Manuel Veth –
How do you describe Thessaloniki? Greece’s second biggest city and capital of Greek Macedonia is not a jewel of the Aegean Sea. While it would be unfair to call the city ugly, there is undoubtedly a grittiness to the place. When walking the streets grey apartment buildings are more prominent then the Greek architecture foreigners envision when they travel to one of the most historic countries in Europe.
It is true history is everywhere. But as is decay. Old monuments left to grumble as the Greek government lacks the funds to pay for the upkeep of landmark buildings and historic sites. Walking through the streets also can give one the feeling of doom – especially in the early summer months when the thundershowers hit the Aegean coastline with a force that can make the streets of Thessaloniki flood within a few minutes.
At the same time, there is also a warmness to the place. Within a few hours, one can reach the most beautiful beaches and experience the magnificent countryside. The citizens of Thessaloniki, in the meantime, welcome guests with a warmness and hospitality that has become rare on much of this planet.
Then there is the food. Thessaloniki might be a grey concrete jungle but walking through the streets can be a culinary delight. Anyone who has had Greek food nows that it is some of the best in the world. But while Greek food has travelled the world and can be eaten anywhere on the planet only in Thessaloniki can one truly experience it.
Food is, therefore, indeed a highlight and it makes up for much of the cities lack of beauty. But the real highlight of Thessaloniki is the football. The Greek city lives and breaths the game and has several clubs in Greece’s professional league pyramid.
The three biggest clubs are Iraklis, Aris and PAOK. While Iraklis are playing in the lower divisions, the other two clubs, Aris and PAOK, have the status of big boys.
PAOK fans, of course, may argue that they are the only giant of the city. It is true PAOK are not only the most supported club in Thessaloniki but one of the best-supported clubs in the country. Furthermore, PAOK have been a title contender in recent years and would have won the title had it not been for their gun-wielding owner Ivan Savvidis.
Aris, in the meantime, however, can claim to be the record champions of Salonika. Located at the Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium the club was founded in 1914 and has won three Greek championships. PAOK, founded in 1926, can only claim two Greek championships but have won six Greek Cups – five more than their city rivals Aris.
Like most of Greek football, both teams also struggled with financial problems. Russian oligarch Savvidis saved PAOK in 2015, but Aris were not that lucky and in 2014 were relegated to the third division due to financial problems. Two years in the third division followed, and after several ownership changes, the club finally found some stability when the Karipidis family took over the club with Irene Karipidis registered as the main shareholder. With the Karipidis family in charge, Aris finally returned to the Greek Superleague this season.
Hence, while PAOK will be competing for a spot in the Champions League and will without a doubt play a good role in Europe Aris will try to re-establish themselves in the top flight. But this is not a story of football prowess but instead the importance of the game to the city and the colour that both clubs bring to a town that can be bleak at times.
Both Aris’ Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium and PAOK’s Toumba are in some ways artworks. While the grounds have a somewhat decrepit feel to them but there is also a beauty to the facilities. Both the Kleanthis Vikelidis and the Toumba have an almost South American feel to them.
Located in the middle of the city the two stadiums are only separated by a few kilometres. It is, in fact, easy to walk from one to the other. It is a walk well worth it. In Greece, like it is the case in many South American stadiums the club life takes place inside the walls of the stadium. Both Thessaloniki based clubs have various sport programs, and the far majority of them are located inside the stadium.
Another thing that the two grounds have in common is the artwork. Both stadiums are adorned by graffiti of the different ultra groups and supporters of the other sports that play under the yellow-and-black banner of Aris and the black-and-white banner of PAOK. Hence, while the Kleanthis Vikelidis and the Toumba are visibly showing signs of age on the outside, the graffitis from many fan groups around the world make both facilities the football equivalent of post-communist factories and art spaces in Berlin and the post-Soviet space.
For a neutral football fan, both stadiums are a form of art in themselves. We have collected some of the best images that adorned the walls of Thessaloniki’s most prominent football stadiums.
Football artwork from Thessaloniki
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.