Soccer in Olympics’ shadow

The Greek soccer season kicks off tomorrow in the shadow of intense Olympic preparations with most of the country’s large stadiums closed for repairs. Fans could find tickets hard to come by for top matches this season as the leading lights have been forced to share grounds with smaller clubs while venues are being renovated for 2004’s Olympic soccer tournament. Champions League hopefuls Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK have all sought temporary homes, none of which seat more than 16,000. The worst hit is AEK which could be homeless until the 2005 season. Work on its Nikos Goumas Stadium was stopped on Wednesday after the Greek high court backed local council objections to the stadium expansion. Olympiakos will share with second division Apollon at the Rizoupoli ground until the newly renovated Karaiskaki Stadium in Piraeus is ready for the start of next season. Panathinaikos will remain at the crumbling Alexandras Avenue stadium in the city center, along with AEK, while talks with the State continue over several proposed new sites for a modern stadium of its own. Transfer activity has been restricted mainly to free signings with the fallout from last year’s collapse of satellite broadcasters Alpha Digital still being keenly felt. The Athens clubs remain title favorites, while UEFA Cup-bound PAOK have released seven players. The Thessaloniki team is still looking for a financial backer after businessman George Batatoudis’s recent exit. Both AEK and Olympiakos profited from PAOK’s firesale. The champions picked up Greek international midfielders Giorgos Georgiadis and Pantelis Kafes on free transfers, while PAOK’s leading scorer, Yiannakis Okkas, signed with AEK for a nominal fee. The main coaching change comes to last year’s runners-up Panathinaikos, who have drafted in Israeli Itzhak Shum, formerly of Maccabi Haifa, whose arrival was followed by nine low-key signings. New President Argyros Mitsis has promised to deliver the championship after a seven-year wait. «Our only aim is to win the league,» he told reporters after unveiling their acquisitions. But the new-look team has suffered a miserable pre-season, losing four consecutive friendlies and prompting local media to question the release of striker Nikos Liberopoulos. Last year’s top scorer and club captain was signed by local rivals AEK after finishing a three-year contract for last season’s UEFA Cup quarter-finalists. The new season will be notable, as much for absent friends as new faces after three of Greece’s top players left for England, Italy and Spain. Panathinaikos midfielder Giorgos Karagounis signed a two-year deal at Inter Milan, AEK striker Demis Nikolaidis ended a seven-year association with the Athens club to move to Atletico Madrid and Olympiakos’s top scorer Stelios Yiannakopoulos took a free transfer to join Bolton. The growing foreign legion reflects the national team’s improved standing as it seems set for a place in next year’s Euro 2004 championship in Portugal. Greece’s victories over Spain and Ukraine in the previous two rounds have given the side Group 6’s edge. Greece leads, a point ahead of Spain with two games remaining, against lowly Armenia and Northern Ireland.