Derby Week: The Iconic Rivalry within Athens' Football Triad
Within the heart of Greece's bustling capital, Athens, resides the triumvirate of Greek football excellence, often referred to as the 'Big Three': Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, and AEK. Their combined triumphs have amassed a staggering 80 league titles since the inception of the Greek league in 1927. In the annals of Greek football history, only seven seasons have witnessed a champion outside this revered Athenian trio. Such is the dominance of these three powerhouses, making Athens the epicenter of Greek football.
However, it's not just their supremacy that commands attention but also the colossal spectacles that unfurl when they face off in mutual derbies. While AEK currently holds the champion's mantle, the zenith of Greek football rivalries unfolds in the battle between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. This weekend marks the return of the 'derby of eternal enemies.'
Athens – Where Football Meets Capital
Athens, the capital and largest city of Greece, nestles on the Attica peninsula along the Saronic Gulf's shores in the Aegean Sea. The city proper boasts a population of around 650,000, but Athens extends its reach by encompassing neighboring areas, such as the bustling port of Piraeus. The broader Athens metropolitan area is home to over four million people, a formidable 35% of the entire Greek populace.
Beyond its population, Athens serves as the political and institutional hub of Greece. Moreover, it is the birthplace of the nation's most illustrious football clubs. Besides the 'Big Three' - Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, and AEK - the capital city hosts other prominent teams.
In the 2023/24 season, the Super League sees Atromitos and Kifisias joining the ranks. Kifisias, a club established only in 2011, is a relative newcomer to the top tier. Remarkably, they are holding their own thus far, securing six points from three draws and a victory in the 'little Athens derby' against Atromitos, despite having to host their home matches in a challenging environment.
Olympiacos - The Pinnacle of Greek Football
Founded in 1925 within the bustling harbor city of Piraeus, now an integral part of the sprawling Athens conurbation, Olympiacos stands as the definitive colossus within Greek football. Emerging as the youngest sibling among the Athens Big Three, it has steadily ascended to a position of unrivaled supremacy, amassing a staggering 47 league championships and a litany of additional triumphs.
The club's ascendancy seems inherently linked to the symbolism selected by its founders – the very name and the Olympian figure gracing its emblem convey a profound message. Olympiacos embodies the noble ideals of the Olympic ethos, epitomizing the pinnacle of sporting excellence.
Panathinaikos - A Club Infused with Irish Significance
Established in 1908 as the 'Athens Football Club,' Panathinaikos later adopted the moniker 'Panathinaikos Athletic Club.' In this transformation, the club brought together athletes from diverse disciplines, symbolizing the unity of Athens itself. While their symbolism also echoes the rich Greek sporting heritage, it does so in a more indirect manner compared to their great rival, Olympiacos.
The verdant hue as the primary club color and the trefoil as its central symbol are a tribute to the victor of the 1906 marathon race during the 'Intermediate Games.' Greece, at the time, resisted the inclusion of the Olympics in various world exhibitions, as seen with the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, USA. Consequently, they organized an 'alternative' Olympics in Athens.
Although the results of this competition were later excluded from official Olympic statistics, the marathon – another quintessentially Greek athletic tradition – was won by the Canadian endurance athlete Billy Sherring. Of Irish descent, Sherring donned a shamrock, the national symbol of Ireland, on his singlet. The members of Panathinaikos were so inspired by Sherring's tenacity, fighting spirit, and triumph that they adopted the green shamrock as a symbol within their club, embracing its enduring spirit of resilience and victory.
AEK - The Resilient Club of Refugees
In 1924, a football club emerged in the heart of Athens, formed by a group of newcomers to the city. These individuals were Greek refugees hailing from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), and they were part of the significant population upheaval that followed the Greco-Turkish War spanning 1919 to 1922.
This war unfolded on the former Ottoman Empire's territory, which had crumbled in the wake of World War I. The territories in Asia Minor ultimately became part of Turkey, leading to a substantial population exchange between Greece and Turkey, primarily along religious lines.
AEK, which stands for 'Athlitikí Énosis Konstantinoupóleos' or the Athletic Association of Constantinople, bears a name and emblem that pay homage to the club's founders and their roots. The double-headed eagle featured in the club's emblem serves as a symbolic link to their ancestral home in Constantinople. Remarkably, this historical lineage, from founders to name and emblem, is also shared by another prominent Greek club, PAOK Thessaloniki.
The Athens Derby
The epic clashes among the Big Three clubs in Athens have often yielded some of the most thrilling and intense encounters in Greek football history. These matches have frequently determined championship titles or victors of prestigious Greek cup competitions. However, one fateful event in 2013 set AEK on a different course.
In a derby match between AEK and Panathinaikos, the latter triumphed 2-0. Yet, the real blow to AEK came when the club was deducted three crucial points due to the unruly behavior of its fans during the game. This unexpected turn of events led to AEK's relegation from the top Greek competition for the very first time in its history.
The club's financial woes at the time, exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis that had gripped Greece since 2009 and had taken a toll on many Greek clubs, made their plight even more precarious. Due to their financial obligations, AEK did not even participate in the second-tier league and was relegated straight to the third-tier competition.
Nonetheless, by 2015, the double-headed eagles soared back into the top league. Their resilience and determination paid off in 2018 when they clinched the league title for the first time since 1994. Following their triumph in the 2022/23 season, AEK stands as the reigning champions of Greece.
For AEK, the main rivalry lies with Panathinaikos, due in part to the historic incident mentioned, but also owing to their deep-rooted historical competition. Panathinaikos, in turn, is Olympiacos' primary adversary. The rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, two of Greece's top teams, is considered the most significant and intense derby in Greek football.
The 'Mother of All Battles'
The derby between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos is aptly named the 'derby of eternal enemies' or the 'mother of all battles.' Beyond the sporting accomplishments and strengths of the two clubs, the fierce competition and animosity are also underpinned by the historical representation of different social classes.
Panathinaikos, an entity deeply rooted in the center of Athens, has historically symbolized the upper and ruling class of the country, carrying the legacy of the traditional cultural society of the capital.
Conversely, Olympiacos, hailing from the port city of Piraeus, has a historical connection with the working-class populace. As a representative of the working class, Olympiacos has often stood in opposition to the 'elites' from the capital, the wealthy, the powerful, and the ruling class, drawing supporters from all corners of Greece.
In the past, this tension was more pronounced, driven by social and political disparities that have since diminished.
Today, the rivalry is often fueled by robust groups of hooligans from both clubs. Additionally, the fact that both Panathinaikos and Olympiacos excel in sports beyond football, including basketball, volleyball, and even water polo, adds further layers of competition and rivalry to the Eternal Enemies Derby.