SPORTS

Soccer season is on, but will fans show up?

It’s soccer season again and one of the most critical aspects that remains to be seen is whether the masses will flock back to stadiums. The days of joyous celebrations and good-natured behavior by fans in the stands seems like something from the distant past, but a flicker of hope did emerge last season. Though the return of fans to games was not spectacular, the slight improvement in attendance figures, as a result of a highly competitive season, came like a kiss of life. The suspense, which was maintained until the very last round of play, certainly encouraged a modest number of fans to return to stadiums. While struggling to tackle its domestic problems, Greek soccer has raised its stakes abroad. In recent seasons, the country has consistently been ranked amid Europe’s top 10, based on points received by clubs in European competition. Last season, Greece climbed up to sixth spot on the official ranking of UEFA, Europe’s governing body for soccer. Greek teams have begun raking in respectable results in European club-level competition, a prime example being Panathinaikos’s run all the way to the quarterfinals of last season’s Champion’s League. But local fans seem unconvinced about whether there is any real substance behind the improved showings. The slight improvement in attendance last season probably had more to do with the exciting title race between Olympiakos, the eventual champion, and AEK. Yet, despite this glimmer of light, Greek teams have actually entered the new season burdened by greater problems than they had anticipated several months ago. The financial woes that have left many sides strapped for cash seem to have deepened, aggravated by the widened crisis being felt throughout Europe. Thessaloniki clubs PAOK and Aris, both of which have been unable to meet the financial obligations of contracts, seem to be the clubs that are the most heavily bogged down. Quite miraculously, both clubs have managed to hold on to key players and, beyond that, to make some decent signings. Financial problems have also been felt elsewhere. Olympiakos essentially steered clear of the transfer market over the summer, while Panathinaikos did make some moves which were nowhere near as impressive as signings made by the club over the past two seasons. AEK acquired players in bundles, all of them modestly priced, though this does not necessarily mean that the signings weren’t good choices. As is always the case in soccer, this will be proven on the ground, where lucrative signings do not always live up to their billing. Importantly, fans seem to have shown understanding for the financial strains being felt by their teams, and, unlike previous years, are not whinging about lackluster interseason transfer deals made by their clubs. The series of preseason friendlies failed to provide a clear picture of where clubs currently stand. The Greek season got off to a fast start this weekend, to help members of the national team prepare for the opening Euro 2004 qualifying match against Spain in Athens on September 7. Though still early to say, Olympiakos, seeking its seventh consecutive title, looks to be in the poorest shape among the league’s title contenders. Panathinaikos also requires time, as does AEK.