More Than a Passion

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Aris v PAOK (03.02.2013)

For the two main ultras groups, Super 3 and Ierolohites 1970, Aris is more than a fleeting passion. It’s a way of life, a purpose, and for some even a reason to live. Arrive in Thessaloniki on a derby weekend and you can’t fail to be blown away by the ultras fanaticism ahead of this fixture.

Renowned for its jaw dropping tifo’s, pyrotechnic displays and fervent vocal support, the Aris v PAOK derby at the Kleanthis Vikelides is an experience I think every fan of football should witness at least once in their lifetime.

We arrived in Thessaloniki on the Friday and had pre-arranged to meet Nikos (Aris FC’s Marketing Manager) to collect our match tickets at the club. Nikos had been a massive help to us, and through email contact we had managed to reserve two tickets for the derby. We met Nikos at 6.00pm in the Aris Sports Café, which is a club bar based inside the stadium with great views out across the playing surface and the stands.

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Although quiet on a non match day it’s worth a visit for a quick pint regardless! Behind the bar is a massive picture of the classic Aris tifo against Boca Juniors from 2009 and the remaining walls are adorned with Aris teams of yesteryear.

What was to follow however was not in the script. After a few drinks at the Aris Sports Cafe, Nikos then invited us on a tour of Aris Ultra bars, and the chance to meet some of the people behind the two main ultras groups and those that co-ordinate the impressive and well choreographed tifo’s that are normally on show at games like this. This was effectively an invitation into a world rarely seen by football tourists like us…we couldn’t refuse!

AR2The first port of call was a basement bar located close to the stadium which was headquarters of the ultras group ‘Super 3’. Symbolised by a bulldog smoking a fag, the Super 3 group occupy the Gate 3 terrace at the Kleanthis Vikelides Stadium. They are famous for their amazing pyrotechnic displays and passionate support, and this was one of the main reasons we had come out to see the Aris v PAOK derby. The bulldog emblem represents a sign of ‘loyalty’ and is closely linked to the slogan ‘Super 3 Familia’ which you will see graffitti’d on the walls around the ground.

The ‘Super 3 Familia’ now has a network of 65 fan clubs throughout the country, and has strong links to the football club and even has representation on the club’s board. Tickets for example are passed directly from the club to the group, where they are then administered out to the various fan groups.

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Inside the bar, the bright yellow walls were covered in photos of previous Super 3 tifo’s and other Aris memorabilia. As soon as we walked in we were extended a warm welcome, handed a beer, and soon got talking to a guy called Akis who happily talked us through a few stories and the background to the Super 3 ultras group.

It costs the Super 3 group over 5,000 euro’s to put on a ‘pyro’ show as the teams emerge for the match, and this takes a huge amount of co-ordination to put on. If you haven’t seen their displays before, check out some of the photos in this post, or do a ‘you tube’ search. They are absolutely incredible.

Super 3 always send at least one bus to all away trips no matter where the game is being played. Although away fans are generally banned in Greece at the bigger domestic games against Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, AEK and PAOK etc, they are permitted to travel to other domestic and European fixtures. One of their recent away games a few weeks before was against OFI Crete – an 18 hour journey by bus and ferry to get to the holiday island in the south.  They took 400 fans to this game, but the commitment in cost and time off work to make a journey like this clearly isn’t easy in tough economic times!

Akis went on to recall one of their recent European campaigns, when Aris played Rosenborg away in 2010. This was one of the furthest possible European away trips from Thessaloniki and in Super 3 tradition they sent one bus to make the journey. This hardened group of 40 ultras embarked on a 7,200km, 8 day round trip to see the game, and they only had one night in a hotel on the whole trip!

353px-ArisFC-Crest_svgAris – who’s football club emblem features ‘Ares’ The God of War have also developed a strong bond with other clubs ultras as well, including Boca Juniors, St Etienne, Borussia Dortmund and Plovdiv.  The latter three clubs fans regularly make the annual trip to Thessaloniki for the spectacle that is the derby against PAOK.

The bar we were in appeared to be the nerve centre for Super 3, where the pre match displays are planned and coordinated; decisions on away travel and who gets the tickets are made; and the communication point to the other 64 fan groups across the country. After an intriguing hour or so spent here it was time to move on. As we left the bar one ultra followed me out onto the street asking to check my camera. On closer inspection he saw that he featured in one of the pictures and subsequently asked me to delete it!

AR4The 2nd bar on our ‘mini tour’ was the superbly named ‘Beer FC 1914’. This is a small bar located close to Gate 2 of the stadium and was fairly quiet with a small group of about six fans enjoying a few beers and working out their weekend bets. After picking their English guests brains for tips on lower league football, we left them with a ‘cert’ of a treble; Brentford away at Yeovil; Notts Co away at Hartlepool; and Everton to beat Villa. Grateful for their ‘top tips’ we were then treated to a round of ‘Tsipouro’, a local Greek spirit. Unfortunately our tips didn’t come off and we avoided Beer FC on the Sunday afternoon in case of repercussions!

The 3rd bar was where the night would really kick on. Located in central Thessaloniki, this bar was home to the other main ultras group ‘Ierolohites 1970’ who occupy the Gate 1 terrace. Buzzing to gain entry, and passing through a steel door emblazoned with ‘Aris or Death’ graffiti, the narrow stairs led you up to a second floor bar that was packed with ultras enjoying a Friday night pre derby beer.

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The ‘Ierolohites 1970’ ultras logo…

We were welcomed here with open arms, and by all accounts were the first English people to have entered the bar. The ultras present that night were intrigued to chat to us about English football, but more importantly seemed honoured that we had chosen to come over to watch their team.

The drinks flowed well into the early hours as we got to know our new found football friends, and we were showered with Aris Ierolohites 1970 souvenirs and gifts. Football has that unique ability to bring people together and I will never forget the hospitality shown to me and Kev that night.

I have no idea what the bar was called, but I was genuinely touched and humbled by the generosity and openness expressed to us by the fans here. Particular thanks and a special mention to Stavros and Vasilis; but there were many others too – the faces I can remember but the names I now can’t!

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We stayed here until about 3am. I have blurry memories of a flare being let off at one point in the bar; drinking ridiculously strong vodka’s with Vasilis and Stavros; and getting a tour of the back rooms where the walls were covered in photos of Aris ultras past and present. We went on to one final bar back up by the stadium and then literally stumbled back to the hotel at 05.00am some 12 hours after we had first met Nikos to pick up the tickets. Spontaneous nights are always the best!

Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city, and is located on the northern fringes of the Thermaic Gulf. It’s a pleasant enough city, without having too much to offer from a tourist and sightseeing point of view. The main tourist focus seems to be the area around the ‘White Tower’ and the waterfront area along Nikis Avenue down to the port.

AR1 Nikis Avenue, the waterfront area, and the ‘White Tower’ in the distance….

AR20The avenue is lined with cafes and bars and is ridiculously popular amongst the locals. Walking down the avenue on Saturday afternoon and it was like a busy night out. I have never seen so many people just out having a coffee! Venture away from the waterfront and there are a few other ‘sights’ that are worth a quick look including the ‘Arch of the Galeius’; the ‘Agios Georgios’; Agia Sophia and Aristotelous Square.

Whilst it might not have a huge amount to offer on the sightseeing front, Thessaloniki has been voted as the number 1 party city in Europe – and after our Saturday night out here we could see why! I have never seen so many bars and clubs in close proximity to each other, all open until 6am at least.

The locals tend to venture out at midnight; but us English tourists prefer starting at about 6pm. Despite giving it a good go ourselves, with an early start you will do well to last the night here! There are plenty of bars along Nikis Avenue, but if you meander away from the waterfront at the ‘port’ end, and in between the Emporiou Square and Dimokratias Square there a literally hundreds of places to pop in for a drink.

Match day:

The stadium is located in the Harilaou district on the eastern side of the city, and is easily reachable by taxi from the city centre and costs about 5 or 6 euros. We had arranged to meet Stavros et al outside the Kleanthis Vikelidis at 4pm on the Sunday afternoon to experience the traditional derby build up.

As we arrived at the stadium, police riot buses were parked nose to tail on both sides of the road right along the length of the stadium, with one bus parked across the middle of the road creating a blockade.

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Outside the Kleanthis Vikelidis and the Police bus blockade….

The fans explained to us this was set up for the arrival of the PAOK team bus and that there would likely be a small riot on their arrival. We were warned that the police would use tear gas and that we were to calmly walk away from the area when they did. Although grateful for the advanced warning, you couldn’t help but feel a little bit on edge as to what was going to happen next.

True to their word, when the PAOK team bus arrived you knew all about it. Although obscured by the police vehicles, you could suddenly hear loud chanting go up; fire-crackers, flares and bangers were let off and you could hear that a number of objects were being thrown at the bus. With a red glow and smoke from the flares rising above the police blockade, this was the ‘two headed chicken’s’ welcome to Aris! (‘Two headed chicken’ is the Aris fans way of derogatively describing their cross city rivals!).

AR10With the police wearing gas masks we knew what was coming next. There must have been 10-12 loud gunshot sounds as the police fired off their canisters of tear gas. It was at this point that our Aris companions told us to head off down the street and turn into a quiet square until the wind dispersed the gas. As we walked off with our Aris scarves covering our faces, the effects of the gas started to kick in. Streaming nose, itchy burning sensation to the eyes, all rather unpleasant!

After about 20 minutes we were told it was safe to head back to the stadium. Returning to the same spot we noticed that all of the police vehicles that had barricaded the road were now gone. This presence was merely to get the team bus and the PAOK players safely into the ground!

With the streets returning to a slightly more calmer vibe, we enjoyed a couple more beers before it was time to take our seats in anticipation of the grand opening.

Going into this game, Aris were in the relegation zone, seemingly struggling to score goals as well as pick up points. PAOK on the other hand were 2nd in the table behind high flying Olympiakos. Although concerned by their current position in the table, Aris fans seemed optimistic following the clubs three January transfer window signings – a last ditch attempt by the club to keep them in the Super League.

Entering through Gate 9, we took our seats up in the relative safety of the upper tier! As the teams emerged from the tunnel, the pyro displays we were keenly anticipating quickly sparked into life to a background of tribal chanting. The Gate 1 and Gate 3 ultras letting off no end of flares, as Gate 2 unfurled a 90 metre banner that covered the entire stand. As a player walking out to this, surely you need no motivation to put in a performance.

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As the teams emerge….Gate 1 flares and streamers…..

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Gate 2 unfurl a 90 metre banner…..

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Gate 3, more flares and fireworks….

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Smoke from the flares hangs over the pitch at kick off…

With scenes like this occurring behind each goal it is difficult to keep focused on the actual match and it was one of those games where the ultras performance probably drew more of my attention than the game itself.

The derby got off to the worst possible start from an Aris point of view. The smoke from the flares that had engulfed the ground as the teams walked out barely had time to clear as PAOK’s Athanasiadis slotted home a far post cross on 2 minutes. The goal was followed by an eerie silence as there were no away fans to celebrate his early strike.

In all fairness Aris responded well and were on level terms after just 5 minutes following a quality strike from Aganzo. He latched on to a long pass that he chested down on the left side of the penalty area, before smashing in a left foot half volley across and over the keeper into the far corner.

That was the response the game needed and the Aris fans went berserk again – cue another round of pyrotechnics!

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PAOK looked dominant early on, and Aris weren’t helping their cause by giving away possession far too easily. They were caught out of position on a number of PAOK attacks, and were punished in the 26th minute by a wonder strike from Camara. The Aris right back seemed to switch off; and with Camara exploiting the space in behind, his finish was right out of the top drawer. The ball came to him on the left side of the penalty area where he took the ball early on the half volley and sent a powerful shot back across to the right side top corner.

In the second half Aris were a lot brighter and after PAOK’s Konstantinidis’ red card on 70’ the game turned on its head. A minute later and Aris were awarded a penalty. Aganzo scored from the spot to bring the game level.

Click on the ‘you tube’ clip below for the penalty:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BP-UDfFOYvo

Midway through the second half and it was time for Gate 1 to set fire to the PAOK banners and flags that were hanging on the fence behind the goal. These were left to burn unattended while the game continued. Aris had a lot more of the possession in the last 20 minutes, but failed to create that one last opening we were all craving to get a dramatic derby win.

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The ritual burning of PAOK banners….

The 90 minutes seemed to be over in a blink of an eye, partly due to the game actually being a decent one, but more to the atmosphere that was created by Gate 1 and Gate 3. As mentioned earlier this is a football experience like no other, and to give you a feel (or a sound bite) to the unbelievable atmosphere that night, click on the Super 3 ‘you tube’ clip below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcTVXoPa75M

Att: 12,683 (to be honest there looked like double that inside!!)

This game lived up to all our previous expectations and ended up exceeding them. I don’t think there will be many other European football experiences that will surpass this one.

I would like to thank Nikos, Babis, Stavros, Vasilis, Akis for their hospitality, generosity and time that helped make this such a great footballing weekend for us. I will definitely return here one day – sooner rather than later I hope.

Forza Aris!

More photos from the game:

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The White Tower…

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