All the AEKs of the world: 361 of them!

All the AEKs of the world: 361 of them!

My knowledge of football is next to nothing. Occasionally I find myself being carried away for more than a few minutes on the screen when I accidently zap to a football match. I certainly get very angry when I try to reach home on the Asian side of Istanbul after a tiring day, when a Fenerbahce match is on. My car almost smashed when I tried to force my way through a million fans outside the Şükrü Şaraçoğlu Stadium. And coming from Greece, I grew up in a world where Olympiakos and Panathinaikos where the eternal enemies on the field; the supposedly rougher one is the former originating from the poor neighborhoods of Piraeus port and the latter from the better streets of Athens.

Both, though, claim to be inspired by the Olympics spirit of the ancient Greeks. But there was a third one, whose colors — yellow and black — always attracted me and its double-headed eagle echoing a rich past puzzled me as I was never quite sure whether they came from Athens, Thessaloniki or elsewhere. This was the AEK football club. Although I was an ignorant and distant observer, it had not escaped me that the fans of that yellow and black club with the double-headed eagle were different than the others.

They lived mostly clustered in distinctive neighborhoods around Athens and their absolute devotion to their team transcended the usual obsessive attachment of a fan to their team. It was as if the Athletic Union of Constantinople (AEK) was a bond, a point of reference, a physical entity that encapsulated a homeland, which is now a faraway home, and a strong nostalgia of a good life in a community that had its deep roots in Istanbul. 

When, a few days ago, I received an invitation from my good friend and colleague Nikos Angelidis to moderate the launch of his book here in Istanbul, my first thought was that it would be just another “insight” into the state of affairs between Turkey and Greece. But I was surprised when I found out that his book was about AEK! Its subject was about football, so I thought with apprehension, but I was so wrong.

The writer talked about his grandfather, a Rum with the same name, from the ancient neighborhood of Vlanga (now Langa) in Istanbul, who was a member of the first volleyball team of AEK in the beginning of the 1930s. An unfortunate health problem confined him to a wheelchair at the age of 35, but living in Athens, by then, he continued to be a devoted member of the team, instilling this love into his grandson, but most of all, the love for his birthplace to which he never managed to return.

The book was a product of a long research, finding “all the AEK teams of the world,” which emerged from communities that originated from the Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul after the events of the 1920s, inspired by the team’s emblem, or their legendary players. AEK was founded in 1924 in Athens, but its roots were in Istanbul, in the Pera Sports Club association. The writer confesses that the idea of the book came to him from an old photo from the 1980s of a football team called AEK Beloyannis, set up by Greek leftist political refugees in a village outside Budapest in Hungary. The research discovered over 360 teams all over the world carrying the same name and colors or just the emblem of the double-headed eagle. They can be found wherever the Rum diaspora chose to go after the 1930s. That means all over Greece, but also in all corners of the world, including the U.S., Australia, Europe, and Burundi. Even in Turkey, the writer discovered football teams from Çorum to Erzurum which carry the colors or the double-headed eagle emblem on their logos.

But behind all this abundance of material, old photos, press cuttings, dates, and events that have helped shape this original research, my attention was fixed on an old black and white photograph on page eight. It is a photo of six young men of the first volleyball team of AEK. Second from the left is a young man who ended up living in Greece on a wheelchair carrying his homeland in his heart. For him, and for many others, AEK became their lost homeland, and what became apparent to me was that the feeling of belonging and deeper identity can be passed over to later generations with an amazing intensity and resilience against time.

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