SPORTS

Soccer fans look to a brighter 2002

For local soccer fans, the last year offered little in the way of surprises. The national team launched its latest effort to build a respectable side; the Under-21s continued their string of successes with a place in the Europeans; Olympiakos captured its fifth consecutive domestic league title before collapsing early in the Champions League; Panathinaikos advanced to the competition’s second phase in triumphant fashion but now faces an uphill battle after a poor start; current league leader AEK seems to have risen from the dead after several mediocre seasons; PAOK broke a long dry spell to win its first title – the Greek Cup – in 16 years; and the national league was trimmed to 14 professional teams. Admittedly, these events did provide some joy, but, ultimately, failed to convince one of a brighter future in Greek soccer despite the fact that Greece is now ranked sixth in UEFA’s ranking system, a position that entitles the country to field an increased number of teams in European club competition. The national side’s continued disappointment was attributed to its recently fired coach, Vassilis Daniil, while his successor, Otto Rehhagel of Germany, has been given the job of breathing new life into an otherwise sluggish side. In his debut, the national team awarded Rehhagel with an encouragingly scoreless draw in a friendly match against Russia in Moscow. But, soon afterward, Greece got the cold-shower treatment in the form of a 5-1 smearing against Finland in a World Cup qualifier. The result completely wiped out Greece’s slim chances for a finals berth. But in its last qualifier, Greece rebounded to draw 2-2 against England at Old Trafford after David Beckham equalized from a free kick seconds before the final whistle to hand his side its place in this summer’s World Cup final in Japan and South Korea. Compensating for the seniors, and offering hope for the future, the Under-21s earned their place in the European finals after eliminating group favorite Germany and defeating Turkey in sudden-death, home-and-away encounters for the coveted berth. At club level, it was a bittersweet year for Olympiakos. Celebrations over its fifth successive domestic league title were cut short after the team’s Champions League aspirations ended abruptly when the Greek champion failed to make it past the first phase. The 4-2 loss in the Greek Cup final against PAOK also saddened fans. Olympiakos’s signing of French international Christian Karembeu served as a transfer highlight for the club. For many, Grigoris Georgatos’s return to Inter Milan, the mighty Italian club he left prematurely after feeling homesick, was a lucrative transfer deal for the side. The transfer fee was substantial – by Greek standards – but the player has so far failed to make as great an impact as he did the first time around. In contrast, Zissis Vryzas, another Greek player signed to an Italian club, has continued his productive run with Perugia. Panathinaikos topped the preseason transfer hype with its signing of Cypriot striker Michalis Constantinou from the Thessaloniki-based club Iraklis. Everything began wonderfully for Panathinaikos in Europe with six consecutive Champions League wins for a place in the competition’s second phase, but modest performances since have seriously dented the side’s chances for further advancement. Amid the disappointment, the Greek team’s coach, Yiannis Kyrastas, and and its star Portuguese signee, Paolo Sousa, both ended their tenures with Panathinaikos. Front runner AEK’s re-emergence as a formidable side came as a pleasant surprise. After much controversy surrounding the club’s change of ownership, one of the country’s shadier figures in the sport’s administrative and business sectors, Makis Psomiadis, finally took the reins to take his side from strength to strength! With its Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos, at the helm, AEK is leading the way in the domestic league, and, so far, has trounced opponents in the UEFA Cup. AEK will now face Inter this February, when the competition resumes after the customary winter break. Strangely enough, the prices of game tickets have skyrocketed for the 14-team competition whose showing is hardly enticing for fans, who, incidentally, seem to be gradually returning to the stands after years of abstinence because of rampant hooliganism. What is the underlying concept of the work?