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Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Sports

2001: The Year That Was in Sports


In his “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz shows how a sporting event can be read as a “text” that reflects the values of a particular culture. A Geertzean reading of what happened in the Greek sporting world in 2001 would reveal a national sporting culture sadly at odds with the lofty principles of the Olympic Games that will open in two and a half years in Greece’s capital. The two major spectator sports in Greece, professional men’s soccer and basketball, are ailing. Government officials, owners, and administrators either fiddle or scratch each other’s backs while crowds grow smaller and smaller. Success stories on the soccer field and the basketball court are rare and greeted with genuine surprise.

Just over a couple of decades ago, when Greece was successfully negotiating its entry into the European Community (now the Union), the phrase, “we are doing well outside,” was a popular one. It referred to the contrast between domestic political crises and newfound respectability on the international stage. The same phrase applies in assessing the feats of soccer- and basketball-playing Greeks in Europe and the United States, as well as a number of second- and third-generation Greek Americans.

There was more to cheer about domestically in track and field, in which Greece did very well at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Several athletes managed to prove that their medal-winning performances were not flukes by continuing to produce results. Here is how the good, the bad, and the ugly unfolded in the Greek sports world month by month in 2001.

January
Soccer Hooliganism
AEK Athens forfeited the first leg of its Greek Cup playoff with Olympiakos Piraeus after the match was abandoned in the wake of crowd trouble. AEK was also banned from playing at home for four games and fined $6,000 after its fans rained missiles onto the field before smashing a perimeter fence and streaming onto the field hurling flares. Police in riot gear escorted Olympiakos players and officials from the stadium. A referee, who left after midnight under heavy police guard, told reporters, “Whoever loves Greek soccer will not sleep tonight.” Police detained about 100 followers of both teams, but only about 40 faced possible charges. AEK director Petros Stathis was fined $4,000 and handed an eight-month ban for allegedly inciting the players to feign injury to stop the match.

February
National Basketball Association
Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis, the 7’2”, 285-pound rookie center of the Phoenix Suns played in his first nationally televised game in the United States against the Philadelphia 76ers a few weeks after securing a starting role on the team. The Georgian-born Tsakalidis, a naturalized Greek who played for AEK Athens, was drafted by the Suns in the summer of 2000 despite the threat from the Greek club not to release him from his contract. Within a few weeks, Tsakalidis would play in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs. His coach, Scott Skiles, who has also worked in Greece, was not worried about Tsakalidis handling the pressure, saying, “Jake has a nice even keel, he’s played in Europe, where they’re fighting each other in the crowds.”

March
US Collegiate Basketball
After nine seasons as men’s basketball coach at Villanova University, Steve Lappas stepped down and was immediately hired by the University of Massachusetts. Associated Press reported that the Greek American coach would earn around $600,000 a year for the next five years at UMass. At Villanova, a Catholic university on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Lappas compiled a record of 174 wins and 110 losses, and led his team into the play-offs for four seasons. When the news broke, a columnist in the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “[T]he public perception of [Lappas] was that he was a raving lunatic, unable to control himself or his team. It wasn’t true but that was the perception. The reality is that he is one of the nicest people in an often-nasty business.”

April
Soccer and Manliness
Greek national team captain Theodoros Zagorakis was cleared of using banned anabolic steroids. A sports court concluded that high levels of testosterone found in two separate tests were “the product of natural causes.” The AEK Athens midfielder had failed a doping test that followed a March league game and tested positive on a second sample again in early April. When results from the second sample showed similarly high levels of testosterone, the case was sent to the sports court, where a guilty verdict could have meant a two-year suspension. The former PAOK and then Leicester City player had returned to Greece to play for AEK in the summer of 2000 and has been a regular for the national team.

Soccer Championship
Following a road win in Ioannina, Olympiakos Piraeus secured its fifth successive Greek soccer-league title. With four games remaining in the season, the Piraeus team was well clear of archrival Panathinaikos. A skilled Olympiakos side could not silence detractors, however, who argued that team owner Sokratis Kokkalis wielded too much influence over the soccer establishment. A few weeks later, Greece narrowly avoided being expelled from the international soccer federation because of evidence of government interference in the Greek soccer federation.

May
Soccer Cup
In the final game of the Greek Soccer Cup, PAOK Thessaloniki defeated Olympiakos Piraeus 4-2 and won its first major trophy after a 17-year wait. The Cup is the second most important soccer competition in Greece. There was almost more excitement off the field, with controversy swirling around this game for several weeks. There were arguments over the venue because there was no suitable location other than stadiums in the Athens/Piraeus or Thessaloniki areas, precluding a neutral site. The tense atmosphere escalated as the two teams traded barbs over the selection of referee Georgios Kasnaferis, whose officiating had left much to be desired when the two teams had met earlier in a league game. In response to PAOK’s complaints, an Olympiakos spokesman stated: “If Kasnaferis had bad games in the past, so did referees at the World Cup. Just because he was banned for one month from officiating does not mean that he is not able to call the Cup final.”

June
Basketball Championship
Panathinaikos Athens beat archrival Olympiakos (the two teams are archrivals regardless of sport) 79-63 in the deciding game of a best-of-five series to win the Greek basketball league title for the fourth year running. Panathinaikos team captain Frangiskos Alvertis was named the series’ Most Valuable Player. The 27-year-old forward scored a game-high 24 points, including five three-pointers. There was heavy security during all five games, played alternately in Athens and Piraeus, and “visiting” supporters were banned for fear of crowd trouble. Panathinaikos was the runner-up in this season’s premier club tournament in Europe, the Suproleague. Later in the month, two NBA teams drafted Panathinaikos players Antonis Fotsis and Zeljko Rebraca. In November, Fotsis, who joined the Memphis Grizzlies, became the first Greek-born player to play in the NBA.

US Aid?
It is not exactly the Marshall Plan, but it is an infusion of much-needed American aid to Greece – specifically to the Greek women’s soccer team, as well as the baseball and softball teams. Technical director Xanthi Konstandopoulou invited a dozen Greek Americans who play for US colleges try out for the newly established Greek women’s soccer team. Greek sports teams will automatically qualify for the 2004 Olympics without going through preliminary rounds because the games are in Athens. That includes “marginal” sports, hence the appeal to Greek Americans. The Baltimore Orioles, meanwhile, are helping the fledgling Greek baseball and softball federations locate much-needed talent in North America.

July
Volleyball
Third time lucky for the national men’s team in July. After disappointing showings in two international competitions earlier in the year, the Greek team got it together in the qualifying tournament for next year’s world championships in Argentina. The Greeks went unbeaten in the qualifiers in neighboring Turkey, and booked their ticket for Argentina in 2002.

The Greek American Connection
Yiannis Zachoudanis, a Los Angeles-based businessman, bought a majority stake in Aris Thessaloniki, a top Greek soccer club. The behind-closed-doors nature of the deal, the undisclosed sums, and questions surrounding Zachoudanis’s wealth fueled a great deal of speculation in the Greek press. The Athens newspaper, To Vima, quoted a spokesman from the Greek consulate in Los Angeles who said that Zachoudanis, a former owner of the Manhattan Beach Country Club, was not among the “most prominent” Greek Americans.

August
Track & Field
There were Greek gold, silver, and bronze medals at the Eighth World Championships held in Edmonton. Konstantinos Kenteris added the world title to his Olympic 200-meter crown with a magnificent demonstration of sprinting strength that left all of his rivals in a desperate, and extremely close, fight for the other medals. His winning time of 20.04 seconds was just one-hundredth of a second slower than the world leading-time for the year that he had set a day earlier in the semifinals. It wasn’t so much the time as the manner of his victory, however, that was so devastating. Kenteris, in lane four, was just too strong. He blasted off the turn and made up his ground halfway down the straightaway, moving effortlessly into the lead over the last 50 meters to win with a clear two-meter margin – and a broad grin.

Meanwhile, Mirela Manjani Tzelili won silver in the women’s javelin throw. In the women’s 100 meters, Ekaterini Thanou won a bronze medal to go with the silver she had won in Sydney a year earlier. Costas Gatsioudis, battling an injury, managed to win bronze in the javelin throw. Discus-thrower Anastasia Kelesidou came in fourth in her competition. Overall, it was an excellent showing by the Greeks, especially since several leading athletes could not travel to Canada because of injuries. Yet there are lingering concerns about the dearth of any rising young Greek track-and-field stars, and, unless some appear very soon, Greece will be fielding a mostly thirty-something team at the 2004 Olympics.

Soccer Diplomacy
Greece and Turkey signed a cooperation protocol to co-host Euro 2008, the European soccer championship held every four years. The planned joint bid is the latest step in a slow but steady process of reconciliation between the two neighbors following the mutual assistance offered when earthquakes hit both countries in 1999. Since then, they have signed nine cooperation accords on secondary issues, but have stopped short of resolving more complex territorial disputes, notably over the Aegean and Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded part of the island. “We will show the whole world the unifying power of football,” said Turkish soccer official Haluk Ulusoy after the signing ceremony. But reactions to this latest move from within the soccer world remain ambivalent.

The Italian Job
Here is one for trivia buffs: What was so special about Inter Milan’s opening game of the 2001-02 Italian soccer season against Perugia on August 28? Answer: It was the first Italian soccer-league game that pitted two Greek stars against each other, Georgios Georgatos of Inter and Zizis Vryzas of Perugia. Georgatos’s team won the match but Vryzas scored a spectacular goal. They are only two of several Greeks playing soccer abroad, an elite group that includes Greek national team players Nikos Dabizas at Newcastle and Kostas Konstantinidis at Hertha Berlin. There are also a handful of ethnic Greek players in the Australian league and Ted Chronopoulos and Alexi Lalas in the US’s Major League Soccer.

September
European Basketball
The Greek national team crashed out of Eurobasket 2001, the European basketball championship held in Turkey, at the quarterfinal stage after an ignominious 80-75 loss to Germany in Antalya. Greece scored the first 15 points of the game and built up a healthy lead of 22 points (32-10) in the first half against an apparently weak German team. However, the Germans fought their way back into the game; they cut the Greek lead to 47-31 at halftime and then took charge in the second half, led by Dirk Nowitski of the Dallas Mavericks, out-rebounding and out-shooting the Greeks. The loss wiped out earlier wins against Bosnia and Italy and sent the team back to Athens empty-handed, having failed to make the top five – its avowed minimum goal – which would have meant qualification for the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis. This will be the first world championship that Greece will miss since 1982. Coach Costas Petropoulos resigned at the end of the tournament and was replaced by Yannis Ioannides.

October
Soccer Diplomacy, Part II
Players, coaches, and officials of AEK Athens paid their respects to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks by visiting the US embassy in Athens and signing the book of condolences. The move came after actions by some of AEK’s fans during a game; they booed during the minute of silence for the victims of the attacks, burned an Israeli flag, and tried to burn the Stars and Stripes.

National Team Soccer
The national team managed an impressive and astonishing 2-2 tie against England in Manchester in their final qualifying game for World Cup 2002. England scored its second goal seconds before the end thanks to a dubious free-kick awarded by the Dutch referee. Angelos Charisteas and Demis Nikolaides had already scored for Greece. The Greek team ended a streak of disappointing games that had put any chance of qualifying well out of Greece’s grasp in a group that also included Germany, Finland, and Albania.

The Greek national team had also lost six out of seven prior matches with England, which had won six consecutive qualifiers, including an historic 5-1 demolition of Germany in September. Greece’s newly appointed coach, Otto Rehangel, who played and coached in Germany, hailed the game as a new beginning for Greece.

European Soccer
Panathinaikos Athens beat Arsenal 1-0 at home and became the first Greek team to earn three straight victories in the qualifying round of the European Champions League, the premier European club competition. This also ensured the Athens team entry into the final 16 of the tournament. Based on this winning streak, the International Football Federation of History and Statistics rated Panathinaikos as the top club in the world for September. CNN Sports’ Website included Panathinaikos in its Top 10 list for the first week of October.

November
Gymnastics
Vlassis Maras surprised himself and his coach by winning a gold medal at the World Gymnastics Championships in Belgium. It was the first time a Greek gymnast won first place in this tournament. Maras is the youngest of a group of Greek gymnasts who have been successful in international competition over the past few years.

Fair Play?
Olympiakos reacted ambivalently to an admission made by soccer player Stelios Giannakopoulos that he took a dive in order to earn his team a penalty shot that helped it win a league game against Egaleo. At first, president Sokratis Kokkalis reacted magnanimously, calling for a rematch, adding, in a harsh reference to the Egaleo home field, “Of course, this time around the game should take place in a real soccer pitch and not a hen house.” Yet days later, Olympiakos fined Giannakopoulos three million drachmas for the “unauthorized” nature of the interview in which he made his admission.

December
Unhappy Hoops
It’s official. Greek basketball is in crisis. Dropping attendance at league games, difficulties in securing television contracts, and lack of investment have unleashed a public debate on the causes for the decline of basketball over the past decade. National coach Yannis Ioannides suggests that the number of foreigners playing for Greek teams should be curtailed in order to give talented local players a better chance, while the sport’s governing bodies continue to feud among themselves publicly.

US Collegiate Sports
Two young Greek American athletes gained national distinction early in December. Athena Christoforakis of Port Orange, Florida, a forward on the Temple University basketball team, was named the top woman basketball player in the Philadelphia area for the first week of December. The 6’1” Christoforakis scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Temple’s 66-60 victory over Pennsylvania in its first win of the season. She then scored 14 points and grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds in Temple’s victory over previously undefeated Villanova. Meanwhile, Peter Philipakos of Glen Cove, New York, a freshman at St. John’s University, was part of a glorious run by the Red Storm team that reached the quarterfinals of the national collegiate soccer championship. Philipakos scored in St. John’s 2-0 victory over Southern Methodist University with an improbable 64-yard shot.

The Best of the Best
There were no surprises when the Greek sportswriters union announced its choices for top athletes of 2001. Sprinters Konstantinos Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou won first place for their excellence at Edmonton. The national junior water polo team was voted the top team of the year in honor of their first place in the junior men’s world championships in August. Finally, in a special award, Panathinaikos legend Mimis “the General” Domazos was voted the best soccer player in Greece in the past half-century.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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