How Greece’s football fans organised themselves during the 2015 bailout referendum
by Theodoros A. Spyros, Yiannis Balabanidis
The 5 July 2015 referendum in Greece on the conditions for bailouts led to a great mobilization of groups supporting “yes” or “no” votes. Some of these groups — such as employers’ unions, syndicates and professional associations — have attempted systematically and over time to intervene in the political field; however, the public political mobilization of other groups — like associations of organized football fans — has surprised many people. Dozens of such associations took a public position in favor of the “no” vote, while not even one association publicly supported the “yes” vote. Football clubs owners, on the contrary, along with many famous active and former football players, supported, formally or informally, the “yes” vote.
The surprise caused by the public political mobilization of football fans is connected with deprecatory attitudes towards football among social scientists, in Greece as well as elsewhere, who consider it as a field of secondary importance associated with a particular lumpen subculture. Similarly, a portion of the left wing regards football as “opium of the people” and a massive cultural industry. So it has oft been engaged as a reproduction device for false class and political consciousness and an obstacle to the cultural development of the lower social classes.
It is true that membership in football fan clubs, at least in Greece, usually operates as a mechanism for depoliticization. Especially in a symbolic and imaginary level, the football fan identity often supersedes political and social identities, and not just among organized supporters. A common saying often heard in daily conversations is: “you may change the political party you support, but you never change your favorite football team”. There is seemingly a profound conviction that a team is more important, or at least a more stable reference, than a political party. Along those lines, the football team someone supports is considered as independent not only from political parties but also from their social / class references.
Obviously, “class” references are not absent from football fan identities. A characteristic example is the distinction between the two biggest football teams of Greece, Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. In the collective imagination of their supporters, and indeed generally, the first team is identified with the bourgeois and middle strata of Athens and its northern suburbs while the second with the working class of the Piraeus port. At the same time, the two other big teams of the country, AEK Athens and PAOK Thessaloniki, are also identified with the working class because of their refugee origin; these teams being created by the Greek refugees who came from Istanbul and Asia Minor, after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
However, the above class references have only imaginary content (Cf G. Zaimakis, interview with P. Konstantinou [in Greek]). All these football clubs have fans all over Greece, coming from all social strata. At the same time, smaller clubs recruit their followers on the basis of locality, and bear a more or less local identity. For the latter, explicit references to specific political parties are even less obvious. That’s because, as we have already mentioned, the “team” is regarded as something beyond and above political parties and ideologies. Often political parties are seen as antithetical to a football team, failing to meet its interests or break the “unity of its people”.
A characteristic example of this antithetical relationship appeared on the occasion of attempts by Panathinaikos and AEK to acquire new private-owned stadiums with the “help of the state”. The directors’ boards, as well as the fans of both football teams, claimed that their requests were “fair” since the other big football team of the country, Olympiakos, had acquired a modern football stadium with the state’s help, because of the Olympic Games in 2004. In both cases, for the new stadiums the state was expected to cede public land and finance part of the projects. Syriza opposed both bids. The reasons cited were environmental, since the creation of stadiums presupposed change in building coefficients and social land use; it was objected that funding these stadiums would amount to using state budgets for private companies.
Especially in the case of AEK, the conflict reached its peak during the long electoral campaign before January 2015 elections. As a result organized fans of the team came into direct conflict with Syriza and the mayor of New Philadelphia, where the AEK team has historically been based and where the proposed new stadium was to be built. After being elected in 2012, the mayor, supported by residents and collectives, had taken issue with the concession of a part of the local grove for building the stadium, and had entered into a series of legal actions for the project’s cancellation. There were violent confrontations between AEK supporters from the one side and the municipality and its residents on the other side. In a political level, this standoff led to the biggest fan-association of AEK (Original 21) calling upon its members to vote against Syriza, regarded as an “enemy of AEK”, in the next elections. Something similar had happened with Panathinaikos fans in earlier elections.
With these background observations in view, it is expedient to consider the role that football clubs played in the bailout referendum of July 2015.
The support of organized football fans for the “no” vote in the 5 July 2015 bailout referendum was officially announced on their websites or declared on banners in stadiums, offices and other public places. Website announcements were issued particularly by organized fans of two of the most popular teams in Greece (AEK and PAOK), of a team with a significant following (Iraklis Thessaloniki), and also of two local teams of Athenian suburbs (Atromitos and Panionios) and a number of provincial teams (Panetolikos Agrinio, Niki Volos, Olympiacos Volos). In addition, the organized fans of another of the most popular teams of the country (Panathinaikos) supported the “no” vote by displaying banners in the stadium and their offices. Finally, a few football clubs of Aris Thessaloniki (with a significant number of fans) and Olympiakos Piraeus (with the largest number of fans in Greece) also variously supported the “no” vote.
The discourses of these announcements are revealing not only of the referendum’s importance but also of the manner in which the Greek crisis is perceived and of the forms of political consciousness and mobilization that have developed among fans. So, for example, in the announcement of AEK’s largest fan club, “Original 21”, after denouncing “snitches and the slaves” and commending the path of “rebellion” and “big fights” for “AEK People”, it stressed that “the big NOs were always said by the people …” On this basis, the club invited its members to attend the manifestation of “no” vote supporters at Syntagma Square on 03/07/2015. In fact, according to a report, “a delegation of organized AEK fans was at the manifestation […] in favor of the “no” vote, shouting slogans against Germany and Schäuble. About 400 members of ‘Original 21’ attracted the attention of other demonstrators, as they were shouting slogans in favor of AEK and against the Finance Minister of Germany”.
An extended announcement by organized PAOK fans, signed by 18 fan clubs, including the most popular and “hardcore” one, “Gate 4”, raised a number of political issues of great interest in Memorandum-ridden Greece. The announcement, after commenting on issues such as unemployment, flexible and precarious employment and migration of (mainly young) Greeks, complained that bankers, technocrats, and political parties are responsible for the crisis. With regard to political parties, the announcement stated expressly that “we do not expect any political party and anyone to tell us what to do”. Instead, it connected support for the “no” vote to “our dignity and the principles that characterize PAOK fans today, tomorrow, Sunday, and forever”. At the same time, the announcement also stated that the contrary view should be respected, since “at the end the unity of all people is what matters”.
The announcement by “Autonomous Gate 10”, bringing together the most radical part of Iraklis Thessaloniki fans, is of particular interest because of its explicit political content. A large part of the club’s members belong to the anarchist/antiauthoritarian and radical left wings. In its statement the club, while stressing that it considers the referendum as divisive for Greek society, took a clear stance in favor of the “no” vote. It argued that this referendum marked the “most crucial battle” that Greek society” needs to engage, at least on a psychological level”. Although the announcement admitted that there were disagreements among the club’s members about the desired future, it simultaneously called for the united rejection of all that is encapsulated by the “yes” vote: injustice against the poor, imprisonment due to debts, migration due to unemployment. At the same time, it questioned “democracy” in Greece, denouncing main pillars of the current system as “channels of interweaving” whereby “Greek General Confederation of Workers’ bosses have been brought together with the industrialists”. In conclusion, the announcement distanced itself from all political parties. In particular, it observed: “with the NO vote people make a jump forward, a jump that in no case can be exploited by any party and any government, simply because the jump overcomes the entire political system. With the NO vote we break the fear of and the government’s fear of people who are not afraid !!!”
The “Autonomous Gate 10” political position is part of a broader questioning of the existing economic and social system. So, this specific fan club was not limited to supporting the “no” vote in the referendum. Instead, after the victory of the “no” vote, it took the initiative to create its own alternative currency, IRA (from Iraklis, though it might remind of the Irish organization) by way of setting up an alternative and solidarity economy. In announcing this move it noted, among other things, that: “in any case what the people had and would need is solidarity among us! Solidarity must truly become our weapon and that weapon should be kept by as many people as possible […] After many ideas and discussions, having as example the people of Argentina and the ways in which it experienced its own problems in 2001, we decided to issue our own currency, following the principles of exchange economy! As ‘Autonomous Gate 10’ we leave eurozone and the euro because you made us weary and hungry!!! We hereby issue our own currency, ‘IRA’!!! ‘Ira’ will be released in banknotes of one, five, ten and twenty ‘IRA’ and will have the following format! The function of our currency is simple and fair. There are no lenders, Eurogroup and IMF. Every person comes to the club bringing any product he has in excess or any service he can and wants to offer. Immediately, he/she gets the value of the product or service from the club in ‘IRA’ currency. He has automatically a purchasing power equal to the products/services that he has offered.”
Τhe announcement of the fan club “Antifascists Panionios Fans” was also politically charged. It highlighted, on the one hand, social movement activism of group members, joining anti-fascist marches and campaigning for free beaches; and asserted, on the other hand, that they are not voters of Syriza and have no conviction “in today’s bourgeois democracy that we have as our regime”. However, they declared their “unequivocal support for the no vote”, because “we are facing the first opportunity to establish a new political situation. This is the direct democracy in which the people will have the first and last word on their lives”. Explaining further their reasons for supporting the “no” vote, they felt that it might provide an opportunity to finish with “all these seedy subjects who govern us until now”, naming as such businessmen, ship-owners, bankers, and also their “servants” the politicians, journalists and security forces. Furthermore, supporting the “no” vote is presented as a “debt” of action, “in favor of all those who are bent under the weight of the current situation: those who committed suicide for economic and psychological reasons, those who were left unemployed, those who are homeless, and those who have stopped dreaming”.
The case of the two most popular football teams of Greece, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, are of particular interest. Unusually, the owners of both took a public position on the referendum. In the case of Panathinaikos, indeed, the position of the owner of the football department was contrary to that of the owner of the basketball department. The football club president, also proprietor of one of the largest political newspapers and TV channels in the country, had become a fanatical supporter of memorandum policies over the years – so, through his media channels, he openly supported the “yes” vote in the referendum. However, the owner of the basketball department of Panathinaikos, also owner of media channels and of one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers in the country, openly supported the “no” vote. As it happened, the memorandum policies of previous governments, promoting cheap generic drugs, had hit the profits of the domestic pharmaceutical industry.
The main fan clubs of Panathinaikos took a public position in favor of the “no” vote by raising banners in the stadium and in their offices. The largest and the oldest of these, “Gate 13”, had raised banners saying “No to the Memorandum” and “People, do not kneel”. Another fan club, “West Block”, also hung banners stating “Greek wake up, no to the memoranda” alongside a banner with slogans against journalists. A third fan club’s banner on its offices said, “Politicians, traitors, crooks, Greece is not for sale”.
As regards Olympiakos, it is considered the first association to engage in the open politicization of football and sports in Greece. Olympiakos’ owner and its partners in the team’s administration created its own electoral candidates list in the last local elections, who won the elections in the Piraeus municipality. This list, entitled “Piraeus Winner”, was led by the right hand of the football team president, who himself participated as a candidate for alderman, like many other team members, administrative agents or former athletes from different departments of the club. The creation of this electoral list has marked the transition of the Olympiakos from the public doctrine / narrative of “no politica” to the area of berlusconism.
This municipal political grouping intervened directly in the referendum by issuing an announcement in favor of the “yes” vote. Perhaps that explains why Olympiakos’ organized supporters were the only fans of the big Greek teams that in their vast majority didn’t take a public position on the referendum. Mainly this concerns “Gate 7”, the largest fan club of Olympiakos with branches throughout the country. But some Olympiakos fans did take a public position in favor of the “no” vote. An informal group within “Gate 7”, named “Olimpiakos Sect”, issued an announcement in favor of the “no” vote. The Olympiakos fan-club “Porto Leone” uploaded a photo on to its Facebook profile before the referendum, showing fans who had gone to Dortmund in 2011 with banners saying “Resist to 4th Reich”, and commented: “More relevant than ever … Olympiakos fans in Dortmund in 2011. Words are unnecessary”. The fan-club of Olympiakos in Patra posted three banners outside of its offices with the slogans “NO to the enslavement of people”, “owners of TV channels – terrorists”, and “heads up everybody” respectively.
These exceptions do not change the general feeling expressed in social media that Olympiakos fans avoided taking a clear position on the referendum. The feeling is reinforced by two facts. Firstly, one day after the referendum announcement “Gate 7” held its 8th World Congress in the stadium of Olympiakos in Piraeus, with the participation of clubs from all over Greece and abroad. Although the situation was appropriate, there was no announcement about the referendum. The only reference, even indirect, was made by the Olympiakos president, who said in his speech: “I hope the best for our country in this difficult time and I believe we will succeed. As for Olympiakos, you should know that it will be a champion, as it is required by its history and as we all desire”. Secondly, the silence of the largest Olympiacos fan club contrasted sharply with the fact that a few days earlier, on June 19, it issued a very aggressive announcement against those who, according to their opinion, were involved in “an unprecedented alliance against Marinakis (President of the football team) and Olympiakos”. This appeared as the Team President was charged with participation in a criminal organization engaged in match-fixing during the Greek championship.
Evidently football and fan organizations are an eminently political field. Greek scholars studying this field have focused on clientelistic networks construction and also on the symbolic confrontation and political competition between nationalist/far-right and radical left/antiauthoritarian wings. Although for many years the football companies preferred to promote the model of an apolitical fan-consumer (see Zaimakis, interview with Panagiotis Konstantinou), because of the crisis the bleached have been radicalized and visible and audible (see Haralampopoulos, interview with Panagiotis Konstantinou). According to the sociologist G. Zaimakis: “the repertoire of these [fans’] expressions shows a polysemy of views, starting from practices in terms of Havie Casal lumpen-politics that appears in banners with aggressive, sometimes racist and sexist, slogans against the Greek political system and its creditors, and extending to calls for uprising incorporating protest gestures with dual political and sports content, and in some cases the political message dominates”. Our brief research seems to confirm Zaimakis’s view on the wide range of political views among fans. Moreover, if analysis and fans’ attitudes and statements during the referendum is combined with that of other action forms with a strong political content, internal contradictions come to the surface characterizing the individual and collective social subjects.
Thus, the PAOK fans’ announcement aggressively questions the political system and defends the “people” but without presenting a clear political orientation. Distinctively, the case of Olympiakos shows that the crisis strengthens diachronic clientelistic networks which underpin the football world, giving them even an institutional-political form. The Olimpiakos case is also indicative the extreme right wing’s attempt to enter into football stadiums. In particular, the Red Nationalists Group have initiated intensive actions and extended influence among the team’s fans during the last few years. In fact, the public adoption of the “no politica” doctrine adopted by the club administration was designed to shield against strong rumors of an increasing penetration of “Golden Dawn” among the team’s fans. However, as noted, there are special cores of the team’s fans, such as the “Olympiakos Sect” which favored the “no” vote, aligned with the radical and/or antiauthoritarian position.
AEK fans present a lot of contradictions. On the one hand, they favored the “no” vote and have in recent years systematically denounced the memorandum by adopting a left and/or antiauthoritarian rhetoric. In fact, the largest AEK fan-association, “Original 21”, also had an organized presence in the 2001 manifestation against globalization in Genoa. On the other hand, however, the team’s fans are in line with the team’s administration on the stadium issue, adopting violent tactics against the local authority and those residents and collectivities who disagree, at one point even destroying the space of an antiauthoritarian group. At the same time, AEK and PAOK fans have had confrontations with Golden Dawn. For AEK, such confrontation arose due to Golden Dawn members among fans attacking a Syriza MP, also an AEK fan, during a football match. For PAOK, such confrontation followed the Golden Dawn’s announcement against an Albanian football player of the team, spurred by a Facebook photo in which he appeared in a t-shirt with a map of “Big Albania” and UCK insignia. In both cases, AEK Athens and PAOK fans expelled Golden Dawn members among them and denounced its racist and fascist character, invoking additionally the “refugee origin” of their teams.
The cases of “Autonomous Gate 10” of Iraklis fans and the antifascists Panionios Supporters evidence another G. Zaimakis’s findings: “there are cores among the football fans, though not the majority, who have an alternative thinking and try to establish an alternative narrative for football, critical of the clientele networks and corruption and opposed to the full commercialization of football”. The discourses and the practices of these two groups align the attitude favoring the “no” vote in the referendum to broader political interrogation of financial capitalism. Given that the vast majority of supporters of the “no” vote came from the lower socioeconomic strata also confirms a class alignment. As a fan commented beneath an announcement on the Internet, “… those who have nothing to lose vote ‘no’…. the others vote ‘yes’”.
Theodoros A. Spyros, Yiannis Balabanidis, November 2015