Feeling robbed of their club

Hundreds of fans as well as many veteran players of second-division soccer club Ilisiakos staged a rally in the eastern Athens district of Zografou yesterday to protest against what they call the «usurping» of their club. The issue has even been referred to FIFA, the game’s world governing body, as the government has appeared unable to resolve the problem of the club’s forced merger with Aegaleo. Ilisiakos is an historic club (founded in 1927), the only major team representing the densely populated neighborhoods of Ilisia and Zografou. It is at Zografou that the club had been playing its home games from 1975 to earlier this year; the area is also close to the University of Athens and therefore has a steady flow of young fans supporting it. New owner Thomas Mitropoulos, who is also the main shareholder of third-division sides Aegaleo and Haidari in western Athens, acquired a majority stake in Ilisiakos last summer and suddenly stated his intention to merge the club with Aegaleo and move it to the west of the capital. When the fans and the amateur division of Ilisiakos countered that this would amount to Mitropoulos robbing them of their club, the owner gave them an October 31 deadline to find a new buyer, otherwise he would proceed with the merger. Ilisiakos signed players and a coach (Giorgos Hatzaras) who had contracts with Mitropoulos’s teams in the past, paving the way for the merger from the summer. The team began playing its home games away from its traditional ground at Zografou for fear of a reaction from the Ilisiakos fans against their own team. Deprived of its fans, the club kept dropping points both at home and away. In September, Ilisiakos hosted Pierikos at Ilioupolis, another eastern Athens district, and the club had given clear instructions to the police to refuse entry to home fans. There was a handful of Pierikos fans who enjoyed their club’s 2-3 win, but attention shifted outside the ground to the clashes between Ilisiakos fans and the police. Soon the team went on to shed its traditional yellow and black colors as well as its crescent, wearing instead a blue jersey with a white vertical line, the colors of Aegaleo. To confirm the gradual shift it started playing its home games at Aegaleo, too, but without the support of Ilisiakos fans or Aegaleo fans, who have also turned their back on their own team in the third division, as they too are at loggerheads with Mitropoulos. When the deadline expired without any buyers being found, Mitropoulos announced the renaming of the club from Ilisiakos Sports Club to ISC Aegaleo, to the fury of the club’s fans. The Zografou Municipality and the amateur division called for the government’s intervention, but the general secretary for sports, Stavros Douvis, said there was little he could do about it. They then referred the issue to FIFA and are now awaiting its response. EEA summoning Last Friday the Professional Sports Commission (EEA) summoned Mitropoulos to explain why Ilisiakos is playing without a crescent on its jersey. He is set to appear tomorrow in front of the commission. «Ilisiakos has been writing history for 82 years and we intend to safeguard it,» was the message of last night’s protest organizers who rallied fans at Terzaki Square in Zografou. Their plight is somewhat similar to that of Wimbledon FC in England: The club’s owner decided for business reasons to move the club from West London to Milton Keynes in central England, a move completed earlier this decade. The Dons fans responded by setting up their own club, AFC Wimbledon, which started from the ninth tier of English soccer while the Milton Keynes Dons, as the owner renamed the club, was in the third tier. AFC Wimbledon has since moved up to the sixth tier. A banner at last night’s Ilisiakos supporters’ rally read, «Better to be in the local league than sidekicks of Thomas [Mitropoulos].» If the worst comes to the worst for Ilisiakos fans and they see their club taken away from them for good, they hope that the amateur division of the club will be able to set up a new soccer team that will one day play and beat ISC Aegaleo.