Cash-strapped Greek soccer set for new season

Champion Olympiakos starts its title defense at Thessaloniki when the 30-round Greek first-division league kicks off this weekend. Olympiakos plays PAOK on Sunday in the opening round’s most important game. The Piraeus club clinched its seventh consecutive title last season. But it was blasted by supporters after an early exit in the last Champions League. Olympiakos’s archrival Panathinaikos, which finished second last season, will host provincial club Xanthi. AEK plays at Aegaleo on Saturday. Between them, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos or AEK have shared the league crown in the 16-team first division for the last 15 years running. And this season is not likely to be any different. But there are factors off the pitch weighing heavily on some top clubs. Teams including AEK, PAOK and crosstown Aris face serious administrative and financial problems. They resulted from the September 2002 collapse of the Alpha digital pay-TV channel, which broadcast the games. The collapse cost the clubs an estimated 35 million euros in annual revenue. Poor ticket sales, hurt by lackluster performances and fan violence, have deepened the crisis. Lack of cash also led several Greek players to seek a new club abroad. The most important departures included AEK’s former star striker Demis Nikolaidis to Spain’s Atletico Madrid and midfielder Giorgos Karagounis from Panathinaikos to Internazionale Milan. (AP)