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Football, Politics and Crisis in Greece 1

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). 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. We discuss that in the second part of this posting.

Theodoros A. Spyros, Yiannis Balabanidis, November 2015