Tuesday, 11 October 2011

OUT & ABOUT : ATHENS.


Looming bankruptcy, thousands on the streets in protest and general strikes, there are probably better times to visit Athens. That said the purpose of my trip was to work on the Greece-Croatia fixture in the EURO 2012 Qualifiers and there’s nothing like a vital football match to distract the masses. In between work there was a chance for a spot of sight seeing, but to avoid swathes of loud, badly dressed American tourists I checked out a couple of the lesser know destinations.
Being a sucker for football grounds of all shapes and sizes, when I visit any country the ‘to do’ list often features the name of some ramshackle stadium. This time was no different and I soon made my way to the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium. Built in 1922, it was until recently home to one of the cities three big teams, Panathinakos.

In England, old stadiums rich with history and memories soon get torn down for luxury flats or a supermarket, but ‘The Leoforos’ as it is also known still stands proud. With it’s urban location slap bang in the Ampelokipoi district of the city, it’s very much a surprise that the Greeks haven’t followed the route of many in this country.

It took me an hour just to walk around and appreciate the exterior of the stadium such was the variety and detail in the many displays.




Even the club have got in on the act, placing huge photos of great moments in their history along the top of one of the stands.

When you’ve played in a European Cup Final and been managed by the great Ferenc Puskas, there is much to be proud of and supporters and the club have joined forces to makes sure visitors are aware of times gone by. Alas there seemed to be no way in and unfortunately I didn’t get to see the interior, but even from the outside you can tell it would’ve been something special to see a match there.
If football is my number one passion, military history runs it a very close second. Whilst it won’t be on many visitors to Athens list, the Greek War Museum a couple stops down the excellent and cheap metro system was next.
As a regular visitor to the excellent Imperial War Museums both in London and Manchester the benchmark was high. That said whilst the Athens version is more traditional (artefacts behind glass cases) than the modern experiences available in England, it’s no less interesting or enjoyable. Such is the sheer number of weapons, medals, pictures, uniforms on show there is almost too much to see.








Whilst I’m a partial for anything related to the two World Wars in the 20th Century some of the older material going back hundreds of years were just as fascinating.

And not everything was behind a glass cases including a set of fighter jets outside!

Certainly worth getting off the well-beaten tourist track if you’re ever in Athens. During the course of work over the next few days I did see the popular sites such as The Acropolis, The Ancient Agora and The Panathenaic Stadium but give me a War Museum or an old football stadium any time.
The Greece- Croatia fixture was billed as the Cup Final. A win for the visitors Croatia and qualification for EURO 2012 would be confirmed, but a win for Greece would see them overtake the group leaders and be in pole position with one game left. A red-hot atmosphere spilled over into violence in the first few minutes when this happened….

Seems a group of 100 masked PAOK Athens fans wanted to extract some revenge on the Croatians after an incident in Zagreb in December 2010.
Order was eventually restored and until the 70th minute that was as interesting as things got both on and off the pitch. But then Georgios Samaras slammed home a rebound from a corner and the 30,000 Greeks went mental. They did so again soon after, when Fanis Gekas headed home from yet another corner. The sheer elation of both goals was reflected in the wall of sound emanating around the stadium – it was very noisy and for the first time in a while the Greeks were the ones with smiles on the faces.
Despite being from deepest darkest Somerset, I’m very much a City boy and if it’s hustle and bustle with a bit of tourism thrown in then Athens is worth a visit. I’ll be honest once you get past the cheap but delicious chicken or pork pittas available seemingly on every street corner, the food isn’t all that. It’s also probably not the best time to assess a city on its nightlife when it’s in the depths of an economic crisis. I’d definitely go back for another football game, one of the Athens Derbies maybe, it’s just a shame it won’t be at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium. Word and pictures: Seb White.

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