Rivaldo responds to skeptics with a fine season in Greece

If there were doubts about the motives behind Rivaldo’s move to Olympiakos last summer, the Brazilian dispelled them with a series of superb performances which helped secure a league and cup double for the Piraeus club. The former Deportivo, Barcelona and AC Milan playmaker, who won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, arrived in Athens hoping to revive a career faltering through injury. Some skeptics said he had only come for the money but he has played so well that even Pele said this month that he saw no reason why Rivaldo should not be on Brazil’s 2006 World Cup squad. His tally of 12 league goals, including the decisive strike in the 1-0 win over Iraklis on Wednesday which sealed the title, and one glorious strike in the 3-0 cup final win over Aris, were rewards for his consistency. His impact off the field has also been telling, with the sale of shirts bearing his name soaring. Last year’s champions Panathinaikos and AEK pushed Olympiakos to the limit, with all three in contention for the title going into the final round of matches. Off the field, Panathinaikos sacked two coaches during the season, Yitzhak Shum and Zdenek Scasny, before settling on former Parma boss Alberto Malesani. But Fanis Gekkas, their mid-season signing from Kallithea, proved a masterstroke and he ended the season as top goal-scorer, as well as breaking into the national team. AEK was happy just to remain in existence after financial difficulties in the off-season led to the exit of five top players, including Greece captain Theodoros Zagorakis, and the takeover of the club by a consortium led by former player Demis Nikolaidis. AEK survived The club escaped liquidation through Article 44, which legally allowed them to write off a large part of their estimated 100-million-euro debt, and under Portuguese coach Fernando Sanchez finished third, three points behind Olympiakos. They will compete in next season’s UEFA Cup. Nikolaidis’s push to have a family section at AEK’s home matches at the Olympic Stadium did much to curb potential trouble but elsewhere the season was marred by crowd violence. At various stages in the season Olympiakos and Panathinaikos were both ordered to play behind closed doors. In one incident in January, the match between Panionios and Olympiakos had to be postponed shortly before kickoff because of fighting among fans. The worst incident came in the penultimate round of the season when Aris fans invaded the pitch and attacked two Iraklis players, both of whom needed hospital treatment. The match, which had to be abandoned, was awarded to Iraklis and Aris, docked three points, was duly relegated.