It is fair to say that football was a creation of the ancient Greeks and Romans, playing a brand that required kicking ‘balls.’ The name given to the sport was episkyros by Antiphanes, eventually making its way to Rome, Alexandria and other cities. In Rome, the balls were first filled with air and as has been the custom in Italy ever since, football players would focus on their hairstyles and diving (see Italy vs Socceroos 2006 diving) as the key aspect of a match. Football was played in one form or another across the world until refined properly by the English in the nineteenth century into the beautiful game it became.
Image credit: Official site of Olympique de Marseilles
I was particularly intrigued when I was in Italy to come across a team called ‘Hellas Verona.’ My Italian is a little rusty, but I am sure that read, ‘Greek Verona!’ The team was formed in 1903 and paying its tribute to the classics, the founders decided to reference Greece. Their first home ground was in an amphitheatre and blue as well as yellow represents them.
They won the Serie A in 1985 and currently have one Greek player in their squad, Vangelis Moras. Unlike the south of Italy where Greek has a rich history dating back 2700 years, Verona is in the north and aside from 200-300 years of Byzantine Greek rule, they have had minimal relations with Greece.
Arguably (controversially) the biggest ‘Greek’ club in Europe is Marseilles, a team that has won 9 titles and were once champions of Europe. In 1899, in honour of the anniversary of the founding of the city in 600 BC by Phocians, the club was proclaimed Olympique de Marseilles. The club adopted the blue and white colours of Greece with Olympique symbolising the ancient and modern Olympiad.
Massalia which I haven’t visited since 2002 was the first Greek colony in the west to reach a population of over 1000. It was a city that remained independent until 49 BC when it was captured by Julius Caesar.
The City was one of the last of the Greek colonies in the far west to retain its Greek character and language, holding on at least until the arrival of the Visigoths in fifth century AD and into the next. It came under Greek Byzantine rule from 534 AD until the 700’s. Greek was thought to have been spoken through the centuries by pockets of its citizenry and received a boost in the 1800’s as Greek merchants migrated there in large numbers.
Massalia founded a number of other colonies in the region including Agathe, Olbia, Antipolis and Nicaea (Nice). Another city to add to the list is Monoikos (Monaco) and Alalia in Corsica.
Having digressed a little, let me take you back to another football team. That of the mighty Herakles Almelo of The Netherlands which was founded in 1903 after the mythical (or was he?) hero, Hercules. They have won the Erevidisie in 1927 and 1941. Whilst they have no Greek born players in their squad, they do have an Aussie with Greek heritage, Jason Davidson, playing and he is from the ‘Greek’ city of Melbourne.
Having visiting The Netherlands, there is no ancient or Byzantine Greek connection, though there is still a Greek community mainly based in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
One of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to is Prague and it is fitting they have a team that won the First Division on 35 occasions. They were established in 1893 and the name came to represent the courage and fighting spirit that they wanted from their players.
Prague and most countries in this part of east Europe have had little to do with Hellenic history, though it is interesting that they selected ancient Sparta to be the name of the Czech Republic’s most successful club.
There may be other top flight teams in Europe that pay tribute to Greek history or identity, including some that use the Byzantine double headed eagle. It is a nice tribute to the Greek world that a football team with no known association to Greece can provide such a significant recognition. May the mythical Gods help them to keep winning!
Referenced: Hellas Verona, Olympique Marseilles, Sparta Prague, Herakles Almelo.