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I hadn’t gone to Thessaloniki to write about hooligans. But nor could I walk away from the courthouse without discovering why heavily armed police were holding back a crowd of angry young men at its gates.
The elections and the economic crisis had brought me to Greece, but while I was there, I would also see their impact on a story I had been following back home – the culture of hardcore football hooliganism.
The crowd of men outside the courthouse was about a hundred strong. Dressed mostly in black, they were trying to get into the building but had been restrained by the police. The officers were equipped with guns, batons and tear-gas grenades – but had so far not used them.
The midday sun shone over Greece’s second-largest city, heightening the tension. The country was already on a knife-edge because of the sovereign debt crisis that had threatened its membership of the euro-zone and the very survival of the euro itself. A recent parliamentary election had been inconclusive, another one was about to take place. Many wondered if it would deliver more seats for the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn.
At first glance, I assumed the crowd outside the courtroom were supporters of this party. But after speaking to the police and some of the men, I realised they were fans of the local football club, PAOK Thessaloniki.
They refused to be photographed from up close so I had to take my picture from afar. Even then, the message from their eyes was unmistakable: “You’re not welcome, get lost!”
The men outside the courthouse had gathered to demand the release of 34 PAOK supporters who had been arrested that very day on suspicion of hooliganism. A police officer told me that the affair had nothing to do with politics, or with sports.
But my assumption that these guys were members of Golden Dawn was not entirely baseless.
Over the last decade, some Golden Dawn members have formed the hooligan firm Galazia Stratia (Blue Army), with the stated intention of defending Greek national pride inside the stadium. They have been accused of extending that “defence” to the streets through violence and thuggery.
In Thessaloniki, I understood that the economic crisis affected every aspect of life in Greece – even the quality of football. The widespread despair was an ideal backdrop for the rise of neo-Nazi ideologies, as well as hooliganism.
The police operation in Thessaloniki also uncovered drugs, weapons and large amounts of cash, suggesting that the targets were not your ordinary football fans.
PAOK’s emblem features a sombre, double-headed eagle with folded wings. The bird’s ominous appearance suited the mood outside the courthouse.
Donors spent hundreds of thousands of euro building a new museum in Gjirokastra - but the results were questionable and it ultimately closed over an ideological dispute.