With the government appearing determined to implement shape-up-or-ship-out measures against debt-ridden professional soccer clubs, the future is beginning to look grim for four first-division sides. At this stage, it seems unlikely that AEK, PAOK, Aris, and Proodeftiki will be able to meet a July 17 deadline imposed by the State. All professional clubs – meaning teams competing in the first, second, and third divisions – must submit documents verifying their financial soundness by that date. Should they fail to do so, or if submitted information is assessed as unsatisfactory, the State says it will relegate them to the amateur fourth division, as part of an overall effort to reshape Greek soccer. Commenting on the impending deadline yesterday, the Greek soccer federation’s chief, Vassilis Gagatsis, indicated that the State was dead serious about implementing the law. «My feeling is that the State will not take any step back from its decisions. The future may be grim,» Gagatsis told state radio ERA Spor yesterday. «The teams needed more time to find ways to service their debts and also to find appropriate investors. Some things have not been implemented for years. How can we expect such important decisions to be implemented in just a few months? There will be big problems. For example, what happens with the Champions League if AEK doesn’t get the (go-ahead to compete in the first division) next season? Laws exist to enforce discipline, not prompt disintegration,» he added. AEK’s third place in the domestic league last season earned the side a berth in Europe’s premier club-level competition, but the team is currently battling for its life – literally. The cash-strapped team, which is struggling to keep its roster of unpaid players intact, was sent reeling further last week when the State’s financial crimes squad, SDOE, stunned it with a 23-million-euro fine for false invoices issued by a former president, Makis Psomiadis. SDOE also decided to withhold 50 percent of the club’s future earnings and freeze half its bank accounts. AEK responded by saying that it will lodge an appeal, but players, all of whom are owed fees, seem to be running out of patience. The club’s most popular player, striker Demis Nikolaidis, seems likely to transfer to French club Paris St Germain, while another star, Vassilis Tsartas, has distanced himself as he waits for developments. Commenting on SuperSpor FM yesterday, AEK defender Michalis Kassapis expressed disappointment and anger over Nikolaidis’s decision to abandon the club during what he described as a difficult period, and to try his luck elsewhere. Nikolaidis is likely to travel to Paris today or tomorrow to finalize negotiations with Paris St Germain. Kassapis said he would remain patient until July 20 when it will be known whether AEK will be able to compete in next season’s first division. «Until then, I’m going to take part in training and will ask the same of my teammates,» Kassapis said. «Let’s remain united like last season. Then we don’t have anything to fear,» the player added. Another financial struggler, PAOK, is losing players by the day. Yiannakis Okkas was recently given permission to leave by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body. Pantelis Kaffes departed yesterday. Both are likely to join champion Olympiakos. Others are also believed to be negotiating their way out. Commenting on the State’s determination to weed out unhealthy elements from Greek soccer, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos backed his deputy, Giorgos Lianis, the government’s top-ranked sporting official: «’Mr Lianis was very clear in his last interview on such matters. The only way to confront the problems of professional soccer is through full and consistent implementation of the law.» Venizelos specifically chided PAOK management for failing to understand the gravity of the situation until recently. «Let’s finish with words and vague promises. The law provides solutions and those who love their team must take over the initiative and own up to their responsibilities. The State has done what it has to do, and more than that,» he told reporters.