Every time I travel to a new city, I try to attend an athletic event. When I visited Boston for the first time, it was a Celtics NBA game. When I went to San Diego, I watched the Padres play baseball. Now, my adventures in Thessaloniki brought me to a football match – a sport we silly Americans call “soccer” – to watch the Aris Salonika team of Thessaloniki play Lamia FC of Lamia, Greece.
The teams faced off at Γηπεδο αρη – κλεανθης βικελιδης which, according to Google Translate, means “Arena of Wilderness” in Greek. I’m not sure if this is the correct translation, but it is definitely a fitting description for the place I spent those two Sunday hours.
If football were a religion, it was as if we were at a monastery: the place was completely full of men, and the eight women (including myself) in our group had infiltrated their holy grounds.
Hundreds of men filled the bleachers, which were coated in several layers of dirt over the yellow and black paint. Their monastic robes took the form of yellow jackets and t-shirts. At the peak of their spirituality during the game, these sacred cloths came off and there were hoards of shirtless men between the ages of 10 and 60 chanting Greek battle cries while being sprinkled with the holy water from the sky.
At the start of the clock, the air filled with red and yellow smoke which weaved together and blew onto the football field as players took their positions. Sounds of empty gunshots rang through the stadium throughout the game, as did the banging of drums. The men chanted and clapped together in their native tongue, and many held their hands to the air as if praying to the football gods for their team’s success. Some ran and jumped onto the 10-foot fences that surrounded the field, sitting atop the fence spikes to get a better view of the game.
When there was an unfavorable call against Aris, the men yelled and cursed (I think) in Greek, and several charged the fence in an attempt to get as close to the referees as possible to gesture at them menacingly. They threw beer cans. They shot the fake gun. And, in the end, nobody won. Or scored at all. It was a fairly boring game, the footwork was poor and the attempted shots were pretty far off. But the ceremony itself, the divine process of Greeks watching their local football teams, was my true entertainment of the night.