Football unable to sweeten bitter pill of Greek crisis

A government crisis and never-ending protests have taken their toll on Greek morale. And Friday’s friendly football match with Russia has done little to take Greeks’ minds off their problems.

Greece has grabbed headlines around the world over the last few weeks for all the wrong reasons. Its economy is in freefall, and even sport has not escaped the effects of the crisis. Football is no exception.

Sport has had an unerring ability to give this football and basketball-mad country something to cheer about. Greece has always been at the forefront of European club football and basketball competitions. However, leading teams such as Panathinaikos and Olympiakos are finding it more and more difficult to hold onto their best players.

One such example is Milos Teodosic. The Serbian point guard had been the heartbeat of Olympiakos for four years, but during the summer he moved to CSKA Moscow, as his former club couldn’t afford him.

“The Janakopoulos brothers own Olympiakos, the basketball club, while the football side Olympiakos was run by the billionaire Kokolis. These teams were their toys and they pumped their money into them before the financial crisis,” explains local journalist Kirill Zangalis.

“But now even they don't want to spend their money. The Angelopulos brothers wanted to quit supporting Panathinaikos but, after fan riots, they decided to not to leave the club in this situation,” he adds.

The Greek love of sport goes back centuries – even millennia. The country has given so much to sport that one could even say it helped invent the principle of organized competitions, with the first-ever Olympics held in Olympia in 776 BC, while the country would also hold the first ever modern Olympics in 1896.

However latterly, sport has been struggling to retain its attraction for a people jaded by the country’s ong-running and corrosive recession. A modest crowd of only 15,000 is expected to watch a friendly game against Russia on Friday, but the small turnout has little to do with the current economic situation.

“After winning Euro 2004, the national side is something really special for the Greeks. But the club culture is much more developed. And the rivalry between Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, AEK and PAOK is more important. When the then defending champions of 2006, Italy, came to play in Greece, only 5,000 people turned up to see the strongest national side in the world,” Zangalis notes.

Greece may be on the verge of leaving the euro, but it is still very much in the Euro 2012 championships. Seven years ago they shocked the Continent, as Otto Rehhagel’s men went on to win the tournament.

Next year they will be playing in Poland and Ukraine, and what a boost it would be to the people of Greece, if their side could repeat the heroics of 2004.