Apostolos Nikolaidis | Why the Hell Am I Here So Early?

Panathinaikos 2-0 Panaitolikos

📍 Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium | Athens, GR
🏆 Super League Interwetten
⚽ Greece (Tier 1)
📅 Sun 28 Nov 21 | 7.30pm
🎟️ €25 | Att: 5,568

With the first part of my Athens Sunday double header completed, it’s time to leave Piraeus and head to Ampelokipoi, a residential neighbourhood in the north of the Greek capital. As I bypass the tourists embarking and disembarking at Monastiraki and Syntagma, my anticipation starts to grow; having seen one half of the city’s eternal rivals, I’m now about to see the other.

As I exit the Metro onto Leoforos Alexandras, I’m met with an uncompromising and brisk chill; the sunshine has long since disappeared, and in order to protect myself from the elements, I pay an old man €5 for a green Panathinaikos scarf. Luckily, I don’t have far to go to reach the stadium; just a 2-minute walk along this bustling thoroughfare, lined already with heavily-armoured riot police and exuberant youths clad entirely in black. If I’m looking for the authentic Greek football experience, then – so far – this would seemingly be it.

As with my earlier visit to the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, I’m here far earlier than I need to be; the club had warned of delays getting into the ground due to COVID checks, but when I proceed to the turnstile, the bored steward that scans my code isn’t interested in any of the other formalities that usually accompany entry to football matches in this region. There is no search, and no ID check; I’m just waved through, and left to my devices.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that entering the ground a full hour before kick-off might have been a mistake. There are no refreshment stands, and the section of the ground that I’m in is penned in between the VIP section and the walled corner of gate 14, reserved (alongside gate 13) for the club’s notorious ultras element. As a result, I can’t go exploring, and – aside from a young lad selling warm Coca-Cola and crisps from a tray – I can’t indulge in any of the stadium’s culinary delights, either.

Interior of the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.

First Impressions of the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium

Luckily, there’s plenty to take in here aesthetically, which helps to pass the time. The ground itself is the very definition of ad hoc; seating sections overlap and intertwine, and it’s apparent that there have been several iterations of the layout since it’s initial opening in 1922. Indeed, only the menacing, imposing stand behind the goal (housing the aforementioned gates 13 and 14) look permanent, giving the stadium a simultaneously ramshackle but authentic feel.

That said, the Apostolos Nikolaidis has a 4-star UEFA rating (due, primarily, to three consecutive renovations in 2001, 2007, and 2013), and even houses a 2,000-seater basketball arena under the eastern curve of the ground (fantastically nicknamed “The Indian’s Tomb”). 

I sit in the north stand running parallel with Leoforos Alexandras, and one of the more striking peculiarities is how close I am to the main road. Even during the more frenetic moments of the match, the carnal cacophony of inner-city traffic is constantly present over my shoulder, with the revs, horns, and sirens of Athens as loud and as distracting as if I was standing on the pavement outside. In a way, I am; the ground is packed so tightly on this side that it’s literally metres from the road; so close, in fact, that ticketless youths and passers-by crowd against the railings of the turnstiles outside, snatching brief glimpses of the action and the atmosphere.

And, luckily, it’s a good one. As with Olympiacos, I’m not expecting gate 13 to be at their most energetic given the opposition, but, stood uniformly in their black hoodies, they still put on a respectable show. Indeed, unlike a lot of ultras groups I have seen, they don’t take a break at half-time, continuing to sing for the entirety of the fifteen-minute period, and there is even a decent pyro show when Federico Macheda’s penalty breaks the deadlock early in the second half.

Macheda – the former Manchester United starlet – has clearly found a home here, both in terms of longevity and adoration. He is warmly cheered (more so than any other player) during the warmup, and a quick look at his goalscoring record in Greece confirms why he is now such a fan favourite. During his two-year stint at Cardiff City, I always got the impression that the Italian forward was a good finisher, but his shocking work-rate, lack of movement, and total inability to stay onside negated any positives. Naturally, then, he doubles his side’s lead in the 66th minute with a clinical first-time finish, leaving me and my opinions in the dust.

Opponents Panaitolikos – hovering dangerously above the relegation zone before kick-off – are not a particularly bad side, but they rarely threaten Alberto Brignoli in the Panathinaikos goal. With a two-goal cushion, the home side sees the game out comfortably, and it’s a job well done come the final whistle.

A New Home?

In all honesty, it’s not clear how long the Apostolos Nikolaidis has left. The club had originally planned to move to a new 40,000-seater, purpose-built arena in the west of Athens as far back as 2008, but the country’s economic situation made this untenable. In 2020, the city’s mayor announced the revival of the project, with hopes of completion by 2023, but this again looks unlikely against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

The Apostolos Nikolaidis holds just 16,000 spectators – far too small for what is one of Greece’s, and indeed Europe’s, best-supported clubs – and a move like this could be just what Panathinaikos needs to return to former glories. After all, it has fallen far behind it’s old rival in terms of finances, and the likes of AEK Athens and PAOK in the north of Greece are now more consistent challengers to Olympiacos’ dominance.

For now, though, the club’s support isn’t going anywhere, and the Apostolos Nikolaidis remains defiantly active. It’s been a fun evening seeing this fascinating and historic club up close, and it would be great to see them on song in a more competitive game – both on and off the field.

Up next for the prasinoi is a home cup tie against Volos on Wednesday, while Panaitolikos travel to lower league Niki Volos, also in the cup.

A Note on Buying Tickets in Greece

Given the aforementioned history of crowd disorder, it can be a tricky process to purchase tickets for Greek domestic matches. In most cases, tickets go on sale just three to four days prior to the game (even for low-risk encounters like this one), and you also need to possess a “friends” fan card (a one-time €10 “donation” that the club in question uses to support its other sporting departments).

To add an extra level of confusion, non-Greek citizens may also encounter issues trying to buy online, as the ticketing system requires a Greek social security number. In the case of Panathinaikos, I was able to use my UK passport number, but this didn’t work for Olympiacos and I had to buy a ticket at the ground.

Postscript: Another up-and-down season saw Panathinaikos finish in 4th place, despite beating runaway champions Olympiacos home and away. Panaitolikos secured another season of top-flight football, comfortably avoiding relegation in 11th place.