Olympics legacy revives Greek football league

Athens’s brand-new Olympic stadiums draw Greek football fans in droves, stirring hopes that the country’s hooligan-ridden, fan-deserted league can win its frustrated aficionados back. Major Athens club AEK issued nearly 50,000 tickets for its match against bitter rival Olympiakos Piraeus in the OAKA Olympic stadium tomorrow. This is more than the bankrupt club sold over the entire season last year. In one of the few post-Games usage deals for the Greek capital’s extravagant Olympic venues signed so far, the club will call the 70,000-seat, state-owned OAKA its home over the next two years. The deal immediately paid off. AEK sold more than 33,000 tickets and cashed gross receipts of almost 450,000 euros in its first OAKA appearance against smallish Athens rival Kallithea on October 23. Fans have already bought 17,000 full-year tickets. Crosstown rival Olympiakos Piraeus is also cashing in on the city’s Olympic dividend. The club has been reporting full houses ever since returning to its state-owned home Karaiskaki Stadium, which was rebuilt from scratch to host part of the Olympics football tournament. Olympiakos sold 33,000 tickets for its Wednesday Champions League match against AS Monaco. Even a Greek cup match against third-league dwarf Veria attracted 20,000 a few weeks earlier. The Greek state has leased out Karaiskaki to Olympiakos until 2053. First-league rookie Ergotelis, from the southern island of Crete, has also been attracting above-average crowds in its brand-new Olympic Pankrition Stadion the team has been using since September. The new glitzy pitches, and to a lesser degree Greeks’ newfound enthusiasm for football after their national squad’s sensational triumph in July’s Euro 2004 in Portugal, have been widely credited for the national league’s emerging revival. According to official figures, total ticket sales after Round 5 of the championship reached 264,351, compared with 123,879 by the same time last year. The Greek government aims at reaching similarly successful leasing deals for the some 35 remaining Olympics venues in order to cover their maintenance costs, estimated to add up to 110 million euros a year. According to OAKA officials, AEK pays out 15 percent of gross ticket receipts and an unidentified part of advertising revenues to the stadium’s management. OAKA’s slice of revenues rises when ticket sales exceed the 10,000 mark. «It’s a start. We believe it’s a good contract,» Kyriakos Yiannopoulos, a senior OAKA manager, told AFP. But it is unclear how far the deal will help the Greek state recover the stadium’s running costs. «We don’t know yet how high maintenance costs will be because the stadium runs under different conditions and requirements than during the August Olympics,» Yiannopoulos said. «Much depends on how AEK will fare in the UEFA cup,» he added. The deal will be of little use if AEK goes bankrupt. With reported debt of 163 million euros, AEK is deeper in the red than any other team in Greece’s notoriously cash-starved football league. The club is currently in court to have a large part of its debt canceled. Hooliganism, an endemic disease in Greece’s football league, is a constant threat to AEK’s shining new facade. To avoid riots, AEK and Olympiakos agreed that no Olympiakos fan clubs will be allowed entry to the Olympic stadium in tomorrow’s game. «Police forces wouldn’t be assuming responsibility for the match otherwise,» an AEK spokesman told AFP: «Too many spare parts from dismantled Olympic fit-outs still lie around the stadium. Rioting fans could hurl them against each other,» he added. «AEK will be held responsible for any riot damages in the stadium,» Yiannopoulos said.