Story by Brandon Carusillo ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – It’s hours before game-time, but outside Alexandreio Melathron stadium, it feels like the final minute of a championship battle between bitter rivals. “The emperor will rise again,” Aris basketball club fans, in a sea of black and yellow clothes, chant as they wait for the arena doors to open.
On paper, this may be just a regular season contest. But in Greece, a game is never just a game. So passionate are the fans that laws now prohibit people supporting the visiting team from even going to the arena. That’s why in Alexandreio Melathron, you won’t see anyone wearing the red color of Olympiacos.
For Aris, once the Boston Celtics of the Greek league – they won seven consecutive titles in the 1980s – this is an important moment. After years of dysfunction, with lawsuits and losing seasons, the team is finally on the cusp of a turnaround. This, despite a budget that’s just a fraction of others, like Olympiacos, which is the seventh largest payroll in Europe at 14 million euro, or $15.6 million. In comparison, Aris has a total payroll of 2 million euro, or $2.2 million. And even that is a 40 percent increase from last year’s numbers, according to published reports.
“All these guys that sit in the stadium, have been in the same seats for 5 to 7 years,” says Alex Arseniou, 45, a lifelong fan and local resident. “It creates a special chemistry,” he says before taking a sip from a can of beer. Arseniou, his long black hair held in place by a black bandana, is a self-proclaimed “ultra” – a superfan – and says he uses Aris as a way to escape the challenges of life in Thessaloniki. “We’re not fans, we’re ultras. We’re trying to live simple lives and come together for Aris while the government steals from us. I don’t have the money to travel and see every game Aris plays, but we always stand by Aris even through the most difficult times.”
In times of crisis, entertainment becomes a necessary escape. And it’s no different in Thessaloniki, where unemployment and low wages have touched almost every family. Chants from protests float in the air every single day – the mark of people heavy with desperation and burdened with the realities of a faltering government and failing infrastructures. In the midst of all that, though, is the lifeblood of a beloved team that gives its fans something to cheer for. More importantly, it gives them something to be proud of.
Antonis Gatzios, 43, Aris’ press officer, says Greek basketball used to center around the team, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Due to the rebuild, fandom is more spread out among the other clubs in Greece. But there is hope that something big is coming, which serves as a distraction for the people of Thessaloniki.
“It goes beyond basketball. It goes beyond the socio-economic aspect. It’s important to have Aris because of the difficult times our country has been through the last few years. It’s something that gives hope to the city of Thessaloniki,” Gatzios says. “It’s a way out for the fans to come together during the crisis. The fans escape from their problems to support the team.”
And a glorious team it once was. From 1978 to 1991, Aris won a total of 10 Greek championships, including seven consecutive titles from 1985 to 1991. Then, the team faltered. There were questionable decisions made by management, financial troubles and, as a result, disappointing performances on the basketball court. It wasn’t until the 2002-2003 season that the team achieved a winning record again. They’ve still failed to win an elusive championship, and it’s since been a long, devastating rebuild for the team, which this season saw a moderately successful record of 26-20.
But now, for the first time in 11 years, Aris reached the semifinals of the Greek Championship, matched up against the best team in the playoffs, the mighty Olympiacos. Widely reviled in Thessaloniki for its reputation of signing players to hefty contracts and outbidding anyone in its way, Olympiacos has the best roster in Greek basketball. Last year, for example, it paid 2.6 million euro, or $2.8 million, for Vassilis Spanoulis, a former NBA guard for the Houston Rockets.
While Aris fans recognize this discrepancy, they never let it get in the way of their loyalty to the team, or their pride for it. “Aris fans don’t come for money, they come for Aris,” says season ticket holder Grigoris Baglaras, 45, who was born a fan through the tradition of his family. “Rarely do we see families divided on clubs they support. The passion is passed down through generations. It’s like following a religion.”
Thodoris Zaras, 29, a guard for Aris, recognizes the ferocity of his fans’ loyalty and says it is what has fueled his and his teammates’ rebound in recent years. “It’s a very big honor to play for Aris and Thessaloniki in front of all the fans with the history the club offers,” says Zara, who scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds off the bench in the loss to Olympiacos. “It’s really beautiful.”
On a recent warm and breezy night in Thessaloniki, 4,000 fans crowded into the stadium, which sits close to the center of the city, near the universities and City Hall.
Nick Fueli, 53, is dressed in a black and yellow Aris t-shirt with matching black shorts for the game. For a moment, he stands back and watches the other revelers because he wants to have a smoke. But he’s happy to talk about the team that has resided at the center of his heart since he was a boy. “This is a basketball culture no other team in Greece has because of all the championships. Olympiacos are ‘gavori’ (anchovies) — bottom of the food chain,” he says.
He once spent 15,000 euro a year, or about $16,641, for season tickets to Aris basketball games, which included traveling to the arena in Athens. He can’t shell out nearly that kind of cash now, but his love of the team has not diminished.
Soon, Fueli joins in with the chants, accompanied by loud music through speakers that wash the music over the neighborhoods outside the stadium. Hot dogs sizzle on the carts of vendors. Alcohol is served in cups, cans and bottles from kiosks and food trucks. The air is dense with cigarette smoke, so thick it billows over the thousands dressed in yellow and black, many with painted faces.
The truth is, no one expects Aris to beat Olympiacos tonight. The latter is the clear powerhouse. The last matchup in Athens on May 10 saw Aris lose by 30 points, a fate Aris fans have accepted – grudgingly.
“People from Athens think Aris fans are low-class citizens because we do not have the money they do,” Fueli says, sipping his mixed drink of wine and Coke. “But our fans show up every single game, no matter what the circumstance. There’s no better fan base than us. You look at a game in Athens, and if the team is doing poorly, the stadium is empty.”
In the end, Olympiacos shot 47 percent from 3-point range, and about 56 percent from inside the paint. Aris kept it close, but Olympiacos always had an answer for any comeback attempt, downing Aris 84-77.
Yet even after the game is over, Aris fans still bang drums and wave flags, despite the fact that Aris has to go back to Athens down 2-0 in a best-of-five-series – a game these fans can’t attend because of a law introduced in 2012 that forbids opposing fans in Greek stadiums after the fatal stabbing of an Olympiacos fan four years earlier.
As the stadium empties, the effects of their celebrating are obvious: broken seats are strewn in the aisles, confetti litters the floor. Many lock arms and sing Aris’ fight song as they leave: “I travel for you all over the earth, wherever you go I will be there. Just for you I sing oh oh, I will never let you go.”
At one point, a young man turns and gestures the crowd to get louder, and they obey. After all, to forgo a chant is to disrespect. And that just won’t do for a fanbase that has to stick together amid loss – on and off the court.