Any student of Greek history will know that the country has long been a pioneer in many fields. The philosophy of Plato and Socrates among others is a shining example, but less widely-known is that an early form of football was invented in Greece. Called Episkyros, it had several similarities with the modern game.
And while winning UEFA EURO 2004 has been the Hellenics' only major success on the world stage so far, football’s roots go back a long way in the Mediterranean country. In the last century or so, countless clubs have been formed in the area surrounding Athens alone.
Two of those sides, Olympiacos and AEK Athens, are among the nation’s most successful ever teams alongside Panathinaikos. Year after year the duo, record title holders and 11-time championship winners respectively, deliver fiercely absorbing matches.
The originsThe clubs' founding dates are remarkably close together. AEK came first in April 1924, with Olympiacos following just 11 months later. It is widely acknowledged the rivalry that swiftly ensued was in part down to the fact that the former’s initial fan base was made up of working-class supporters, while the wealthier residents of the capital's suburbs favoured the latter.
Strictly speaking it is not an Athens derby, but rather an Attica derby. It is the most densely-populated area of the country and belongs to the region of the same name on the south coast.
Facts and figuresFixtures between the sides began as early as the 1930s, most with a favourable outcome for AEK. However, Olympiacos hit back and have since left not only AEK but also every other team in the country trailing in their wake.
The Legends, as they are also known, have won the league title 40 times and lifted the cup on 25 occasions. Their nearest challengers, Panathinaikos (with 20 championship wins) and AEK (11) are still a considerable way behind.
The rivalry is by no means limited to football alone and has spread to the other sporting areas the clubs offer. For instance, the atmosphere at water polo matches or at basketball and volleyball games is equally ferocious.
* Tales of derbies past*Despite almost 30 players having switched allegiances in recent decades, to date nobody has managed to score for both sides in a derby match, including illustrious names such as Rivaldo and Rafik Djebbou. Yet there are certain players who seem to thrive on the occasion, with Mimis Papaioannou netting 14 times for AEK and Predrag Djordjevic notching ten for Olympiacos.
Trading club colours is not restricted to on-field participants, however, with those in the dugout also swapping sides. Former Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin and German strategist Ewald Lienen have each been in the hot seat for both clubs.
The rivalry today
Yet no matter where the stars have plied their trade, pickings have been very slim for AEK in the last few years. During the 2005/06 campaign Olympiacos even achieved the improbable by winning each of their derbies against arch-rivals Panathinaikos and AEK.
One defeat in particular will have hurt the AEK faithful more than others. In March 2011 not only was their side crushed 6-0 away to Olympiacos, but the loss handed their adversaries a 38th league title. As if that was not enough, it was the biggest scoreline either team had ever recorded in the derby, equalling another Olympiacos home triumph almost exactly 30 years earlier.
While the Legends' dominance may have caused the rivalry to wane somewhat of late, the fixture nevertheless remains a highlight in the country's footballing calendar.
History has shown that over the years both sides have experienced highs and lows in this encounter, giving AEK fans reason to hope for a revival that would allow their club to become a serious title rival once more. Until then, however, they will have to make do with the derby as a chance, temporarily at least, to put the record title-winners in their place.