SPORTS

All is calm ahead of Euro 2004

Just weeks ahead of the Euro 2004 kickoff in Portugal, two of the national team’s star players, Demis Nikolaidis and Vassilis Tsiartas, managed to settle their differences yesterday, reports said, following a dispute stemming from problems at the first-division AEK club where the two played together until last season. On Wednesday, AEK player Vassilis Tsiartas blamed former teammate Demis Nikolaidis, currently with Atletico Madrid, as being responsible for an invasion of the Athens club’s training ground on Wednesday by about 150 fans, which led to damage and injuries, after Nikolaidis withdrew a takeover bid for the ailing club. Nikolaidis, who moved to Spain last summer, has spearheaded a group of investors for months in a sustained effort to acquire his former team, where he remains an immensely popular figure among fans. The takeover negotiations derailed earlier this week after AEK players refused to accept massive pay cuts, which, Nikolaidis said, invalidated his investment plan. Following the incidents – during which fans keen on Nikolaidis’s takeover plan stormed AEK’s training ground in Thrakomakedones, on the capital’s northwestern outskirts, assaulted players and journalists and smashed up six players’ cars – Tsiartas blamed Nikolaidis as the instigator. Furthermore, the AEK player, who has filed charges for damages caused by the incident, publicly questioned how he would manage being a co-member of the Greek squad with Nikolaidis at the upcoming Euro 2004 competition. The feud emerged as a threat to the national team’s solidarity of late – since German coach Otto Rehhagel’s takeover of the undisciplined side two years ago – which helped Greece top its tough Euro 2004 qualifying group which included star-studded Spain. Domestic strife, less than a month away from Greece’s first Euro 2004 game on June 12 against hosts Portugal in the tournament’s opener, is the last thing Rehhagel needs to confront. Following Nikolaidis’s initiative to contact Tsiartas by telephone yesterday, the two players spoke extensively and settled their differences, reports said. Afterward, Tsiartas noted that the two had decided to join efforts in seeking the culprits of Wednesday’s trouble. In a recent indication of how desperate AEK’s financial situation is, FIFA, soccer’s governing body, threatened to take extreme disciplinary action against the club if it did not settle outstanding debts to three former players who have taken legal action. Nikolaidis, during his investment team’s efforts to takeover AEK, noted that the club’s total debt currently stood at just over 18 million euros, not 7.8 million as was previously understood. Under FIFA regulations, clubs unable to maintain financial order may be relegated to amateur competition. The club’s majority shareholder, British firm ENIC, recently boosted its stake in AEK to 72 percent with the aim of financially restructuring the troubled club before selling out.