Soccer fans return after lean years

Though it is still too early in the season to make forecasts with total certainty, attendance figures for Greek soccer appear to be rebounding following years of dismal turnouts. The national team’s astonishing triumph in Portugal last summer appears to have sparked renewed interest in the game here after years of public apathy due to various factors including rampant hooliganism, administrative corruption and poor play. Highlighting the revival are the Greek 16-team first division’s official attendance figures after five rounds of play, reportedly at 258,369 compared to a mere 684,549 for the entire season last year. Judging by current developments, the sharp upward trend looks likely to continue. Olympiakos, one of the country’s two biggest clubs in terms of popularity and success, is luring capacity crowds to its reconstructed home ground, Karaiskaki Stadium, both for domestic and European commitments. The Piraeus club has already sold out for Saturday’s domestic encounter against Thessaloniki rival PAOK, while all tickets for Wednesday’s vital Champions League clash against Monaco have also vanished. Cash-strapped AEK, the Greek league’s surprise front runner, which is hosting its games at the revamped Olympic Stadium, is drawing big crowds on the strength of its impressive record this season. Defending champion Panathinaikos is maintaining five-digit figures at its modestly sized home ground. Apart from Greek soccer’s traditional big guns, several smaller clubs are also making considerable contributions to attendance figures. Newly promoted Cretan club Ergotelis has averaged 8,901 fans per home game, the league’s fourth-highest figure. Other provincial teams generating considerable ticket sales are Xanthi, now equal second in the standings, newly promoted Kerkyra from Corfu, and OFI. All three are packing fans in for home games and would probably be generating even larger turnouts if their stadiums had the capacity.