Friday, July 19, 2024

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Arsenal come Acropo-lis!

Arsenal fans on AcropolisOn Tuesday evening I was present amongst the away fans at the Karaiskakis Stadium to witness Olympiakos versus Arsenal in the Champions League. Although the result wasn’t to end up matching my expectations, the experience as a whole was to more than make up for the disappointment.



It was my first experience of travelling to an away game for a European club competition, and whilst I have previously travelled to away games in England, the excitement was altogether different. The major factor in this is that you can combine your day at the football, with a small holiday too, what’s there not to like!

Things started off bizarrely enough as I made my way through departures at Heathrow, and as I glided down the escalator I realised that Richard E. Grant was standing right in front of me. Thankfully I thought better of disturbing him with 'Withnail and I' quotes, especially as it was early and he didn't look to be in the mood. What I will say though, is that the silver screen doesn't do his height justice!

From the evidence of my flight out to Athens, and the following two and a half days, it was clear that a number of other Arsenal fans had also decided to elongate their trip, rather than plumping for the over-priced 24 hour option offered through the club. And, it must be said, there is an amusingingly surreal nature to bumping into fans of the same club as you when you’re 1500 miles away from your home ground.

What’s even more amusing is when you bump into such fans in the most unique of places. On Monday afternoon, my partner and I were in the midst of wandering around the Acropolis and the temples that adorn it, the most famous of which being the Parthenon.

It’s a mind boggling site, even in its current state of restoration and surrounding scaffolding. An ancient mythological achievement from more than 2000 years ago, and yet here I was, finishing my look around, when I spotted the distinctive site of bright yellows and red.

Three Arsenal fans, with a mixed heritage of Turkish, Pakistani and English between them, were proudly sporting their replica shirts atop the Acropolis. If ever there was proof needed to symbolise that us football fans can be cultured, this was it. We may sometimes drink too much and be a bit loud, but at the very least we contribute to the local tourist industry and learn about our surroundings!

(Here I must thank the guys again for being good sports and for giving me permission to take photographic evidence of them for this article-at the south side of the Parthenon)

As for the game itself, we don't need to go over the scoreline and details again too much (ahem! 3-1 to the home team). Rather, the atmosphere was certainly a pretty tense one to behold. The reputation of the Olympiakos fans had left me expecting to need to be pretty cautious, however, this was misleading.

Whilst the crowd could clearly be intimidating, there was no sense of fear as you would expect away at Galatasaray for example. It was more like an old Eastern bloc political rally at times, with very well regimented chanting and the holding of placards. Around kick-off, the North Stand unveiled a banner than ran the length of the advertising hoardings, which simply said 'Score, win and let us dream'. This was something that was to become strangely apt later on in the night.

Arsenal's opening half was calamitous, with Fabianski and then his replacement Mannone both making a hash of the goals. Sébastien Squillaci was awful, and if Johan Djourou ever plays right back again, I will have nightmarish flash-backs.

Therefore, the second half was a case of it can only get better. And sure enough it did, Yossi Benayoun was an inspiration, playing like he had a point to prove he was the driving force going forward.

André Santos also joined the injury list, and his replacement Ignasi Miquel made a good impression on his European debut. He showed far better resolve than plenty of other more experienced players, and contributed to the Arsenal goal, when Benayoun's excellent volley found the net.

Sadly, despite chances (especially a late Rosický one-on one), Arsenal could not nick a point and instead they conceded an 89th minute sucker-punch. Nonetheless, the well-represented away fans got many last laughs. The Gunners won their group regardless, and in injury-time news came through that Marseille had dramatically recovered from 2-0 down to eventually defeat Borussia Dortmund 3-2, thus ending the home fans' dream.

The Olympiakos support suddenly went very flat as the 'Gooners' got very smug. The boldest chants were for the home sides deadliest rivals Panathinaikos, and the funniest concerned the Greek deficit. Although it goes without saying that it was all in good taste- it seems that politics and culture are the surprising bedfellows of English football.

So, all in all my first European away fixture was a lot of fun to be had. I will certainly be planning future voyages, competition progress withstanding. It is doubtful though that any future return flight will be matched with the splendid news that both Manchester United and Manchester City would soon be facing up to the Europa League. Never has a defeat been so easy to take!

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