Home is where the heart rings true for many clubs and things are no different at Panathinaikos. This is where the giant Athens club plays football at the legendary Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium.
More known for the oversized Shamrock symbol which has adorned the front of the green shirt since 1918, the home stadium is located in downtown Athens just in the shadow of Lycabettus Hill on Alexandras Avenue or ‘Leoforos’. The legend of Lycabettus appears in various stories with the most popular tales suggesting this was once the refuge of an ancient pack of wolves.
At its base pine trees stand and at its peak are the 19th century Chapel of St George, a theatre and a restaurant.
Some trees do still stand along Alexandras Avenue the wide street that runs past the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium. And these days a selection of restaurants can be found nearby the stadium. The pitch inside meanwhile remains the main theatre come match-day, although fans of the club would suggest the real story of any game starts in the stands with green flares, pyro smoke and flags.
If those fans will pardon an interruption that colour and noise – which occurs so often within this often powder-keg stadium -actually starts outside at Gate 13; the fabled entrance to the curved home terrace behind the goal. Off the main street Gate 13 has a distinct character as it is here that graffiti takes over.
The selection of images are stunning; from shamrocks to faces covered by masks through to images of fans holding flags and flares.
The Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium was the first stadium in Greece that had a purpose built spectator stand, built around 1928. For many decades it hosted several important domestic and international games of the Green national team. It was also the first stadium in Greece to use floodlights.
The club hit a peak in the early 1970’s when a European Cup final was reached but by the 1980’s the ground was a crumbling relic. In 1984 they moved to the Olympic Stadium but the team returned to its historical ground in 2000 following refurbishment.
After the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 both AEK Athens and Panathinaikos moved to play again at the ΟΑΚΑ Stadium. But during the season 2007/08, Panathinaikos once again went back to its roots in order to celebrate a century since foundation.
But under civic pressure the club again from 2008 until 2013 went to play at the ΟΑΚΑ Olympic Stadium as its principal home ground. But this era ran parallel to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the economic pain that has ensued in Greece seemingly for years after.
With the crisis plans to demolish the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium collapsed, and an idea for a new club stadium in the industrial area of Eleonas was mothballed.
In 2013 a decision was made to return once again to the home ‘Leoforos’ ground. The previous symbolic return to the ground in 1989 was cited by the club as an attempt once again to reinvigorate the emotive ties of fans to the club. Crowds at the Olympic Stadium were often sparse inside a huge arena that was shared with AEK. In addition, main rivals Olympiakos were enjoying yearly success in the Champions League and its home stadium was the best in the country for noise.
While ownership of the Panathinaikos Stadium is not a straightforward issue, the club have by right of historical association free ‘right of use’. The football club, assisted by its many fans, have gradually refurbished the team’s main ground since 2013. The main objectives have been to increase capacity and offer fans an atmospheric ground according to club history and the needs of UEFA competition.
Panathinaikos have not won the Greek Super League since 2010 and continue to play in the shadow of the all powerful Olympiakos. Matches between the two great Athens rivals have been beset with brutal fan violence while the league itself has almost collapsed due to financial, legal and organisational disarray.
Despite the lack of title success and being starved of Champions League football in 2016 Panathinaikos revealed plans for the renovation of the team’s traditional home ground. These plans include new stands and corporate suites, restaurants and wider commercial spaces. In addition – and tellingly for the murals that surround Gate 13 – there will be a new multi-media interactive outer shell for the stadium.
As you may expect the news came as a shock to many aware of the troubles in Greece. Funding arrangements for the new ground are said to include crowd-funding attempts, state subsidies and even a naming rights issue. But the total cost estimation of the renovation is around €15m euro which raised more than a few eyebrows.
Many against the development have suggested that the present football arena is too small for anything bigger capacity wise and that the current capacity meets all supporter needs. Moreover, given the current footballing condition of Panathinaikos (and the wider conditions in the Greek professional soccer league) the lack of people attending football suggests any plans should be totally shelved.
These football ‘conditions’ in Greece have become staggeringly chaotic.
On a number of occasions league fixtures have been suspended and the whole set up sees political squabbling between the League, the Greek Football Federation, the referees’ association and the Athens based government.
With both Olympiakos and Panathinaikos out of the Champions League group stages public interest in Greek Soccer is constantly diminishing with attendances falling dramatically. In addition, the derby matches between the two Athens giants are now played without away fans due to horrific episodes of violence.
As of the final few months of 2016 the phased renovation work within the Panathinaikos stadium has started. For the time being these mainly focus on ‘light’ refurbishment tasks like removing the current seating and re-adjusting wall coatings as well as painting stadium interiors. In addition, new corporate ‘boxes’ have been introduced to the main stand meaning fans could watch Europa League matches against Ajax and Standard Liege in some style.
Whether a multi media outer shell becomes a reality for the home of Panathinaikos is doubtful. Money is incredibly tight in Greece and it has been some time since the team qualified for the Champions League group stages; qualification of which would bring much needed revenue.
For the time being at least it is the fan murals that provide the colour.