In high-stakes season for Greek soccer Panathinaikos sees path to Champions League with AEK Athens

In high-stakes season for Greek soccer Panathinaikos sees path to Champions League with AEK Athens

Success in Greek soccer is often weighed down by off-the-field controversy. This time it’s the killing of a fan in Athens.

Panathinaikos owner Giannis Alafouzos missed being in France to see his team eliminate former European champion Marseille from the Champions League on Tuesday – its biggest game in more than a decade.

He and leaders of other clubs were due to meet with the prime minister of Greece and the president of UEFA at a crisis meeting the next morning in Athens concerning organized violence in soccer, Alafouzos told the Associated Press in an telephone interview on Thursday.

Stellar results in recent Champions League qualifying games for Panathinaikos and AEK Athens should have set the stage for rival Olympiakos hosting Manchester City’s victory over Sevilla on Wednesday in the UEFA Super Cup.

Instead, a pall was cast over it all. The AEK fan was killed last week in street clashes with Dinamo Zagreb ultras who already were barred from the game scheduled one day later because of expected disorder.

A minor diplomatic spat with Croatia followed as Greek authorities detained dozens of Croatian nationals on charges of murder and membership of a criminal gang.

In this heated climate, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was diverted before the Super Cup to meet Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, later joined by owners of Greece’s four biggest clubs, for talks on how to deal with the violence.

It already was an important season in Greece with Athens hosting two of UEFA’s four marquee finals in men’s club soccer: the Super Cup and the Europa Conference League final on May 29 at AEK’s stadium, near where the fatal clash happened.

Athens could be under even more scrutiny with AEK and Panathinaikos well on track to give Greece two teams in the elite 32-team Champions League group stage for the first time in 16 seasons.

“There is definitely a sense of unity,” Alafouzos said of the government-led talks involving his club, AEK, Olympiakos and PAOK from the northern city of Thessaloniki.

Still, there is skepticism 11 years after he first entered top-level soccer: “I have been disappointed many times in Greece so I don’t dare be very hopeful.”

The unity should extend off the field as success for Panathinaikos and AEK in the Champions League – or subsequently in the second-tier Europa League – will raise Greece in UEFA’s ranking of national leagues that decides entries in future seasons.

“We have dropped so much in the rankings and it’s very, very difficult to move ahead in Europe,” Alafouzos said.

Greece is currently No. 19 and next season has just one team in qualifying rounds for the expanded 36-team Champions League.

AEK hosts Dinamo on Saturday for a delayed second leg after a 2-1 win Tuesday in Zagreb. The winner starts a two-game playoff next Tuesday against Belgian champion Royal Antwerp.

Panathinaikos, runner-up in the Greek league last season, has eliminated Dnipro-1 of Ukraine, then Marseille and starts its playoff Wednesday in Portugal against Braga.

Guaranteed 5 million euros in UEFA prize money from the playoff round, Panathinaikos bought Brazilian midfielder Willian Arão from Fenerbahce on Thursday. Panathinaikos will also move the home leg against Braga to the Olympic Stadium with room for about 65,000 fans.

With a budget of 40 million euros, Alafouzos said, European revenue is huge for a club with historical success but little or no future in the kind of Super League some top clubs want.

Panathinaikos was the European Cup beaten finalist in 1971, against Ajax, a semifinalist in 1985, then in 1996 after the Champions League rebrand. A tough-luck loss to Barcelona in the 2002 quarterfinals is its best effort since as a wealth and competitiveness gap widened across soccer.

“If we are building back we are just starting now from a very low point,” Alafouzos acknowledged.

Investment from American owners now common at clubs in England, Italy and France – including in Marseille, by former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt – has not reached Greece, yet.

“It is coming, also for Greece,” suggests Alafouzos, whose business interests include shipping and media. “I have limits to the amount of things I can do.” [AP]

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