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April 12, 2007

Will the Athens Champions League Final be violence free?

Champleagueathens_1I've no doubt the ITV and Sky hype machines have gone into overdrive, but the Champions League semi-final line-up isn't looking too glamorous to me.

One English club whose place at Europe's top football table has been bought by Russian money which nobody in the UK seems to have the courage to investigate the origins of.

And another two English clubs, who so value their proud heritage and football traditions that they are both owned by Americans.

And the quartet is completed by A.C. Milan, who you may recall only sneaked into this year's competition after an appeal reduced their punishment following them being found guilty of match-fixing during last season.

Pretty unedifying stuff for "the most lucrative club competition in the world" (it says here in the UEFA marketing manual).

And Athens may not turn out to be the most inspired of venues this year.

When Italian football was suspended earlier this season following the death of a policeman at a Palermo game, it was big news around Europe.

I'm not sure, though, how many people are aware that all teams sports in Greece have been suspended for a fortnight, following violence outside a women's volleyball match which left a man, Michalis Filopoulos, lying stabbed to death in the road in the Athens suburb of Peania.

And the reason for the blanket sports ban?

Well the major clubs here, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, operate as franchises, with affiliated teams in all kinds of sports like Basketball and Volleyball. The fan clubs associated with the teams support their "team" brand across all the sports, and it was an Olympiakos vs Panathinaiko game where the trouble occurred.

20070412_weapons Fan clubs have subsequently been completely banned, with police raids on their headquarters turning up caches of weapons and molotov cocktails.

One victim of the all sports ban has been Greece's rugby championship final, which was due to take place over the Easter weekend. The organisers must think their attempts to get rugby off the ground here in Greece are doomed - last years inaugral final was also cancelled when one of the teams were unable to get to Athens because of problems with the ferries.

Football will resume here this weekend. The president of AEK Athens (the Athens team I look out for) has suggested Greek teams be banned from European competition for three years to get their house in order.

Meanwhile, there are moves to put electronic ticketing systems and CCTV cameras into football grounds in the Greek Super League. However, these have been much delayed, due to a symptom of Greece's "planned" economy. Rather than the clubs themselves being responsible for their own ticketing and security arrangements, the programme of improvements is being handled by one central contract tender to supply all the grounds.

I hope the Athens Champions League final passes off without incident, but I am not confident.

Especially when you consider that one British team is guaranteed to be at the final, and that in the past few weeks Glasgow Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United (three times in four matches, against Lille and home and away against Roma) have all been involved in football hooliganism clashes with police inside and outside grounds at Champions League and UEFA Cup matches.

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