Safety-first tactics employed to deal with 50,000 strikers
THE Toumba Stadium is a sea of black and white, a paradox in a country where nothing is clear at this moment in time.
For all involved with Shamrock Rovers, this has been a remarkable European journey. Arriving in Greece in the middle of an unprecedented financial crisis has added another layer to the stack of anecdotes.
In Athens yesterday, 50,000 people took to the streets amid a general strike as parliament voted on the latest round of austerity measures. Rival protesters clashed, police sprayed teargas, and a construction worker lost his life. The image presented around Europe is of a country in flames.
The unrest in Thessaloniki was tame in comparison, but visitors of a Rovers persuasion were encouraged to embrace a safety-first policy.
The main shopping district of Greece's second largest city leans onto a picturesque seafront that is filled with tourists in the heart of the summer. Michael O'Neill had planned to allow his players go for a walk on the beach, but police advice suggested that a more low-key setting would be more appropriate.
Similar messages of caution were issued to the fans who made it here amidst the flight stoppages that bred confusion and, in some cases, led to premature cancellations.
Some landed yesterday to find no taxis or buses to bring them on the 20-minute journey into the city centre. With transport services unavailable on match day, Rovers officials moved to arrange three buses, with authorities advising Irish fans against making their own way to the stadium.
A local official had issued a similar message to visiting media. "Get to the stadium early," he said, "Our fans can be very dangerous."
It was the same in Belgrade, where grave security warnings about the Partizan hardcore resulted in the Rovers players and fans being tracked by police at every turn. In the end, they were killed with kindness by the Serbians. The intimidation factor was overstated.
The Greek experience has followed similar lines. Sure, there is anger. But the outrage is largely channelled inwards.
There were marches in Thessaloniki yesterday, with throngs making their way through the streets in the middle of the day, using loudspeakers to announce they were coming your way.
On Wednesday, the regional headquarters of the government were attacked by a gang of 100 youths who pelted firebombs; 24 hours later, foreign-owned shops came in for some punishment.
But, by evening, a sense of calm had been restored. Rovers fans, some of whom had mingled happily with PAOK followers the night before, gathered to be ferried to the stadium.
They numbered less than 200, a disappointment to PAOK fans who anticipated a larger visiting contingent after excitedly circulating internet footage of the Hoops fans making their presence felt at White Hart Lane last month.
PAOK lovers turned out in force here although the vast old fashioned stadium was short of full capacity. Their support extends to distant suburbs, where cash-strapped fans were left stranded by the transport strike.
Behind the goal, where the Ultras led the chants that created an intense atmosphere to rival Belgrade, there was a reference to the bigger picture. One banner simply read, "IMF, Get the F**k Out of Here."
Still, while the general public toils, footballers have generally avoided the pain. The wealth of talent in Greek football was demonstrated by Olympiakos defeating Borussia Dortmund 3-1 on Wednesday, a game that was preceded by jingoistic media coverage that depicted the Germans as the cause of this country's woes.
The Thessaloniki press were astonished to learn that this Rovers squad operate off an annual wage budget in the region of €600,000. They reckon their star attacker, Greek international Dimitris Salpigidis, earns more on his own.
The relative poverty in football terms is why the Rovers fans are savouring every minute of this unlikely progression.
This European adventure is a break from their normality. For the Greek supporters, football is providing a similar function.