for answers in this day and age. The Internet. Where could I find a memorable game? Luckily for me one month later was just such a game. On February 3 Aris Thessaloniki would be hosting PAOK Thessaloniki in the Derby of Northern Greece. It was the perfect local derby, as football rivalries are termed. Also, it was in Greece’s second city, away from the capital, which meant that along with a good dose of local football culture a good deal of local life would also be on display.  I decided to go, and see just how the derby would play out in the shadow of Greece’s crippling economic crisis in front of a population where more than one in four people are unemployed.

I knew the teams from the first time I had been to Thessaloniki six years ago. Aris of Thessaloniki, nicknamed “the yellows”, were founded in 1914. Named after the Greek god of war, Ares, Aris have had their moments of glory but—like their country—have seen better days (They’re currently battling against relegation to the second division). In total they have won three Greek championships and one Greek cup. Despite leaner years for the better part of the last three decades, the last five years have seen a rise in fortunes after shares were offered to fans—perhaps an odd coincidence considering Greece’s reputation as the birthplace of democracy—allowing them to vote in elections for the leadership of the club in exchange for some financial contributions. Currently, almost ten thousand fans are involved and this personal connection means that fans have a close relationship to their team. Of course, such a close bond between club and fans was cemented from the very foundation of the team—the club took the God of War’s name after the two Balkan wars pitting Greeks against Ottoman Turks, and is known as the team of the Greeks living in Thessaloniki since Ottoman times.

It is this clash of identities that forms the rivalry as Thessaloniki’s other team, PAOK, have a very different history, and one that their rivals like to remind them of. PAOK—or the Pan-Thessalonican Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans (or Panthessalonikeios Athlitikós Ómilos Kostantinopolitón)—was founded by Greek refugees who left Istanbul following the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish war of independence. The foundations of the club were laid in 1875 in Istanbul by the Greek community, but following the unfortunate events of the population exchange PAOK was officially formed in 1926 by the first players to emigrate to Thessaloniki. Following a merger with another local club in 1929, the team acquired its now (in)famous logo, the Byzantine symbol of a black two-headed eagle. The black on white symbolizing mourning for the home left behind in Istanbul, the eagle looking both east and west, back to the past in Asia Minor and into the future in Greece.

PAOK (a team that I admittedly have sympathies for) are known as the most famous team of Thessaloniki due to their successes on the field and their fan’s escapades off the field, both products of their intense rivalries with teams from Athens. It is a classic struggle between national center and national periphery. They have won two Greek championships and four Greek cups, and have had some famous victories over European clubs in continental competition. In Europe, however, PAOK have also left their mark in less glamorous ways. In the 1990s they were banned for five years following violence against Paris Saint Germain and their hooligan element has led to numerous stadium closures. For this reason, I was secretly happy that the match I would attend was not going to be in PAOK’s Toumba stadium.

I started the trip at the sprawling Istanbul bus terminal, letting my mind wander as I read the advertisements for destinations as close as the neighboring provincial towns of Kocaeli in Izmit and Malkara in Tekirdag to far flung international capitals like Vienna and Baku and everywhere in between. The possibilities were endless and my head was spinning but tonight there was only one destination and one coach—the 10pm bus by Metro to Thessaloniki.

I took my seat for the ten-hour ride and stared out into the darkness, watching the skyscrapers of Istanbul fly by as we glided down the E-5 trans-European motorway before exiting onto the smaller state highway winding through small Thracian country towns and towards the international border at Ipsala/Kipi. Like many others, the reason I enjoy international travel overland—despite the grueling nature of it—is the chance to internalize the movement. Four hours after leaving the bustling metropolis of Istanbul I was standing at a lonely border in the cold dark air at 2am, where small snowdrifts dotted the concrete between waiting tractor-trailers. After an hour on the Turkish side of the border waiting for the passport formalities—and watching the Turkish customs officials take (might I add, the four most suspicious people in my mind) off the bus for a random inspection, we hopped over the border bridge to Greece. The railings on the bridge were red-white-red before a red and white hut next to a matching blue and white hut marked the border; the railings became blue-white-blue. This was not the border of a red state and a blue state, but instead the border of Christianity and Islam, the European Union and (to many of the uninformed) the “Middle-East”. It’s hard to imagine Edirne as the “Middle-East”, but sometimes old prejudices die hard.

In Greece the same formalities were followed, passports were stamped and random inspections ensued; duty free alcohol and cigarettes were bought and we all huddled in a chill that can only mark the dead of night. After everything was completed the driver and his assistant herded us wandering sheep onto the bus and I attempted to grab some shut-eye during the final four hours of the journey. Sleeping was difficult, as can be expected on a coach, and I curiosity got the better of me as I peered out the windows at the Thracian towns of Alexandropoulis and Komotini. As I watched a group of four young girls walking home in Alexandropoulis at an ungodly hour, I was once again reminded of how close—yet how far—modern Turkey and Greece remain despite all that has come and gone. Personally, I chalk it up to the Christian and Muslim divide, but others can debate that topic further. My subject is the football.

The assistant’s call of “Selanik! Selanik,” roused me from my light sleep and with bleary eyes I peered out the windows into a bleak urban landscape on a grey morning. These were the colorless outskirts of Thessaloniki. I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the bus, getting directions to the local bus station for a ride into town while ignoring the taxi touts.  The graffiti on the highway overpass opposite the bus station told me I had come to the right place—“PAOK” was scrawled in black across the grey concrete.

80 Euro cents and one ride on bus number 8 took me to the train station and back in time—this had been my first view of Thessaloniki in December of 2006 when, as many storekeepers would tell me later, the city was alive.  I followed my map towards the main thoroughfare of Egnatia and towards my hotel, located north of the Aristotle square.

“Is this your first time in Thessaloniki?” asked the front desk in that familiar tone that front desks have, ready to give me all the information one small hotel map can provide.

“No, its my second time actually,” I explained. “But the first time I couldn’t do some things. I couldn’t get the shirts of PAOK and Aris. And I couldn’t go to a match. I’m hoping to see Aris-PAOK on Sunday.”

This was clearly not the expected answer, and it shown in the man’s eyes.

“So, you came here for the football?”

“The football.”

The football?” he repeated, unsure.

“The. Football.” I nodded, sure.

“Well, be careful in that case,” he laughed, before taking my bags and explaining the way to the stadiums. Apparently both PAOK’s Toumba and Aris’ Kleanthis Vikelidis—or Harilaou, as it is colloquially known from the eponymous neighborhood—were on the same bus line, 14. I nodded but knew I would prefer to walk. It’s the only way to take in a city and embed its geography into one corner of the mind for use in the future. It was a useful tactic since, after six years, I ended up coming back to Thessaloniki.

I left my bag at the hotel and had a quick “traditional” Greek breakfast of a coffee and cigarette, minus the cigarette. It was only one Euro. Rested up, I headed east down Egnatia, following my poor yet overpriced map past the landmarks of the ancient Arch of Galerius and the Macedonia University into what could be termed more suburban areas. These were the areas farther from the Aegean and Thessaloniki’s famously chic waterfront, where I envisioned the “real” people living. The multitude of empty shops and closed businesses were a sign of the times, as were the expressions on commuter’s faces at the bus stops and the empty bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label in the windows of Figaro Club. Strewn along the sidewalk were what looked like purple 500 euro notes—I stooped down and picked up one of the cleaner ones. Upon closer inspection I saw a picture of a girl in lingerie, looking seductively behind her while displaying her behind—an ad for Le Cabaret. I suppose that when times are tough sex sells well, and even better when made to look like cash money.

Stuffing the amusing advertisement in my back pocket I continued on towards Harilaou, noticing the rising floodlights of the Toumba stadium on the hill above me that marked my progress. After ten more minutes the lights of the Harilaou came into view at the end of the narrow boulevard I had been walking like the light at the end of a tunnel. As I approached I saw the colorful pictures of the fans displayed on the stadium walls, but my eye immediately went to the Aris sign missing the “s”. It had been some rough times indeed. I followed the signs underneath the stand towards the Aris megastore, in order to find the jersey and tickets, half of my mission for the day.

In the store I picked out a yellow Aris shirt made by the American manufacturer Under Armour and the size that would fit me had to be taken off a mannequin as the store was conspicuously under-stocked. I supposed 40 Euros was a steep price in an era of 26 percent unemployment. As the lady heat pressed number 20 and Gianniatis (in Greek characters, interestingly) onto the shirt I decided to inquire about tickets.

“Were should I sit?” I asked, knowing that that is half the battle of being safe at a derby. You don’t want to be in the heat of the action and get caught up in extra curricular activities, but you don’t want to be so far from it that you don’t feel the atmosphere and get the adrenaline pumping. The Harilaou was sufficiently compact enough that all four stands are intimately close to the field, so I wasn’t too concerned. Still, intelligence is intelligence.

“Bring a mask for the gas,” she said getting straight to the point, “and do not sit in sections one or three. There can be some….situations there.”

I understood that much.

“Ok, so where is safer?”

“Section seven is good,” she said. I assumed it was the covered stand she was referring to, since generally the most expensive tickets—and thus less violence prone fans—are located in the covered stand while the more fanatical fans congregate behind the goals. You never know when it will rain, after all.

I thanked her for the advice and after paying for the shirt went back outside in order to get the tickets. The signs directed me towards a ticket booth that was closed, but there was a piece of paper taped to the iron. After matching the word for ticket from the booth to the word on the paper, I made out the word “ARIS CELL” in English characters and reasoned that the tickets would be sold at the ARIS CELL store. Indeed they were. In line were other young men who looked my age, including one with a girlfriend—which reassured me, and when it was my turn I asked for “section seven”. I gave the girl working a twenty Euro note, and she gave me the ticket along with a second warning to bring a mask for the gas. It was clear that it would be an interesting derby.

Walking outside, the man with the girlfriend asked me where I was from, and I told him.

“You came here just for the match?” he asked incredulously, as his girlfriend smiled shyly.

“Yes—I like going to derby matches,” I said trying to make myself sound credible before asking, “Are you from here?”

“No, Mykonos.”

“So you came here from Mykonos for the match?”  I replied, and his laugh told me that we were both equally ridiculous. Before parting ways I got my third warning.

“Have fun—and bring a mask.”

I thanked him and left wondering where on earth I would find a mask. I hadn’t seen any carpenters around, neither was this China and there was no SARS outbreak.

Bright yellow Aris bag in hand—and looking like a very easy target for any rival football fans—I retraced by steps to where I had seen the turn off for the Toumba stadium on my way to Harilaou. I headed right where I thought I should and headed up hill, into the Toumba district. The black 4-1 and matching PAOK scrawled on the shutters of a closed newsstand told me I was on the right track—it was the score by which PAOK had defeated Aris during their first meeting in September.

I followed the streets as if in a maze, turning left and right in the shadows of towering residential apartment blocks. I noted to myself how Greece had truly been spared the experiences of the Iron Curtain. These towering blocks were concrete, for sure, but unlike their counterparts in much of post-communist Eastern Europe there were small shops, driveways, and colorful awnings on the ground floors of these apartment blocks, giving the neighborhood a quiet residential feel in the (Western) European sense, a sense that is lacking even in Turkey.

Once free of the maze I found myself on the corner of a rather large boulevard, parallel to the main ring road. Between these two highways stood the towering concrete mass that is the Toumba Stadium. On this warm winter day—feeling more spring than winter in Greece—the Toumba looked less intimidating, especially due to the presence of a small farmer’s market in the parking lot. Small trucks were parked all around with crates of vegetables and tables of olive oil in front of them, as customers strolled around taking advantage of the spring weather. I ignored the organic goods on sale and headed straight to the store, purchasing a black Umro PAOK shirt, numbered 28 with Katsouranis in Greek lettering written across the back in white lettering. After completing my mission I stepped outside to examine the stadium and check out one of my favorite things: Football related graffiti.

In contrast to the yellow and black smiley face marked “Aris LSD” at the Harilaou, in front of PAOK was a grey and black unsmiling face with devil horns, below which was written “Welcome too [sic] Toympa [sic]”. The two clubs were indeed in stark contrast.  Nearby was a mural of the skyline of Thessaloniki with “PAOK West Side” written above it. This was the PAOK’s claim over the city’s geography, I would see a similar claim from Aris before the match.  “RABBIT [sic] WIEN DEAD” and “FUCK RAPID” were to be seen occasionally, a violent reference to the UEFA Europa League qualifier between the two sides back in August that knocked PAOK out of Europe, and cost them thousands in sponsorship dollars as well. It was, clearly, a bitter blow to the team’s pocketbook and to the supporter pride.  Other murals conveyed the more common messages of “Ultra Violence PAOK” and “PAOK Hooligans Fuck The Police” while a particularly well done piece read“SALONICA CREW”, with the middle of each word separated by a black on white version of the club’s two-headed eagle badge which contained, at the center, a skull.

The most striking—and most chilling—piece of art, however, was a lesson in the geopolitics of football. It was a mural of a top-hatted gravedigger, gaining leverage with the front foot while jamming a shovel into the ground in front of a mound of dirt. On either side of him were two crosses, beneath him—in the “ground”—was written “PAOK GROBARI” in large letters, both words separated by the smaller message “Orthodox Brothers”. In the store I had noticed the presence of the PAOK badge side by side with the badge of another black and white colored club, Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade. Grobari is a nickname for Partizan’s fans meaning “undertaker” in Serbian; it was given by their arch-rivals Red Star Belgrade, themselves friendly with PAOK’s other main rival, Olympiakos Piraeus of Athens. It seemed that these two “Orthodox Brothers” had a close relationship as some teams in Europe have. Indeed, at the match it was possible to see the flags of Borussia Dortmund from Germany and of Bulgaria (for the club Botev Plovdiv, I reasoned later) in the Aris stands. These two clubs have a good relationship with Aris, since they all share the same electric yellow and jet black colors.

After the taking in the “art gallery” I decided to hop into a nearby bar to see what people’s views on the match were. It was just one in the afternoon, but there was a small crowd drinking coffee, ouzo, and beer. I took a beer and sat down to rest, munching on the complimentary potato chips. The barman, noticing my yellow Aris bag, laughed.

“You should hide that around here!”

“Yeah, I figured as much. But look—I got a PAOK shirt as well!” I explained, pulling out my black PAOK bag. At that, one of the patrons (who had been drinking ouzo) came over, interested.

“I came here for the football match.” I explained and watched him—literally—do a double take. “What will happen?” I asked, looking to engage the barman and customer.

Looking at me the barman nodded slowly as if to reassure me, “Aris, Aris.”

Just then the ouzo drinker butted in.

“PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!” He started yelling, thrusting his fist in the air with each mention of his team’s name. “He is an Aris man,” he said nodding toward the bar, “but he doesn’t remember what happened in the fall. PAOK! PAOK! PAOK!”. We would see on Sunday night, around 930pm, who would be proved right.

That night I decided to go out in Thessaloniki to sample the city’s vibrant nightlife, said to be some of Europe’s best. I took in some quick souvlaki at the local spot To Etsi where my PAOK bag got a respectful thumbs-up from the cook, before heading to the Partizan bar, a suitably hip spot sporting a Run DMC quote on the wall. After a couple Jim Beams and cokes I headed down to the famed Thessaloniki water front.  There over a Jack Daniels and coke I was told that PAOK was sure to win. “Tomorrow will not be a game. It will be slaughter. Do you know what happened last time? Four to one. But it doesn’t matter. By six I will have drunk so much ouzo that I won’t care who wins!” said one particularly confident fan, who told me to come to see the same fixture next year at the Toumba. I told him I would certainly try. After the PAOK fans cleared out I asked the bar-tender his thoughts, while he offered to take a shot with me, on the house. Such is Greek hospitality.

“I don’t care—I’m an Iraklis fan.” He said simply, detached from the derby. His position, however, was not enviable. Iraklis were the city’s third team, currently mired in the second division playing to mostly empty seats in the cavernous seventy-thousand capacity Kaftanzoglio stadium. Like so many he held hopes for better days. I only held hopes for tomorrow.

Match Day

I walked down Thessaloniki’s dark avenues towards the Harilaou.  At six thirty I saw the floodlights in the distance, and I felt a feeling calling me. It was excitement and apprehension, caution and reckless abandon all at once. As I got closer a low din got gradually louder and the roads got congested as my nostrils started burning from an old familiar sour smell. It was tear gas, and I hadn’t brought the mask. I passed the first row of riot police and found myself on a pedestrianized street next to the stadium in the midst of a carnival atmosphere. It seemed that I had avoided the worst, only the lingering scent of the gas remained in the air as a reminder. I followed the crowds of fans clad in yellow Aris shirts, past street vendors selling souvlaki and beers. I grabbed myself an Amstel from one of the trucks and marveled at the palpable excitement; watching the fans, a few sober and many drunk, I noted how many had come with significant others. In Turkey, women tend to avoid the stadium like it’s the plague. Here, however, there were a fair number of the fairer sex, and it added to the carnival atmosphere. Such excitement need not be gendered. It was a derby and it was also a party, a celebration of a city’s identity.

After milling around in the streets amongst the supporters I decided to head into a small café named “Aris”. Inside were throngs of yellow and black clad supporters swigging Amstels, their eyes glued to a TV screen showing highlights of other matches from the weekend. On the walls were posters for various Aris supporter clubs. One, marked S3 Moydania, was a graphic of huddling players with “United We Stand 2013” written on it while another said “Super 3 Neaopolis: 1998-2013 15 Years By Your Side”. Next to these was a Liverpool clock, with the familiar dictum “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Its presence was strange in an Aris bar, but I saw it as a monument to football fans everywhere, one of those unspoken ties that unites us all as supporters wherever we are and whoever we support.

As the clock neared 7:30 and kickoff I headed to gate nine, passing through two separate lines of nervous riot police, standing behind scarred plastic shields and holding their lines. Surprisingly, and unlike in Turkey, there was no pat down at the entrance and I climbed straight up the stairs and found myself in the cauldron that is the Harilaou. Periodic loud booms that sounded like cannons echoed through the stadium as the fans rained sound bombs onto the pitch, and I felt that old familiar feeling of football in my head. I felt drunk, not from Amstels but from the crowd. It felt like the streets of Cairo, with so many colors on display and so many noises flying in my ear that I could barely get my bearings. I stumbled up the steep stairs to find a place to stand in the aisles—this was a sold out match. I found a small space barely enough for one man to stand behind a few young kids with punk haircuts, shaved on the bottom and long on the top.

From here I had a good view as the stands behind both goals lit up in a sea of smoke and red air, the fans holding their flares to light up the February night.  There was chanting in a language I couldn’t understand, but everyone was in unison. The stand opposite mine then unfurled a large yellow banner, covering the length of the terraces. Through the smoke I could make out “Super 3 Eusmos”, and below it the symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower—the Byzantine fortification made into a prison during Ottoman rule. On the brick of the tower a large Aris badge had been drawn and the Aris fans had claimed the city’s geography as their own. It was a tactic I had seen used across Europe, just as Legia Warsaw placed their badge above the Soviet era Palace of Culture in graffiti on Warsaw underpasses and as Galatasaray fans used the Bosphorus bridge as their own during pre-game choreography in the Istanbul derby with Fenerbahce earlier in the year.

The pageantry continued and the buzz was deafening as Aris’s players took the field. The buzz turned to whistles with boos and flares raining down onto the pitch as PAOK’s players stepped onto the grass. They stepped gingerly, avoiding the array of projectiles that were falling all around their lonely figures. There were no PAOK fans in attendance, so as to lower the chances of violence.

The referee’s whistle that announced kickoff was a distant sound, drowned out by the Aris chants and the random booms of sound bombs. I could barely see the cameraman five feet ahead of me in the smoke, and the field was a grey blur. The green of the grass was nowhere to be seen. The haze soon turned into a daze for Aris and their fans, as PAOK’s Stefanos Athanasiadis slipped one into the Aris goal and silenced the home crowd in the second minute of play. It became so quiet that you could hear a pin drop—and the plastic lighters raining down onto the pitch. The PAOK celebrations had a surreal feeling, eleven men celebrating against, what seemed like, the world. After the initial shock, which must have been similar to getting under cold water when expecting warm water in a morning shower, the Aris fans picked up again in a bid to rally their players.

Aris’ rally worked and, just three minutes later, Aris’ Spanish striker David Aganzo hit a nice left footed volley to equalize at 1-1. The flares went off again at either end of the stadium and the Aris fans held a tune that, although I couldn’t understand the words, sounded quite similar to what I’ve heard at Turkish league matches—Hepiniz orospu cocuğusunuz—You’re all sons of whores.  Once things were back on level terms both teams started going at one another ineffectually, the pressure made cool decision-making difficult and it seemed as if the players were playing on full emotions only.  It was now quieter than before, but it proved to be the calm before the storm.  On the twenty-sixth minute PAOK’s Abdoul Camara hit a volley squarely into the Aris net that put the visitors up again, this time 2-1. The Aris fans were beside themselves and after a PAOK yellow card in the 27th minute profanity rained down from all around me. “Pushti”, “Malakas” and “Bastardi” were understandable enough, but my favorite was the special epithet reserved for PAOK, “Turki”. I hoped no one would know that there was at least one Turk amongst them, standing quietly in the aisle frantically scribbling into a notebook.

The half ended like that, with Aris going into the locker room down by one to their city rivals. The kids with anarchist haircuts in front of me took to drinking beer and rolling cigarettes in their hands while discussing what had happened in the first forty-five minutes. All over fans were looking to catch their breath and prepare for the next forty-five, while others spat words at one another, I was unsure whether their criticisms were directed at their own team or at their rivals.

After fifteen minutes things got underway again, but the atmosphere had become more subdued. For the first fifteen minutes of the second half it was almost as if Aris had resigned themselves to another loss in a season that has seen many. Urgency began to creep in as we got into the last half hour, and when a PAOK handball wasn’t given in the 65th minute a small fire started behind the western goal. The Aris keeper didn’t seem too concerned, and neither did the fireman who calmly ambled over, took a cursory look at the burning fabric on the fence, and then turned around to walk away without doing anything. Only after the match did I see pictures on the internet—they were burning a PAOK flag that had been hung up on the fencing.

The turning point came in the 70th minute when a red card came out to Dimitrios Konstantinidis for a push in the box. Aris had been attacking the goal in front of their hardcore support, and the fans began waving their black and yellow flags frantically. The goal scorer David Aganzo would be given the responsibility, and he stood behind the ball with the hopes of half a city on his shoulders. At thirty-two the journeyman striker had seen a lot since starting his career at Real Madrid. Although never in the plans of the European giants, he did earn a Champions League winner’s medal after appearing in one match during the 1999-2000 Champions League for the Galacticos. Since then he had been all over the Spanish Leagues and even to Jerusalem. All that had to be behind him now though, as he stared down PAOK’s Premier League pedigreed Cameroonian keeper Charles Itandje. In the end, Aganzo stepped up and deftly put the ball past the outstretched arms of Itandje’s six foot four frame and into the back of the net.  The stand behind the goal went wild and a pyro show ensued, red smoke rising into the night. Aganzo’s strike had settled the matter, and the score, at 2-2.

He last twenty minutes played out uneventfully, it was almost as if both teams had worn themselves out and neither wanted to risk the draw by putting too many men forward. Aris couldn’t risk a home defeat to their arch-rivals, and for PAOK a point was a point—that would also save them the blushes.  As the final whistle neared I ducked out to look for a Souvlaki sandwich, since the smells had been wafting into the stadium for the last ten minutes. I found what I needed and, satiated, dodged the police cordons again to look for a taxi. I had thirty minutes to make the bus back to Istanbul.

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