SPORTS

Panathinaikos hires coach

Panathinaikos, still reeling from its failure to win this season’s league title after the club led most of the way before being toppled from top spot with just two rounds to go, has made a surprise choice for its selection of a new coach – Israeli Itzhak Shum, until now coach of Maccabi Haifa. He will replace Uruguayan Sergio Markarian, who resigned. No details regarding the deal have yet been released. Shum, 54, who led his former club to a win and a draw against Olympiakos in this season’s Champions League, returned to Israel yesterday after negotiations were completed and is due back today for his official presentation to local media. He also intends to watch the national Greek team’s crucial Euro 2004 qualifier against Ukraine on June 11 for a closer look at some of his new squad’s players as well as the stars of other league clubs. Expecting a more high-profile signing after a seven-year drought without a league title, the majority of Panathinaikos fans seem to have reacted with surprise, dismay, even mockery, at their administration’s choice of new coach. «We will support him to the death,» club official Velimir Zajec, a former player at the club, told state radio ERA Spor, sensing the negative climate prompted by the signing. Zajec admitted that Greek-Serb coach Dusan Bajevic of AEK was the Panathinaikos administration’s first choice. But Bajevic, without a doubt Greek soccer’s most successful coach over the past 15 years, declared himself unavailable as signs of recovery begin to emerge at cash-strapped AEK. Noting the club’s reasons for selecting Shum, Zajec said the Israeli coach was chosen out of many candidates because of his all-round ability and, more importantly, ambition and eagerness to work. Zajec, commenting on state radio, described Shum as an individual closely bound to soccer, an excellent trainer and good team manager. He pointed out that Shum is a firm believer in discipline who also likes to implement attacking game plans. Zajec also praised Shum’s communication skills, saying that the club’s new coach knew how to get close to players and also to keep a distance, if needed. A team is better off hiring a coach with ambition and appetite for work than a high profile figure hidden behind a big name. «It’s my honor to work with a major European team. It’s an offer every coach dreams of. I know about Greek soccer and Panathinaikos. I’m ready to respond to the demands,» Shum told reporters. On his trip back to Israel yesterday, Shum took with him a considerable number of video cassettes containing footage of club games. He is expected to decide on the team’s transfer needs for the new season in a few days.