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Your next favourite team seen up close

To escape the chatter around the World Cup we went to the home of Athens Kallithea

Your next favourite team seen up close To escape the chatter around the World Cup we went to the home of Athens Kallithea

Yesterday, as I was returning to Milan and taking a seat in the increasingly uncomfortable low-cost seats, as usual I took my headphones and clicked play, not least so as not to hear an excited schoolchildren who had just finished their class trip and were excitedly returning home. The first song to start playing randomly was 'Gamba di Legno a Parigi' by Francesco De Gregori. Now don't be fooled by the title, the song opens with the lines: 'and then he dreamed of Athens and his mouth wide open', a sign of destiny maybe or maybe not. Well, I don't know if this is what De Gregori meant when he composed this song in 2005, but it was my first impression after seeing the Greek city, with its splendid Acropolis and its impressive architecture that oozes history from every corner and marble sculpture.

But as much as I decided I wanted to live in Greece and wander around its beautiful and unspoilt islands with landscapes that leave you speechless, as per the title, the reason I went there is another. In the week in which football in the world was put on pause because of the controversial World Cup in Qatar, I went to Greece to see a club that we called 'your next favourite team' some time ago, Athens Kallithea. A profoundly innovative team considering that football in Plato's nation has fallen into disrepair after the surprising European Championship victory in 2004, slowly slipping in the Fifa rankings. A negative sentiment that also seems to run through the major league, which has increasingly lost appeal, no longer churning out any relevant talent. It is precisely in the midst of the capital's other more emblazoned teams such as Panathīnaïkos, AEK and Olympiakos that Athens Kallithea was born, the club from a neighbourhood in the Attica suburbs of the huge Greek city and whose translation is 'The Beautiful View'.

A team that last season - the new management's first season at the club - finished in second place, seven points away from promotion, which was the club's most successful season in the 16 years since relegation. A club that this year has overturned its visual identity, modernising it but remaining consistent with its history, thanks to the skilful work of Mirko Borsche, the man behind the rebranding of Inter and Venezia and who has also worked with Balenciaga and Supreme. He has also changed the technical sponsor, renewed the team, and brought happiness and enthusiasm back to a square that had never experienced great sporting experiences. The credit for all this belongs to president Ted Philipakos (and his team) who, as in Venice, has the intention of building something important that is more than just a football team. Something that I perceived not so much from the words of the current president during the two days spent together in the stadium commonly called 'El Paso', in reference to the spaghetti western film that recalls the scenic location under the mountains, but more from the attentions, the eyes, the gestures and the movements that he has when talking about the team and the more than interesting future plans.

The enthusiasm I mentioned earlier can also be seen in the finishing session on Sunday morning, the day before the match, where I was present to watch the drills and tactics rehearsed under the watchful electronic eye of a drone. Usually a refinish in fact, apart from being a super-fast training session where the coach with his match analyst goes over just a few tactics in anticipation of the canonical 90 minutes, is carried out with special care and extreme seriousness. Not that the one I personally witnessed was comical or unprofessional, but in the group one could sense a great deal of happiness, contentment, and a desire to dare, typical of a team that is self-confident but at the same time wants to prove its worth, beating everything in front of it. A team full of promising youngsters with a hint of experience, as demonstrated by the acquisition of Anthony Mounier, an old acquaintance of Serie A, first from Atalanta and then from Siniša Mihajlović's court when he sat on the Bologna bench.

The confirmation of how unique this atmosphere is came yesterday at 14:15 Italian time when the team managed to overturn the home game with two goals in as many minutes against OF Ierapetra. A happiness that can be perceived with every touch and every pass, Athens Kallithea in fact despite the disadvantage arrived in the first quarter of the match never stopped believing, fighting on every ball and willingly looking for at least the equalizing goal. And in fact, as in the most daring matches, victory finally came with a goal scored in the 85th minute by Loukinas, who cunningly and agilely inserted himself between the two defenders and collected the cross with a bursting header, leaving the two incredulous opponents to blame each other.

As De Gregori sings again in the same song, 'come stare straight into the storm', because even in the bad weather of the near defeat the team remained united, willingly seeking victory in what was its first home game of the season. And so as the Italian songwriter always says in his famous song but in the final bars, "avanti avanti, avanti marsch!", while waiting for their promotion and definitive consecration you now have more than one good reason to start supporting Athens Kallithea. And I, who by now cannot think of anything else, despite the fact that all the students and their professors are still shouting in the plane, monopolising the attention of all the passengers on Monday night's return flight, which takes me from the summery Greek city back to the very cold Milan, I still dream of Athens.