SPORTS

Olympiakos players happy, and relieved, after a crucial victory

A day after Olympiakos dominated Panathinaikos rather easily in the touted «match of the year,» morale in the two camps was a total contrast yesterday. Even though Olympiakos has the tougher task – it plays against ninth-placed Xanthi away, while Panathinaikos plays Akratitos, in 12th place, at home – during next Sunday’s final round of the Greek Soccer League’s first division, it is widely assumed in both camps that Olympiakos has clinched an unprecedented seventh straight title, breaking its own record of six straight, set way back in the amateur days of 1954-59. Those were the days when many new acquisitions were rewarded with nothing more than a soft drink. Olympiakos President Socrates Kokkalis has promised to reward each of his players with 40,000 drachmas (117.39 euros) per minute played this season. This would mean, for a player that started in all 30 matches and was never substituted, a bonus of 316,953 euros. Needless to say, the mood among Olympiakos players was triumphant. It was also, however, one of relief, for this year, more than any other, the capacity and desire of Olympiakos’s players was widely questioned – including, most tellingly, by their own fans and Kokkalis. After six straight championship seasons, there was a widespread feeling that this might be the one in which Olympiakos would stumble. AEK was dangerous throughout and, indeed, is considered to have played the best soccer among the title contenders. Panathinaikos, which began the season with three straight defeats, surged past a struggling Olympiakos to grab the lead before the season’s halfway point. Olympiakos performed poorly in Europe and in many domestic matches and went through four coaches: Takis Lemonis, a former player with the club; Yiannis Kollias, a nearly 70-year-old talent scout (an interim appointment); Srecko Katanec, a former coach of Slovenia’s national team; and Oleg Protasov, a star player with the former Soviet Union who had ended his career in Greece. Katanec was sacked soon after, saying that the seventh title had become «an unhealthy obsession» hindering his players’ game. «Olympiakos has players with big personalities who know how to win the games they need to,» striker Stelios Yiannakopoulos said yesterday. Yiannakopoulos, who scored two of Olympiakos’s three goals against Panathinaikos, had more reason than most to be happy. Reportedly wanted by English club Bolton – and, according to Kathimerini sources, by Germany’s Borussia Dortmund – Yiannakopoulos would like nothing better than a new fat contract with Olympiakos. «The president has proven that he keeps the players he wants to,» Yiannakopoulos said. On the losing side, the only certainty is that Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarian will go: a rather unfair ending for a coach who, until Sunday’s game, was undefeated in the Greek league in over 40 matches over two seasons. Last season, he took over a team 12 points behind Olympiakos and turned it into a title contender. His contract was not renewed in the summer, after he lost his cool in a decisive match against Olympiakos. This season, he came again as a replacement, after Panathinaikos’s disastrous start, and put up an even stronger challenge for the title. Even if a miracle happens and Olympiakos stumbles at Xanthi, Panathinaikos’s fans will never forgive the players for the way they lost to their bitter rivals, without putting up even a token fight. This team is ripe for a breakup. The only question is: Will the management go as well?