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The Fire of the Gods

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

The noise is unholy. Smoke floods the stadium, the red flame of pyro deep inside the fog mixes with the surging voices of thousands. The explosion of a fire cracker reverberates like a bomb going off but the drums and the singers don't skip a beat.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. This is what the people of Athens have done with it.


The Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium of Olympiacos in Piraeus near Athens, Greece

The sun drops low over Piraeus, casting a warm glow across the sky and against the walls of Olympiacos' Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium. There is an air of serenity. A few fans are getting some early food. Others meander towards the club shops and the ticket booths. Most aren't even here yet.

Piraeus is an ancient port town which remains the principal port in modern Greece. It is the country's fifth largest town in its own right, but is essentially part of the greater Athens conurbation and is reached easily via the capital's metro system. A walk around makes it clear that is also obsessively proud of its football team, and rightly so – since 1996 there has only been four seasons where Olympiacos have failed to win the title.

But Piraeus is not Athens. It is not the designer shops of downtown, the well-heeled streets of Plaka, the iconic monuments. It's rougher around the edges, more of the here-and-now. Yes it's been a port for thousands of years but what matters is tonight's game and tomorrow's shift.

Tonight is the derby match between Olympiacos and PAOK, from the northern city of Thessaloniki. As is so often the way with provincial teams, the visitors feel bitterly that their capital rivals are favoured by the authorities. In his book Among the Ultras, James Montague reports one PAOK fan telling him, 'We usually say that PAOK is the only form of aggression against the state, which is Athens-centred.'

The Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium of Olympiacos in Piraeus near Athens, Greece

The rivalry between these two deepened in the 1960s over the unsanctioned transfer of wonderkid Georgos Koudas from PAOK to Olympiacos. Koudas spent two years in Piraeus, only ever appearing in friendlies due to the illegality of the move. Eventually he was forced to return north and ended up playing 504 league games for PAOK, but the intensity of feelings over the transfer has never settled since. It remains the fiercest inter-city rivalry in Greece.

I get my ticket from the ground and, with a couple of hours to spare, head away to find food. I find a place selling souvlaki a few streets away. Olympiacos flags hang outside. The TV is on, cycling between live reports from the stadium and studio presenters, all intently discussing the match. Some of the staff are wearing their red and white club shirts, serving beer and meat to fans. The heat from the grills radiates across the room and the food is good and cheap.

What you need to know

By the time I walk back towards the ground, darkness has almost completely fallen and noise booms out of the stadium and through the streets. Bizarrely, there is not even a bag check at the gate. By the time I reach my seat, the northern stand behind the goal - with the Gate 7 ultras group at its heart - is already packed and bouncing. A fire cracker explodes; pyro is set off. Someone even lets off some fireworks, streaking into the air above the penalty box. The smell of cordite swirls through the air.

Two teenage fans, Hari and Dil, settle next to me. Dil looks aghast as I explain the main reason I'm in Athens is to see this. He has long black hair falling about his face. His mouth opens slightly as he processes what I said. Then his face shifts into a smile. 'Well you chose the right game,' he says.

As the players come out, the tumult grows. Countless flares are let off, the north stand disappears into smoke. From somewhere inside the storm, an ancient, tribal noise pours forth, carried on the pounding of a drum.

Gate 7 ultras pyro display, Olympiacos v PAOK.

Once the game kicks off, things calm slightly, but everything possible is being done to unsettle the opposition. Every time a PAOK player has the ball, green appears on his face as people in the crowd point laser pens to distract them.

With under ten minutes gone, former Dortmund and Arsenal defender Sokratis heads into his own goal and the entire stadium falls silent. Weirdly silent. It's only then that I notice there are no away fans.

Gate 7 ultras of Olympicaos v PAOK

'It's too dangerous for them,' explains Dil. We had earlier been talking about the rumours of terrifying knife crime in UK cities. 'If their fans tried to turn up here, the whole stadium would become like Bristol!'

Greece has a long history of fan violence. Clubs tend to be multi-sport organisations and the ultras don't care what is being played. In 2007 a fan was killed when hooligans clashed at a meeting between Olympiacos and their most hated Athens rivals, Panathinaikos... in women's volleyball.

In the last decade or so, numerous games have been called off or held behind closed doors because of fights and riots. FIFA grew so concerned that they came very close to suspending the Greek FA from international competition. In an attempt to stem to tide, away fans are no longer allowed to attend derby games between the 'Big Four' (Olympiacos, PAOK, AEK Athens and Panathinaikos).

Gate 7 ultras of Olympiacos v PAOK at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Athens, Greece

After the goal, Olympiacos sort themselves out and James Rodrigues - once the latest shiny new toy at Real Madrid – looks a class above. The play is good and the pace intense and it's James who equalises near the end of the first half. The stadium explodes, the noise unlike anything I've heard all night. By the time the celebrating players even reach the corner flag, the north stand is already ablaze with red flame.

After half time, there is little rhythm building for either team. After about quarter of an hour, PAOK score again and the stadium is stunned. The Gate 7 ultras soon recover though, and begin screaming the team onward again.

Frustration grows among the crowd as time wears on with no real chances. 'Malakas,' scream Hari and Dil in unison as a decision goes against them. 'You know this word?' Dil asks, turning to me. (Hari, it should be said, is by far the keener fan and is far too wrapped up in the game to talk much). 'You know, like wanking.' Helpfully, he provides a hand gesture to illustrate.

Gate 7 ultras of Olympiacos v PAOK at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Athens, Greece

Now I've been taught the word, I notice it appearing in almost every sentence being shouted around me. A foul is given to PAOK; the crowd howl. The man in the seat in front of me turns around – 'You see, this is big malakas,' he explains, gesturing towards the crumpled player on the turf. 'The biggest malakas,' Hari agrees mournfully, like a man watching the final ashes of his home burn away.

The ref then bravely awards PAOK a penalty. It looks soft but there is almost an air of resignation around the stand. But VAR intervenes, and I'm not surprised to see the decision reversed. The ultras launch into a new song as the games kicks off again in Olympiacos' favour. 'They're telling the ref his mother is a fucking whore,' Dil explains to me with a grin, sounding really quite thrilled about it.

Into the final minutes, and Gate 7 are determined to push the team onwards. With a series of cracks, dozens of flares spring to life and the noise grows. One person near the front drops his flare over the barrier in the excitement, and a helpful steward dutifully picks it up and hands it back.

It all comes to nothing though. Olympiacos can't find a way through and they suffer the indignity of home defeat to one of their fiercest rivals.

As a matchday experience, however, it is almost unmatched. The noise, the light, the smell are a heady mix. A trip to Athens may be mostly about the ancient, but today the fire of the gods still burns in the port.

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