Greece, Turkey pin hopes on 2008

ISTANBUL – The joint Turkish-Greek bid to host soccer’s European championship was born out of the pain of twin earthquakes in both countries that killed thousands in 1999. The two neighbors have a century of conflict, controversial population exchanges and bitter struggles for control of the Aegean Sea they share. But devastating earthquakes in 1999 sparked a mutual outpouring of sympathy and ties have warmed ever since. The joint bid was born of that optimism. Turkey, one of the International Monetary Fund’s biggest debtors, has made a series of bids for major sporting events, hoping they will provide a shot in the arm for the economy and bring in much-needed tourist revenues. Istanbul failed last year in its third bid to host the Olympic Games, losing out to Beijing. It is now lobbying furiously to bring a Formula One Grand Prix to the city in 2005, while Athens is gearing up for the 2004 Olympic Games. If they do end up jointly hosting the 2008 championship, it will be a monumental step forward for both countries following a flurry of diplomatic contacts after the earthquakes. The Turkish soccer federation formally proposed a joint bid, which was immediately accepted by their Greek counterparts. Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos expressed his confidence that UEFA would see the practical and political merit of the Aegean bid. «It is the most complete and dynamic proposal for two reasons: Firstly, because we have the sporting, tourist and general facilities to enable us to stage such an important event. The second reason is straightforwardly political, the common candidacy is an important societal initiative from citizens,» he said. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the new ruling party after November elections, is a former soccer player and has given his full backing to the bid. International praise Greece has placed great emphasis on the experience it will gain from hosting the 2004 Olympics in Athens and will be hoping that recent international praise for progress on venue construction, transportation and security will enhance the credibility of the candidacy. However, one of the main stumbling blocks facing the next Olympic hosts is the decrepit state of Greece’s football stadiums. The bid calls for a major overhaul at all four of the host cities: Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, and Iraklion, on Crete. Athens Olympic Stadium, which is slotted to host the Euro 2008 final if the bid succeeds, is currently closed as it undergoes a major overhaul prior to the Olympic Games. While the Olympic complex will be ready in 2003, the outdated and crumbling Patras and Iraklion grounds will need extensive rebuilding work to meet the proposed 32,000-seater venue outlined in the bid. The Kaftantzoglio stadium in Greece’s second city Thessaloniki, closed for refurbishment prior to the Olympics, will need an additional stand by 2008. Sources close to the Greek Soccer Association (EPO) estimate the initial construction budget for the three grounds will exceed 25 million euros with approximately 50 million euros being spent in all. The crumbling stadiums are an indication of the poor financial state of the game in Greece, which worsened in September as the country became the latest victim of digital broadcasters’ failure to make money from the sport. The collapse of Alpha Digital has left the bulk of the country’s top teams without TV revenue and sparked a bitter row between club owners and the government. The League of Professional Soccer Clubs (EPAE) staged a one-month shutdown in October – that coincided with the UEFA inspection – after ministers refused to compensate teams for loss of revenue through an expanded share in profits from state-run betting pools. Turkish organizers, meanwhile, have been pushing the business potential of their country, which Turkish bid coordinator Sami Colgecen described as «an untapped and hungry market» for sponsors to work on. Intimidating behavior Turkish crowds, not just in Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen stadium nicknamed «Hell,» have a reputation for intimidating behavior ranging from abusive chants to throwing flares and other objects onto the pitch and UEFA regularly fines Turkish clubs for crowd trouble and rule infringements. No matter what spin organizers put on their bid, that is a problem. Questions remain, too, over the Greek public’s reaction to the joint effort and after a first-ever European meeting between clubs from the two countries backfired on organizers. Violent scenes marred the first leg of the UEFA Cup tie between Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos in Istanbul, where supporters from both teams responded angrily to a delegation of Greek-Turkish foreign ministers pelting them with yoghurt during a walkabout at pitchside. The clubs decided to ban traveling supporters for the return leg in Athens, which passed off without incident following an unprecedented security operation in November. But the barrage has done little to dampen political support for the effort, with one of its main architects, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, dismissing the incident as minor. «I believe sport will form an important incentive in this new enlarged Europe to enable youth from all over the continent to come together,» he said. UEFA President Lennart Johansson denied reports this week he had said the crowd trouble would damage the bid but said concerns must remain about whether the two could host a trouble-free event.

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