SPORTS

League title still ahead says Iraklis coach after Cup win

Spurred by his team’s Greek Cup triumph over Olympiakos on Sunday, the coach of Iraklis volleyball club said the club’s objective was now to also capture this season’s league title. Iraklis is the league’s front-runner, with Olympiakos in second place. It was Iraklis’s second successive Greek Cup win and fourth in the club’s history. «We brought back a title to Thessaloniki, which needed it so much. We’re now looking at the league title, which we also want to bring to Thessaloniki,» said Iraklis coach Alekos Leonis, alluding to the domination of Athens-based clubs in most domestic sporting competition. Iraklis’s comfortable 3-0 win against Olympiakos in Sunday’s Greek Cup final, played in Rethymnon, Crete, came just a week after the Thessaloniki team was deprived of this season’s European Champions League title by French club Tours. Playing in Thessaloniki, Iraklis lost 3-1 in the final. ‘Significant second place’ Even so, Leonis, speaking yesterday following his team’s domestic cup triumph, underlined second place in Europe as a major accomplishment. «We’ve got to realize how significant second place in Europe really is. Of course we wanted top spot, but finishing second is something that no other Thessaloniki club has ever accomplished – in any sport,» noted Leonis. Thessaloniki clubs have won less prestigious European titles, in basketball, in the past, but never reached a final at Champions League level or equivalent events. The Iraklis coach condemned Greek volleyball’s end-of-season playoffs that will determine the title race as unnecessary. «This playoffs system, an extra competition in itself, probably wears out fans. It serves the interest of weaker teams, as they get more cracks at the stronger sides,» Leonis remarked. Meanwhile, Iraklis’s return to Thessaloniki early yesterday morning following Sunday night’s Cup win was tainted by incidents when riot police blocked some 600 fans from entering the city’s airport to greet the victorious squad. Riot police used tear gas to disperse Iraklis fans who, according to Associated Press reports, hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at the forces after being barred airport entry. Authorities reported no injuries or arrests. The club, in a statement released yesterday, described the police action as «unprovoked» and condemned it for spoiling the evening’s «joyous mood» prior to the attacks. A Greek police statement noted that the refusal of its forces to allow Iraklis fans into the airport was based on its usual policy of not permitting large numbers of fans into the airport for security reasons. Some sources, however, suggested that the riot police’s stance may have actually been connected to the coinciding return to Thessaloniki airport by the soccer team of rival Aris club, whose draw against Panathinaikos in Athens was another cause for celebration. Police may have wanted to keep rival club fans at a distance, these sources said. Inexplicable action The club’s president, Nikos Panagopoulos, described the riot police action as inexplicable. «Iraklis fans proved their maturity at the [Champions League] Final Four [tournament]… Really, the police’s stance is inexplicable,» Panagopoulos said. «We went along to celebrate a rare Thessaloniki success, but [the police] proved immature, unprepared, and lacking in imagination in handling this celebration,» Panagopoulos said not long after the trouble broke out. Commenting on his team’s success last weekend, the club boss said the Greek Cup ranked as a second priority for Iraklis. «It was our second objective. We still have ahead of us the league competition, so we’ll make our make our final summary at the end of it all,» Panagopoulos said. «We thank our fans who are constantly with us. They proved how great they are. We’ve got to give them joy,» he added.