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No Place Like Home: The Refugee Football Clubs of the Greco-Turkish War

Luke Connelly | Lancaster University

“Smyrna wiped out.”

This was the headline in The New York Times on the 17th of September 1922, and it was wholly accurate. The Great Fire of Smyrna raged for the best part of eight days having started four days after the Turkish army’s entry into the city on 9th September 1922, as Mustafa ‘Atatürk’ Kemal’s offensive looked to achieve its primary goal of reaching the Mediterranean and repelling the Greek military. The fire resulted in an unprecedented refugee crisis, international outrage, and countless accounts of suffering and death. As American consul to the city, George Horton reflected, “one of the keenest impressions which I brought away from Smyrna [modern day İzmir on Turkey’s western coast] was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race.”

Further north, Istanbul was already swelling with influx after influx of refugees. There were those who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution, now being joined by starving Greeks and Turks fleeing the war waging in Anatolia. The city’s population observed the crisis in Smyrna in horror, with a dark, ominous feeling clinging to the air. As historian Bettany Hughes points out, “many in Istanbul thought that they would be next to suffer dreadful deaths.”

The Greco-Turkish War was fought between the Kingdom of Greece and the Ottoman Empire in the immediate aftermath of the First World War until 1922. It remains very prominent in the national consciences of their modern-day successor states and indeed across Southeast Europe. The atrocities, scorched earth policies and acts of genocide have forged an intense and volatile geopolitical dynamic in the region.

There were many facets that fuelled the ferocity of the war. For centuries, the spread of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, having stretched to the gates of Vienna, deeply troubled the politicians and monarchs who had inherited Christendom. In fact, the Ottomans were only brought into the political fold when concerns grew of Russian expansionism in the east, first under Peter the Great’s rule and then throughout the 16th-19th centuries. The region was, and still is, seen by many as the obvious geographical boundary where the European ends and the Asiatic begins, with conflict in the region extending back to Antiquity and throughout the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Over the course of centuries, the divide between Greeks and Turks has grown into a psychological chasm, catalysed by geography and foreign influence, but with foundations in creed and heritage.

In 1912, eccentric Englishman William Childs trekked across Anatolia, informing for the British Secret Service who were fearful of Russian expansion into the region. He reported back to London that the region was host to a cauldron of racial tension and that military catastrophe was nigh-on inevitable. That year, he notified the Service that “you can have no idea of racial hatred until you have seen it in this land”.

He also recounted that the “varied inhabitants of Northern Anatolia live in expectancy of Russian annexation, an event which each race sees from a different point of view. Moslems contemplate it gloomily with the fatalism of their creed, Armenians with hope, as bringing deliverance, and Greeks with feelings drawing them both ways; for although Greeks of these regions know well enough that they would benefit by Russian dominion” [courtesy of their common Eastern orthodoxy] “many have reservations prompted by dreams of a Greek Empire. They remember that this coast was part of the ancient Hellenic world.”

Following a two-year military campaign, political shifts, and a fundamental change in the dynamic of the conflict, the Turks were able to take the upper hand. Retreating westwards to the Aegean coastline, the Greeks exacted scorched earth policies along the way to scupper the Turkish advance and to target Mosques and Muslim majority towns. Seeing the destruction in the aftermath of the Greek retreat, the Turks exacted revenge on those Greek civilians or militia left behind. What Childs had predicted less than a decade early had manifested itself.

Eventually, the war petered out into an armistice that concluded with population exchanges between either state, following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. In total, around 1.2 million Orthodox Christian Greeks were permanently denaturalised and left Turkey, and around 400,000 Muslims and ethnic Turks left behind their Greek homelands for the newly founded Republic of Turkey.

Historian Bruce Clark makes the case that the “population transfer between Greece and Turkey has haunted the region, and in some ways the world, ever since it was concluded”. It provided blueprints for policies exacted in the aftermath of World War Two, in Palestine and of course in Cyprus in the 1970s, when the island became a microcosm of the Greco-Turkish War’s divisive consequences. The permanence of separation derived from Lausanne created an anger, an upheaval and the displacement of millions. The societal impact was enormous as communities were irreparably changed or destroyed, and millions were displaced on either side of the Aegean Sea.

Footballing Fallout

Map of modern-day Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. Highlighted are the cities of Athens, Thessaloniki, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and İzmir (formerly Smyrna)
Map of modern-day Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.

Like all institutions, football clubs (FCs) in the region were unable to avoid the vast consequences of such significant social and cultural change. Indeed, both PAOK Thessaloniki FC and AEK Athens FC are undoubtedly the two most prominent examples of this phenomenon, as two of the largest and best-supported clubs in Greece. Both clubs were born in the aftermath of the population exchange by refugees from Istanbul. In fact, they share a common ancestor, Pera Sports Club, a Constantinopolitan club formed by ethnic Greeks in the late 19th Century.

Following the population exchanges, the vast majority of Pera’s personnel were forcibly relocated to the Greek mainland. Players who had resettled in Thessaloniki formed two clubs, first AEK Thessaloniki and then PAOK Thessaloniki, before both entities would eventually merge the PAOK moniker in 1929. In the Nea Filadelfia (New Philadelphia) district of Athens, which had been largely settled by Greek refugees from Asia Minor following the exchange, AEK Athens were formed following a meeting in 1924 between a group of Constantinopolitan-Greeks.

Given the profound effect that these events had on the region, it is unsurprising that both PAOK and AEK are not alone in being profoundly affected by the war. Athenian clubs, Apollon Smyrnis and Panionios also have their roots in this crisis, both being formed in Smyrna and carried across the Aegean by their founders, players and club officials who sought to preserve them.

Left: The Badge of PAOK Thessaloniki, Right: The Badge of AEK Athens, Centre: The Double-Headed Eagle Emblem of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the former Byzantine Empire.
Left: The Badge of PAOK Thessaloniki, Right: The Badge of AEK Athens, Centre: The Double-Headed Eagle Emblem of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the former Byzantine Empire.

Symbols of this heritage feature strongly in the iconography of these clubs, forming an intrinsic part of their identity. Both PAOK Thessaloniki and AEK Athens feature club crests that prominently showcase the two-headed Byzantine Eagle, an imperial symbol commonly associated with the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled in Constantinople from 1259 until the city fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The AEK eagle is a direct copy of the Palaiologos eagle, on a field of gold, wings displayed and elevated. The PAOK eagle, however, is something of an adaptation of the Byzantine bird of prey, formed to fit a narrative. The club has intentionally portrayed their eagle in a sullen stance, with its wings closed to depict mourning, grieving for a lost homeland.

Further proof of the heritage of these clubs can be found in the etymology of their acronym naming conventions.’. PAOK stands for Panthessalonian Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans, literally the sports club for Constantipolitan Greeks, representing the whole of Thessaloniki. Similarly, AEK Athens’ prefix stands for Athletic Union of Constantinople, a nod to the notion that they represent the city in absentia. Similarly, the naming conventions of Apollon Smyrnis and Panionios also allude to their clubs’ origins across the Aegean Sea. Smyrnis is an obvious allusion to the club’s origins in Smyrna, with Apollon a nod to the deep Hellenic roots via reference to the Greek God Apollo. The translation of Panionios’ full name is Pan-Ionian Gymnastic Club of Smyrna, again a reminder of the club’s foundation in Smyrna, but also the fact that they seek to represent Ionia, an ancient Hellenic region, of which the Kingdom of Greece held ambitions of repatriating, on the western coast of Asia Minor.

Map showing the location of Ionia within Anatolia/modern-day Turkey.
Map showing the location of Ionia within Anatolia/modern-day Turkey.

Ghosts of Anatolia

Though their time in Istanbul was sadly cut short, the influence that the city’s ethnic Greeks had on its sporting landscape, prior to the population exchange, does remain present today. Like so many of Istanbul’s fledgling football clubs, in an era before professionalism or the implementation of a national football competition, Pera plied their trade in regional competitions against local opposition, with fixtures generally played at the city’s historic Taksim Stadium, which hosted Istanbul’s football clubs at the time.

Although Turkey’s largest clubs, namely Istanbul’s Big Three: Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas, all rapidly outgrew their humble Taksim Stadium origins to forge their own footballing dynasties, the same cannot be said of Pera. The club floundered with dwindling support, following the loss of its Greek support base in the aftermath of the population exchange and subsequent financial instability. They struggled to match the financial clout of their Istanbul neighbours who flourished in the new era of professionalism following the foundation of the National League in 1959.

Pera Club not only lost much of their support as a direct consequence of the war, but also eventually lost the basis of their identity. Their name change to Beyoğlu in 1923 was a response to the Pera district being renamed to the Turkish title, cementing the notion that Constantinople was now firmly Istanbul and fundamentally part of a Turkish state. Regardless, the club continues to exist to this day, run by an administration of mostly ethnic Greeks, though with a playing roster predominantly composed of ethnic Turks.

In İzmir, given the extent of the Smyrna Catastrophe, there is no notable Pera Sports Club equivalent which has survived the ages. With Apollon Smyrnis and Panionios both ejected from the city as a fallout from the crisis and population exchange, the city’s top club is now Göztepe S.K. who, having been formed in 1925, are an intrinsically Turkish entity.

Lausanne’s Legacy

Ultimately the legacy of the Treaty of Lausanne propagated division. Divisiveness plagued the politics of the successor states over which the treaty loomed large. It provided fuel to the fire of Greek and Turkish nationalism, at the root of which largely sits domination of one group over the other. Greek political concepts of Megali (the notion of unifying the former territories of the Byzantine Empire under a pan-Hellenic banner) and Enosis (as far as Greek Cypriots are concerned, the incorporation of Cyprus into the Greek state) continued to manifest themselves in Greek foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. Similarly, the Turkish nationalist paradigm of Taksim, which translates literally as ‘division’, advocated the separation of Greeks and Turks, in pro-Lausanne fashion. These ideals bubbled away in the background of Greek and Turkish politics before the consequent eruption of violence.

In 1974, the island of Cyprus played host to the conflict between these political principles. A Greek-backed insurrection on the island that ousted President Makarios and instigated the collapse of the Cypriot Government was pushing for Enosis. A Turkish invasion of the island sought to establish Taksim on the island and succeeded in doing so. Fifty years on, the Greeks and Turks re-enacted 1923 by implementing another population exchange. Greek Cypriots abandoned their homes in the north and headed south with Turkish Cypriots moving in the opposite direction across the UN implemented demilitarised zone (DMZ) on the island. This resulted in a whole host of uninhabited ghost towns emerging across the island that exist to this day. The city of Famagusta is perhaps the world’s best-known example of this unfortunate phenomenon. Varosha, the Southern Quarter of the city, remains abandoned to this day, a crumbling, eerie and tangible reminder of the conflict and its consequences.

The once tourist hotspot quarter of Famgusta, Varosha, in its current state of disrepair.
The once tourist hotspot quarter of Famgusta, Varosha, in its current state of disrepair.

The city’s two preeminent football clubs, Anorthosis Famagusta and Nea Salamis Famagusta, now exist as clubs in exile, based in the coastal city of Larnaca. Despite existing amid rather acrimonious circumstances, Anorthosis Famagusta have been able to establish themselves as one of Cyprus’ most successful clubs, sitting behind only Nicosia’s two largest sides in the number of First Division Titles they have won.

Nicosia has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s only capital city split between two states, with the DMZ literally slicing straight through the city. Ill-feeling persists, with the island’s main football teams, APOEL Nicosia and Omonia Nicosia based just south of the demilitarised buffer zone amid circumstances that are only comparable to those of Hertha or Tasmania Berlin pre-1989.

For Greece, the divisions are not so tangible. While their national identity is almost unparalleled in having millennia-old foundations, the nature of the population exchange bringing ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor, Anatolia, Thrace, Pontus and the Caucasus, means that Greece, in its current guise, is a recently formed and quite diversely populated state.

The nature of these enforced exchanges, the upheaval and the anger they caused still form part of a unique and often provocative nationalism. Ahead of their recent Europa League tie with Istanbul giants, Besiktas, PAOK Thessaloniki caused outrage among Turkish supporters for the embroidery present on the inner lining of their kits. It bore the words, “Hellenism. Hagia Sophia [a reference to the former cathedral now Mosque, one of Istanbul’s grandest landmarks]. PAOK. Refugees. Asia Minor. Pontus. Constantinople”

Prior to the tie, the President of PAOK, billionaire oligarch Ivan Savvidis, wrote in a letter to his players that “Politics is different, football is different. But you should remember that in the Beşiktaş match, PAOK represents the whole of Greece. The developments in our days also increase the importance of this match.” Mr Savvidis, a Pontic Greek from modern-day Georgia and the former Soviet Union, is actually a former member of Russia’s State Duma. Savvidis’ Pontic roots certainly aren’t an exotic rarity in this part of the world. AEK’s owner and oil tycoon Dimitris Melissandis, though raised in Athens, is the son of a Pontic refugee, meaning that both clubs now have refugee roots running throughout the club, from the terraces up to the board room.

AEK, having played out of the Athens Olympic Stadium for the last twenty-plus years, will be returning to the Nea Filadelfeia district upon the completion of their new Hagia Sophia Arena in 2022. While Istanbul’s football fans may have been incensed by PAOK’s recent kit ‘stunt’, they are likely to view AEK’s new stadium with similar anger. It is modelled on the iconic Hagia Sophia church, featuring replica minarets in each corner of the ground as well as Byzantine-style archways around the exterior of the arena. Each gated entrance into the stadium, except for Gate 21 which houses AEK’s ultras, is set to be named after a former Greek city of Anatolia. Perhaps desires for Enosis still exist, perhaps this is more just a nod to a rich and proud history.

What the consequences of Lausanne have taught us, above all, is that creating division can only lead to an ‘us and them’ mindset, as can be seen by the one which plagues this region. The consequences of the war and its presided conclusion continue to prove inescapable. For the Turks and Greeks, the War has morphed into an ever-present psychological impasse that plagues political attitudes in the region and prevents anyone from truly being able to move on.


Further Reading

  • William J. Childs, “Across Asia Minor on Foot”, (Edinburgh and London, 1917)

  • Bruce Clark, “Twice A Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey”, (London 2007)

  • Misha Glenny, “The Balkans 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers”, (New York, 2012)

  • Bettany Hughes, “Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities”, (London 2017)

  • Ertan Karpazli – “The Greek football teams of Istanbul” reporting in TRT World -

  • Philip Mansel, “Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean”, (London, 2011)

  • Mark Mazower, “Salonica. City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430 – 1950” (London, 2005)

  • Mark Mazower “The Balkans. From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day”, (St. Ives, 2001)

  • John McManus, “Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football”, (London, 2018)

  • Giles Milton: “Paradise Lost. Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance” (London, 2009)

Luke Connelly is a graduate of Lancaster University. His academic background was focused on modern European history, particularly on the development of political theory and the evolving role of the state between 1900-1945. He is the editor of the newly founded football periodical Libero (@MagLibero), a role which he currently combines with a full-time job as an energy trader.

Twitter: @LukeDConnelly


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