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Five-way title race tempts Greek crowds

© Reuters 2002

By Daniel Howden

ATHENS, Feb 28 (Reuters) - With the battle for the Greek league title shaping up to be one of the best in living memory soccer stadiums all over the country are witnessing something almost unseen since the 1980s - crowds.

Only five points divide the top five sides in the 14-team league with nine rounds remaining. The prospect of a photo finish for the title appears to have spurred supporters to abandon their armchairs in favour of live matches.

Big-spending Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus have won the last five consecutive league titles with only an occasional challenge from Athens rivals Panathinaikos.

But this season the championship has refused to follow the script with big-name sides losing points to the minnows and regional team Skoda Xanthi enjoying their best ever campaign. AEK Athens are currently the surprise leaders, followed by Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, Xanthi and PAOK Salonika.

Attendances in Greece have experienced a steady decline over the last decade with first division games routinely attracting fewer than 500 fans. A damaging cocktail of poor facilities, hooliganism and questions over refereeing standards combined with the arrival of subscription television to empty grounds.

An attempt by the Greek government to intervene in the running of the game last year resulted in a clash with football's world governing body FIFA, who came close to expelling the national team from the World Cup. An 11th-hour compromise was forged with FIFA president Sepp Blatter in Geneva, in June. The subsequent reorganisation of the Greek football association (EPO) as well as reforms to the referees' body are now starting to pay dividends.

New EPO chief Vassilis Gagatsis was this week invited by FIFA to sit on the international refereeing tribunal and Greece are bidding, with Turkey, to host Euro 2008.

SOCCER-MAD GREEKS
Interest in the game itself among Greece's population of close to 11 million has never dimmed, as evidenced by a European record 12 broadsheet sports newspapers on sale across the country.

European competition continued to fill seats in Athens and Thessaloniki but interest in local fixtures had been confined to a handful of traditional local derbies.

Not so this season. Third-placed Panathinaikos, for example, are regularly playing in front of full houses for the first time since returning to their city centre Leoforos ground two year ago.

"The competitive edge in the championship is playing a role, we are averaging 90 percent of capacity and this is happening at a lot of clubs not just the major teams," said club spokesman Manolis Grigorakis. While Panathinaikos' bid for their first title in six years is helping to tempt supporters back to live games, rivals Olympiakos are seeing attendances climb despite disappointing results.

A failed bid to make it beyond the first phase of the Champions' League and a dip in their dominant league form appears only to have restoked domestic passions.

"The championship is more competitive than any other season and five teams are still in it," said Olympiakos spokesman Yiannis Moralis.

The Piraeus club have switched broadcasters to newcomers Alpha Digital, who have fewer subscribers, and this has helped to fuel a 42 percent rise in ticket sales.

"With fewer people able to watch the games live on television, more are coming to the stadium," he said.

HOME AND AWAY
Across town at leaders AEK Athens, the Nikos Goumas stadium has been filling for home matches and increasing numbers of fans are travelling to away matches.

Supporters are so keen to follow the league leaders around the country that rows have broken out over ticket allocations for away fans.

Greek Cup holders PAOK Salonika took more than 7,000 followers to the Olympic Stadium for a recent clash with Olympiakos. Fourth-placed Xanthi, meanwhile, have seen a 50 percent increase in tickets sold from last season.

Many observers believe that referees, the traditional target of the terraces, have played their part in rekindling fans' interest.

"Most people believe in the results this season and there is clearly an improvement in refereeing standards," said Panathinaikos' Grigorakis.

"The credibility of the championship has been restored this season," agreed a Xanthi official. Greek match official Kyros Vassaras has been rewarded for his consistent refereeing with a spot at this year's World Cup.

He has acquired star status in Greece since being invited to become the first Greek to referee at the World Cup finals, hosting his own television show on football issues.

Reports provided by

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