The national team, Panathinaikos and AEK are all looking for somewhere to call their own.
By Lou Economppoulos in Athens
Otto Rehhagel’s heroes of 2004 may have stunned the sporting world with their shock victory at the European Championship, but more recent performances have left Greece’s national side struggling to win over the country’s football followers.
Greek fans have become spoiled and hard to please since that triumph in Portugal five years ago. With coach Rehhagel keeping the core of the squad intact, and refusing for the
most part to bring in new blood, some lacklustre displays over the last few years have seen supporters getting restless – so much so that they have even managed to evict the national team from the Karaiskakis Stadium, which was previously thought of as their permanent home.
Poor attendance figures and booing from sections of the crowd led to Rehhagel and his players asking the country’s football federation for a change in venue, and the crucial World Cup qualifier against Israel on April 1 was played on the island of Crete. But while the Pankritio Stadium in Heraklion, which is used by the island’s Super League sides OFI and Ergotelis, has enjoyed enthusiastic support for the national side in the past, it only has a capacity of 26,400.
The team have also used the vast Athens Olympic Stadium, the far smaller Kaftanzoglio Stadium in Salonica and the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium in Athens, but attracting big crowds has always been a problem.
“The stadium should be full every time the national team plays, regardless of whether it is friendly or competitive. It is very important for players to have the fans by their side,” said Sokratis Papastathopoulos, the Genoa defender who played for Greece in a friendly against Italy at Karaiskakis Stadium when only 8,000 turned up at the 32,000-seat venue.
Veteran Giorgos Karagounis of Panathinaikos, who has more than 80 caps for his country, admits: “For me, the most painful thing is the stadium not to be full.
“Generally the national team does not sell in Greece. All the players agree that the games should take place outside the Athens area. The Greek national team have never had any real supporters. People were forced to react to our Euro 2004 triumph. We all knew that with our first loss things would be the same once again.”
A lack of support is one thing Panathinaikos and AEK have no trouble with, but they do have another problem: neither have a permanent base to house their fans.
For the last few seasons the two clubs have been sharing the Olympic Stadium. AEK demolished its old Nikos Goumas stadium in the Athens suburb of Nea Filadelfia in 2003, while Panathinaikos cannot use their Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium because it no longer meets international requirements and will soon be razed (to be replaced by a park).
The municipality of Athens has given land to Panathinaikos to built a new stadium in the district of Votanikos and will partly pay for a new 40,000-seat sports complex in return for the plot of land on which the old stadium stands. But building work was halted last year after local residents took legal action against the construction of a mall, which was to be part of the stadium project, citing environmental concerns.
The construction of the shopping centre is essential as its commercial operation will cover some of the funds required to execute the project which, currently budgeted at around £90million, is expected to take 19 months to complete – once the bulldozers begin work again.
As for AEK, on September 6, 2007, a memorandum of cooperation was signed – by the government and the club – that outlined details of a development project for the construction of a new stadium in the Athens suburb of Ano Liosia. The government promised to provide for public land and access infrastructure, while the club would deal with the financing of the project.
Although the memorandum referred to the construction of a 50,000-capacity stadium, details such as cost and naming rights are still not forthcoming. And because of legal delays in getting this project off the ground, there is now talk that AEK would like to build on the site of their old stadium, which is still owned by the club.
New AEK president Nikos Thanopoulos met with construction officials and Stavros Kontos, mayor of Nea Filadelfia, in March to discuss plans for a 32,000-seat stadium and the mayor said no objections would be made, so long as the club followed local regulations.
Maybe, at long last, there are finally some grounds for optimism among at least one set of fans in the capital.