Bad pitch reveals amateur ways

It rates as another one of those amazing stories concerning this country that, unfortunately, are true. In an era when even Third World soccer nations are able to offer top-class playing conditions, we, the reigning European champions, opted for a dump of a ground on which to stage last night’s farewell match for Thodoris Zagorakis, the now-retired player who captained Greece to its Euro 2004 title. Furthermore, we invited Spain, a world-class team whose members are each worth their weight in gold, to take on Greece in this friendly game. The Greek soccer federation was fully aware of the abysmal condition of the pitch at Toumba Stadium, the home ground of Thessaloniki team PAOK, where Zagorakis rose to prominence, moved on, and returned for two final seasons before eventually retiring at the end of last season to take over the club as president. The federation could have opted for other alternatives in Thessaloniki. But, in spite of the quality problems, it insisted on staging the match at Toumba and giving Zagorakis the privilege of bidding soccer fans farewell from the pitch where he established himself. One can’t help but wonder what the consequences would have been had the Spaniards persisted with their initial reservations and refused to play on this pitch. [«What is this? I’ve never seen a pitch like this in all my life, not even when I played as a kid,» Spanish midfielder Joaquin was quoted by Reuters as saying when he stepped onto the ground Tuesday for a training session, which was called off by the visitors amid fears of injuries due to the adverse conditions.] Of course, the fact that the game finally did take place [it was in progress late last night] does not save us from the shame. Besides the embarrassment, this tragicomic story also highlights the fact that no matter how much money Greek clubs have at their disposal for the international transfer market, they will never acquire top-notch foreign players. World-class players are not only concerned about their earnings. Domestic league standards also stand as a major contributing factor to their decisions, and playing conditions make up a crucial part of this aspect. The incident also raises the question of how Toumba Stadium’s pitch became such a mess in the first place. The ground, which was renovated with state funds for the 2004 Olympics – but as far as we recall, was never used – was then left to go to seed. The excuse that PAOK, a financially troubled club in recent years, did not have the money needed for basic maintenance does not stand to reason. The club was able to find the required funds when it came to signing new players last summer, over the previous winter, as well as this summer. In our country, the state provides money and then forgets about developments afterward. The state shows no interest in where the funds eventually go, or whether real, tangible projects have been completed. Does the money go where it should, or does it end up in personal accounts? The state doesn’t seem to care. Like their Spanish colleagues, the Greeks ought to have spoken up when they confronted the poor conditions and demanded a change of venue. Instead, they just mumbled about it among themselves. The Greeks, too, like their Spanish opponents, faced greater risk of injury by playing on such an atrocious pitch. As well-paid professionals, they, too, risked losing plenty. Unfortunately, just like the country’s soccer officials, both in the federation and at the clubs, the Greek national team’s players can be condemned for being amateurs in attitude. And what about Mr Otto Rehhagel, the Greek team’s coach? Did he not consider his team’s crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers just around the corner? Didn’t the poor conditions prompt concern about injuries to his players and make him demand a venue switch?