The triptych in the main entrance of the modest Nea Smyrni Stadium – in fact, the very name of the stadium itself – sums up the unique history of Panionios. First, the calm waterfront of Smyrna, today Izmir in Turkey, dated 1920. Then, 1922, a city in flames as Greek refugees flee to Athens. Finally, residents gather around their new homes in Nea Smyrni, 5km south of central Athens.
The football club that came with the subsequent Greek-Turkish population exchange, Panionios are the flagship of Nea Smyrni. Their origins, though, are in modern-day Turkey, as the black-and-white photos gathering dust in the club bar testify.
For the past 15 years, Panionios have consistently been the capital’s fourth club, improbably winning the Greek Cup in 1998 and maintaining a respectable mid-table position.
With improvements to the Nea Smyrni stadium and even convincing promises by ship-owning tycoon chairman Constantinos Tsakiris of a new one, Panionios may even be looking to usurp currently buoyant Atromitos for fourth club in Athens – but the ‘Istorikos’ (‘Panthers’) are going to have to prove it on the pitch first.
Holding nearly 12,000, the Nea Smyrni stadium is a respectable, mid-range sports arena with a running track. Used for the Greek Cup Final in 2004 and various Greek under-21 and under-23 matches, the Nea Smyrni consists of one stand behind the goal and two along each sideline. In theory, away fans are allocated space in the south stand but in practice the few thousand visitors occupy the sideline areas. The Panionios Panthers access gate 3.
Bus No.130 runs up from Piraeus, bus No.106 from Syggrou in central Athens, both stopping right by the stadium. Perhaps the easiest hop from central Athens is to take tram No.4 to from Syntagma Square, alighting at Megalou Alexandrou, from where it is a 10min walk to the stadium. Head along Dorilou and you should see the stadium floodlights ahead to your left. Bus No.130 also crosses with the No.4 tramline, at Agias Fotinis one stop nearer to town.
Panionios introduced electronic tickets a few years ago but games never sell out. There’s a little graffitied ticket hut opposite O Nikos fast-food eaterie on Agiou Andreou.
The stadium bar here is, quite simply, a joy to behold. Accessed through the main entrance on Chrisostomou, it comprises a large main bar room with an almost equally large tap of DAB beer on the counter, and a tables laid out on the terrace that runs halfway along the touchline at pitch level. Inside, along one side, are cabinets filled with rare, uncared-for photographs gathering dust and simply begging to be framed: the side of 1890, one poignantly dated ‘Smyrna 1922’.
In the far, north-east corner of the ground, accessed down a narrow alleyway covered in Panthers graffiti, you’ll find a pleasant if nameless little bar by the basketball court. Here, with your €2.20 Amstel or Heineken in hand, you get a full view of the action from behind the north goal and catch the sun at the same time.
Around the ground, the former O Nikos bar, a temple to Panionios that stood on the corner of Agiou Andreou and Konstantinou Paleologou, is now a bland, fast-food outlet. With it has gone Nikos himself, Panionios Fan No.1, an amiable maniac so loved by the players they placed the Greek Cup on his doorstep after the post-match reception in 1998.