A video posted by Football community page “The Away Fans” in the past 24 hours showing an AEK Athens FC away supporter gifting his shirt to a young Celtic fan during the two clubs’ tie in the UEFA Champions’ League has garnered a lot of online adulation. It may at first seem an odd thing for a travelling AEK fan to do, but it is demonstrative of the strikingly similar histories of the two clubsin question.
Celtic is a Football club born of 19th century Irish immigration to Scotland. The club existed as a key pillar in the Glaswegian-Irish community in its nascent years, providing young Irish immigrants a place around which to congregate and support each other in foreign, unfamiliar surroundings. Through the 20th century, the club became synonymous with Irish nationalism, anti-monarchism and anti-British sentiment, with Catholicism also playing an arguably significant role within the club’s fan culture. Irish, Catholic, Republican culture has become internalised within the Celtic brand, regardless of the extent to which individual fans identify with these institutions and ideologies.
In this regard, there appears to be little similarity between Celtic and AEK. The Balkan region (excluding Croatia and Romania) has a negligible Catholic population, Athens being no exception. Orthodox Christianity remains the region’s dominant religion in terms of adherents, a legacy of Byzantine rule that ended in 1453. Thus, AEK could never be labelled as a “Catholic” club, as one can safely assume that practically zero fans are practicing Catholics. Furthermore, descendants of Irish immigrants are equally as absent in Athens, Greece and the Balkans. Fans of AEK are not 4th generation Irishmen gathering behind a longstanding icon of Irish nationalism. What then makes AEK and Celtic similar? The answer is not demographic, but political. As mentioned, Celtic’s origins lie with Irish migrants who moved to the United Kingdom to escape hardship in 19th century Ireland. AEK meanwhile is a sports club that was originally founded to serve the communities of immigrants from Istanbul/ Constantinople who fled the city during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922.
The Ottoman Empire (that ruled over an enormous territory including what we now call Greece and Turkey) collapsed after WWI, with new nation states emerging during the imaginatively titled “Partition of the Ottoman Empire”. The young Greek state (first recognised as independent in 1830) sought to annex more territory from the weak Ottoman Empire, which resulted in a three year conflict, thousands of deaths and an acute animosity that exists between Greece and modern Turkey to this day. Just check out the way Greeks and Turks avoid giving each other points during Eurovision. Large scale migration of ethnic Greeks from Anatolia, including Istanbul/ Constantinople, was the immediate consequence of this violent period. Immigrants from Istanbul/ Constantinople in the 20’s became very visible within Greece, and their community quickly came under scrutiny. Members clung together for mutual economic and emotional support. In Athens, a small athletics union was established by these immigrants from Constantinople under the name Athlitikí Enosis Konstantinoupóleos.
From birth, immigration has been a key theme of the AEK Athens FC story. Fans and club alike have not hidden from this fact, instead proudly displaying the Constantinople origins of the club’s founders and community. The two-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire adorns the club’s crest, and the black and yellow uniform is also inspired by the Byzantines that governed from Constantinople prior to defeat to the Ottomans in the 15th century. Incidentally, the Byzantine Yellow has lent itself to another sports club with a strong connection to Istanbul/ Constantinople, none other than Fenerbahce S.K., whose fans have previously demonstrated public support for their cousins in Athens. The club’s decision to take inspiration from the Orthodox Byzantines instead of the Islamic Ottomans when designing logos and kits is indicative of the culture that AEK fans and followers see themselves as a part of; AEK has become THE club of the large Constantinople Diaspora in Greece. However, the chosen association with an Orthodox empire rather than an Islamic one has not prevented dislike from other Greek and Balkan Football clubs whose fan groups espouse right-wing rhetoric, simply viewing AEK as “an immigrant club”.
The similarities between AEK Athens and Celtic should be clear by now. Both are successful Football clubs founded by immigrant communities in a hostile neighbouring country that have developed in popularity throughout the 20th century thanks to a core tradition of celebrating their migrant roots, a feat achieved by the use of motifs and playing colours inspired by their geographical origins. While the neighbouring countries, colours and reasons behind migration differ, the 21st century narratives used to describe the modern fan cultures of both clubs simply lump them together as pro-immigration “left-wing clubs”. Affiliations with Sankt Pauli, Livorno and Marseille have further compounded this image.
The video you saw of an AEK fan gifting his Football shirt to a young Celtic supporter during the game is symbolic of the similarities that exist between the two, and of the way in which fans of these two clubs consider themselves both products and defenders of international migration.