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Soccer rivalry heating up rapidly

The perennial rivalry between the country’s two biggest soccer clubs, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos (no favors here, that’s in alphabetical order), is intensifying as the two sides prepare to meet in the Greek first division’s second-last round four weeks from now in a clash that will probably determine the season’s title. With five rounds of play remaining, the two sides have broken away from the rest of the pack. Front runner Panathinaikos leads Olympiakos by a single point. However, the escalating tension has little to do with the excitement of goodwilled fans as their sides approach the finish line neck-and-neck. It is far more deep-rooted, and, unfortunately, involves the administration of both sides in what appears likely to descend into an exchange of below-the-belt strikes as the vital encounter approaches. On Sunday, Olympiakos’s president, Socrates Kokkalis, a telecommunications mogul, told a meeting of the club’s fans in Patras, western Greece, that Panathinaikos needed to constantly hackle the referee in a recent away game against Ioannina. The sides drew 0-0, but Panathinaikos needed to struggle to walk away with a draw. «We saw this great side protest continuously at the referee in Ioannina. But they’re chickens in Europe. We want a fair competition in which the best team wins, because we have the better team,» Kokkalis told the club’s Patras-based fans, sounding more like a hooligan than a club president. Neutral observers attributed this outburst to efforts being made by Kokkalis to sign up Olympiakos fans as dues-paying club members. Olympiakos’s president has pledged to turn the soccer team into the one with the biggest number of club members worldwide, exceeding even Real Madrid and Manchester United. Several weeks ago, the Piraeus team’s administration, suspecting unfavorable treatment, had made an effort to oust referee Kyros Vassaras from the league. Vassaras is the only Greek referee to have been chosen for the World Cup finals, by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, last year. Just days ago, Angelos Filippidis, Panathinaikos president, called for the detraction of two referees from his club’s games. He lodged an official application to the Refereeing Central Committee. Panathinaikos maintained a restrained stance following Kokkalis’s remarks Sunday with a laconic statement in which the club said it did not wish to engage itself with Kokkalis’s provocative language.