Former Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning had a perfect view of the ring of fire PAOK fans lit around their stadium during a Greek Cup semifinal on Wednesday. Now the backup for the Thessaloniki club, he watched as the pyrotechnic display wound its way around Stadio Toumbas and encircled the playing field.
“It’s absolutely a feeling you can’t express,” Gspurning told SI.com over the phone from Greece on Thursday. “You just sit there, and you just think, ‘Wow.’ ”
Moments before kickoff in PAOK’s match against Olympiakos, torches roared around the entire field, several rows deep in places. Players performed the traditional pre-game handshake ceremony with the opposition and referees at the same time, but kickoff was delayed to allow the fire and smoke to dissipate.
The match was already delayed over an hour beyond its scheduled kickoff time as workers cleaned up a crate of anchovies dumped onto the Olympiakos bench. Thessaloniki police arrested a 34-year-old PAOK supporter for the stunt, which stemmed from Olympiakos fans’ “anchovies” nickname and the club’s home in Piraeus, the Athenian neighborhood near the city’s main port.
Despite playing five years in the Greek Super League before joining Major League Soccer in 2012, Gspurning said his sense of awe hasn’t faded.
“Sometimes, it’s crazy what’s going on,” Gspurning said of the atmosphere surrounding important Greek games. “Sometimes, you feel it’s a little bit more than war. This is the dangerous part, or the part where — how can I say it? — the edge of doing everything for the club and to keep it under control and to lose control is very thin. Of course, there was a lot of police yesterday. There was tear gas and stuff like this. This edge, then, is very small when it becomes dangerous. This is always not a good thing, of course, but this is how soccer works in Greece, especially at the big teams here.”
PAOK won the match, 1-0, taking the two-legged semifinal series on away goals after losing the first leg, 2-1, in Athens on April 2. PAOK travels to Athens’ Olympic Stadium for the final on April 25, where it will face the capital’s other major club, Panathinaikos.
Gspurning has made one appearance for PAOK since leaving the Sounders in December. He said he knew the reality of his situation in transferring during the winter window, which would make it harder for him to find a club where he could start right away.
Before joining Seattle to take over the No. 1 role upon Kasey Keller’s retirement, Gspurning played for Skoda Xanthi in the Greek Super League from 2007 to 2012. Xanthi is a much more modest club than PAOK, playing its games in a 7,422-capacity ground in a small northern Greek town and traditionally finishing mid-table.
Upon his return, Gspurning landed in a spot with some of the most passionate fans in the league in the country’s second-largest city. PAOK plays in a 28,703-seat fortress that is frequently full, and it challenges for the Super League title and UEFA Champions League inclusion nearly every year.
“In the whole city, PAOK is really more than a club. It’s so important to the people here how the club is doing, in good and in bad,” Gspurning said. “The people here will always support you, giving their heart for helping the team to win, especially here. They do everything — everything that is allowed, and sometimes a little more. It’s absolutely frustrating and intimidating for other teams to come here because even if you’re a player who is used to it — if you’re from Southern Europe or you’ve played many years in Eastern Europe or Southern Europe — it’s still intimidating when you see stuff like this.”
PAOK is also involved in one of the most volatile rivalries in European soccer with Olympiakos. It’s the result of a perennial rivalry between Thessaloniki and Athens as cities, but it had a very specific flashpoint in the soccer world with Giorgos Koudas’ transfer between clubs in 1966.
Koudas, a Thessaloniki native considered one of Greece’s best players historically and part of the nation’s golden generation in the ‘60s, agreed to move to Olympiakos but never played an official match. In PAOK circles, it’s said that he was “abducted” from the club, but he was returned by intervention from the Greek government.
The situation created fierce tension between the clubs that lives on during clashes in Athens in the south and Thessaloniki in the north. The cities are separated by 300 winding miles of highway that take five hours to traverse, or a 45-minute flight across the Aegean Sea.
“This is soccer at its hardest,” Gspurning said. “PAOK, they really hate Olympiakos, and they show it. That’s the thing going on here.”
The feelings in the stands spilled onto the field Wednesday, where three red cards and several altercations punctuated a stop-start match. Six more fans were arrested after fighting with police in the stands.
“I don’t know how many times the game was stopped,” Gspurning said. “But we are just players, and the guys from the league have to figure this out so that it doesn’t end up in a soccer war.”
As he walked back through into the locker room, Gspurning said his eyes burned from the tear gas police used in an attempt to restore order among fans.
“I was just walking to the locker room, and I was walking through the tunnel for just 20 seconds, and then my eyes burned for half an hour,” he said. “It was crazy.”
Rivalry matches in Greece frequently erupt with pyrotechnic displays and intimidation among supporters of different clubs. It’s part of the reason the Athens derby between Olympiakos and Panathinaikos is dubbed “the derby of eternal enemies” or “the mother of all battles.”
“It’s part of the culture here. Soccer is so important to everybody. Everybody knows to talk about football. Everybody is watching soccer all day long and discuss in the coffee shops about soccer,” Gspurning said. “As a player, you always want to play for a club with huge fans. For the players, there’s a special pressure here, too, because you don’t want to fail for the people. If you’re losing, the people will let you know. They’ll be waiting for you at the airport, and they’ll want to have a discussion with you about what’s going wrong. You feel the people suffer with the club, in good and bad, and for this reason, there’s so much emotion.”
The game in the United States is a stark contrast with what Gspurning experiences on an almost-weekly basis in Greece. MLS is family-friendly, but Gspurning said he would probably think twice about taking his 4-year-old daughter to a match in Greece.
“If I’m an American player or an MLS player, and I’m coming directly to Greece and seeing this, maybe I would just run out of the stadium and go home and think, ‘What’s going on here? I’m freaking out,’” Gspurning said with a laugh. “The most important thing as a player is you see that the fans care about soccer. They care about your job, and this is the most important, what you want to see as a player.”
But who sustains soccer better: American fans with their subdued support, or Greek fans with their maniacal displays that border — at times crossing the border — on dangerous?
“I see the passion of the Sounders fans. I felt the passion of the Sounders fans for two years, and it was great. Because there are no pyrotechnics now in MLS or in CenturyLink [Field], it doesn’t mean that the atmosphere isn’t very good — it’s just different how people here, for example, are fired up for games,” Gspurning said, laughing at the pun. “It’s just different.”