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Greece seeks answers after soccer fan violence

Kaki Bali in Athens
August 12, 2023

A 29-year-old Greek man died after being stabbed during violent clashes between rival Croatian and Greek fans in Athens late on Monday. Now, the Greek public wants to know how this could have been allowed to happen.

A man lays flowers in memory of 29-year-old Michalis Katsouris, who died from stab wounds sustained during an attack outside the AEK Athens stadium, Nea Filadelfeia, Athens, Greece, August 8, 2023
City in mourning: A 29-year-old Greek fan died during Monday evening's clashes between rival soccer supporters in AthensImage: Dimitris Lampropoulos/AA/picture alliance

Five days after a Greek soccer fan was fatally stabbed when Croatian supporters wielding clubs and bats went on the rampage in Greece's capital, the search for the people responsible for the violent clashes between rival soccer fans in Athens  continues apace.

The violence began after visiting team Dinamo Zagreb had completed its training session at AEK Athens' stadium on the outskirts of Greece's capital on Monday evening.

More than 100 members of the radical right-wing Croatian ultras known as the Bad Blue Boys, who support Dinamo Zagreb, joined forces with like-minded supporters of the Greek team Panathinaikos to hunt down AEK fans, who are seen as left-wing.

Men with faces covered escorted by officers after leaving police headquarters in Athens
Police arrested more than 100 people — mostly fans of Dinamo Zagreb — and charged them with murder, membership in a criminal gang and other offensesImage: Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo/picture alliance/dpa

Innocent bystanders who were out enjoying the balmy August evening in the area around the stadium got caught up in the violence. At least 10 people were injured; four of them were still in hospital several days later.

UEFA banned visiting fans before the match

The Union of European Football Associations, European soccer's governing body, must have known that something like this could happen. Not only is UEFA aware of organized soccer hooligans' violent tendencies, but it had banned visiting supporters from both legs of the Champions League third-round qualifying tie between AEK and Dinamo.

Nevertheless, the Croatian hooligans were able to travel unhindered from Zagreb to the Greek capital. How could this have happened?

A convoy of vehicles traveled halfway across the Balkans, passing both the Montenegrin and Albanian borders unchallenged, before driving 550 kilometers (330 miles) across Greece to Athens.

Colossal failure

No one stopped them, even though the Croatian authorities had informed Greek police at least three days previously about the impending "invasion." The police officers responsible for combating violence in sport had also issued a warning in good time. The Montenegrin border guards had even passed the license plate numbers of the relevant cars to the Greek police.

The Croatian ultras traveled the final stretch of their journey to the stadium on the subway, masked and armed with clubs. According to Greek police, they were "discreetly monitored" but never actually approached.

Players from AEK Athens FC after laying flowers in memory of Michalis Katsouris
The Greek police are under fire after leaked documents revealed that they had been informed by Zagreb that a large group of Croatian ultras were making their way to Athens. Pictured here: Players from AEK Athens FC after laying flowers outside the stadiumImage: Dimitris Lampropoulos/AA/picture alliance

In short, nothing stood in the way of the ultras and their violent plans. Twenty-nine-year-old Michalis Katsouris died after sustaining fatal stab wounds in the clashes. It is not known who actually killed him.

Once again, the Greek public is appalled and outraged by the failure of its authorities

Searching for scapegoats

The government in Athens immediately began looking for scapegoats and promptly identified and suspended seven police officers: the officer responsible for combating violence in sport and six high-ranking traffic police officers responsible for the route between the Albanian border and Athens. 

Most Greek media — including pro-government outlets — found this response inadequate, even laughable.

Since then, leaked police documents have confirmed that all responsible authorities — including police headquarters — knew in advance that the ultras were coming, where they would be staying and even that they had made contact with like-minded fans at AEK rival club Panathinaikos FC.

It is, therefore, inconceivable that a handful of traffic police officers bear sole responsibility for the colossal failure of the authorities.

Internal inquiry and calls for resignation

The Greek opposition has called on Citizen Protection Minister Giannis Oikonomou to resign. Oikonomou had only been in office a few days at the time of the clashes. His predecessor, Notis Mitarakis, had been forced to resign on July 28 after it became known that he went on holidays during the devastating fires that ravaged Rhodes and Corfu.

The new minister has ordered an internal inquiry to establish how the Croatian ultras could have succeeded in entering Greece and Athens despite the UEFA ban on traveling fans. But the Greek public does not have much faith in such internal inquiries, which many feel are used to cover up rather than to find answers.

No ill will toward Croatians

After the death of Katsouris, more than 100 people were arrested, including some innocent Croatian tourists, who were immediately released again.

Members of the Dinamo Zagreb squad leave their hotel under high security to return to Croatia after their match against AEK Athens was canceled, Athens, Greece, August 8, 2023
After the cancellation of Tuesday's match, Dinamo Zagreb players returned to Croatia. AEK and Dinamo will play as scheduled in Zagreb on August 15 and then again in Athens on August 19Image: Marko Lukunic/PIXSELL/picture alliance

Greek media have since reported at length on the Bad Blue Boys, their far-right beliefs and their admiration for both the Nazis and the Ustasha, the Croatian ultranationalist, fascist regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Condolences but no decisive action

Nevertheless, there has been no ill-feeling toward Croatia or diplomatic tension between the countries.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic quickly called his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to offer his condolences on the death of Katsouris and to condemn the violence of the hooligans. Neither man, however, suggested calling off the matches between Dinamo and AEK or demanding a tougher response from UEFA. 

It would appear that no politician, however senior, is willing to pick a quarrel with the powerful football association or the clubs.

Only a matter of time

Only former Citizen Protection Minister Giannis Panousis spoke out in favor of tougher penalties. In the case of such serious incidents, he told Greece's main broadcaster, neither fines nor playing matches in empty stadiums would solve the problem.

Panousis suggested that the only solution would be the immediate relegation of the teams and, if necessary, the cancellation of the league.

Panousis, who is also a renowned professor of criminology, says he sees no trend within soccer to deal with the matter itself. "If we continue to delay the clean-up of soccer any longer, it is just a matter of time until someone else is killed," he warned.

After the cancellation of Tuesday's match, AEK Athens and Dinamo Zagreb will play as scheduled in Zagreb on August 15. The canceled Athens leg will now be played on August 19. Traveling fans will not be allowed at either match.

This article was originally published in German.

A woman (Kaki Bali) with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes stands in front of a bookcase and smiles into the camera
Kaki Bali DW correspondent in Athens