Panathinaikos followers’ ‘Free the boys’ banner a stark reminder of darkish forces

Panathinaikos followers’ ‘Free the boys’ banner a stark reminder of darkish forces

The boos that echoed from three-quarters of Leoforos Alexandras Stadium couldn’t clean out the message held up by the small however inescapable minority. As Panathinaikos and the visiting AEK Athens entered the sphere for Monday’s derby a 40-metre banner was unfurled by the house ultras group, Gate 13, to a backdrop of billowing inexperienced and blue smoke. “Free the boys,” it learn, and the response from all sides left little question that its that means had resonated.

Whereas Gate 13’s fellow supporters aired their disgust, the AEK gamers headed again to the touchline. This was a surprising affront to one in every of their very own they usually knew it. In August, greater than 100 supporters, 96 from the infamous Unhealthy Blue Boys group that follows Dinamo Zagreb, had been detained within the Greek capital in reference to violence that led to the deadly stabbing of Michalis Katsouris, a 29-year-old AEK fan. An extra 9 had been arrested in Zagreb final week.

Katsouris had been killed after a premeditated assault on AEK followers by the Croatian hooligans, who had apparently been assisted by pleasant components from Gate 13. The insignia held up earlier than kick-off gave the impression to be excusing all of it.

AEK stood in a huddle by the technical space whereas their opponents lined up in formation. Their membership had been warned that such a show was seemingly and had already made an announcement requesting or not it’s stopped.

The scene might have been much more distasteful: if a message in assist of alleged violent criminals was not sufficient, Gate 13 is known to have been dissuaded from bringing a second banner that immediately targeted on Katsouris into the bottom. The one which acquired via remained up in its entirety for 3 minutes and AEK, who would go on to win 2-1, returned to the pitch on its elimination.

“A shameful and insulting banner to the reminiscence of Michalis Katsouris,” was how AEK, who didn’t reply to a request for additional remark, publicly described the scene. It had introduced into contemporary focus a case that brought about shock waves throughout the area seven weeks beforehand.

Uefa had banned Croatian followers from attending the primary leg of the Champions League third qualifying spherical tie between AEK and Dinamo, with issues already having been anticipated. However as much as 200 members of the Unhealthy Blue Boys, a bunch with long-term hyperlinks to Croatian nationalism and the far proper, managed to evade the Greek authorities and arrived in Athens on the eve of the sport with the categorical intention of concentrating on dwelling supporters. Dinamo condemned their actions.

Was it a politically motivated assault or an act of handy brutality? The Unhealthy Blue Boys and Gate 13 have a longtime relationship: a congratulatory message from the previous in 2021 to mark Panathinaikos’ 113th birthday remarked that they “share the identical enemies who’ve the identical corrupt ideology”. The Croats knew they’d be greeted by keen accomplices upon arrival. However they’d even have been completely conscious that AEK’s fanbase is to a big diploma antifascist, a place that stems from the membership’s founding by refugees within the Nineteen Twenties. It was a transparent alternative to silence a physique with opposing beliefs.

A banner exhibits the image of the AEK fan Michalis Katsouris who was killed in an assault earlier than the membership’s match in opposition to Dinamo Zagreb. {Photograph}: Dimosthenis Kamsis/AP

It was not the one latest flashpoint involving Croatia, who had been positioned beneath the most recent of a number of Uefa investigations on 13 September when a flag of the fascist Ustase regime was displayed on the nationwide staff’s Euro 2024 qualifier with Latvia in Rijeka. There’s a sense that far-right exercise, by no means purged from Europe’s stadiums however arguably much less emboldened over the previous half-decade, is rearing its head in pockets of the continent once more.

“Through the Covid-19 pandemic a variety of this stuff slowed down, fell aside or misplaced their focus,” says Piara Powar, government director of the anti-discrimination Fare Community. “The struggle in Ukraine additionally threw issues asunder and lots of of those teams struggled to answer it. What we’re seeing now’s a way of enterprise again to regular: these organisations coming again to full energy after Covid, along with having understood the struggle and made an lodging for it.”

Powar notes that, in 2023 alone, Fare Community has noticed far-right exercise from followers of golf equipment and nationwide groups within the Netherlands, Spain, France, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Montenegro. The listing is unlikely to be exhaustive. Even so, few such incidents convey tragedies of the extent that claimed Katsouris’s life and it asks robust questions concerning the stability of accountability between soccer authorities and state entities. Uefa acted rapidly to ban Dinamo followers from the remainder of their European away video games this season however grappling with the broader problem is harder: far-right violence in soccer is without delay a transnational downside given life by particular native circumstances.

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In Greece, that included policing that was, according to claims in some quarters, wilfully negligent at best. It is an age-old tale and so is the level of ultras’ influence that allowed Gate 13 to reignite tensions on Monday night.

“The security each club has is not willing, capable or able to do anything about it: they’re more like concierge,” says Giannis Alafouzos, the Panathinaikos president, although it is not clear why punishments could not have been retrospectively imposed on individuals.

Alafouzos places the ultimate responsibility on governments. “Violence is more an expression that we’re doing something wrong in our countries, and it’s less that football can do something about it,” he says. “As a club you can work to show you have a different approach but you need the cooperation of the state.”

Far-right violence in Greece has complex roots but was watered down upon the collapse of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party whose popularity peaked in the first half of the last decade and whose leaders appropriated football with some success.

There are some concerns that the present climate, in which the extreme right parties Spartans, Greek Solution and Niki all entered parliament this summer, may cohere elements that had become disparate. Gate 13’s widely condemned and intensely provocative intervention, whether overtly politicised or a deeply misguided show of brotherhood, hardly eases such fears.

The detained supporters may be held for up to 18 months under Greek law, although the identity of Katsouris’s killer remains unknown. Football, in the meantime, will remain an all-too convenient vessel for society’s darker forces.

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