Football: Beware Greeks in red shirts

Arsenal's European rivals may find their countrymen supporting the opposition. By Stephen Brenkley
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DURING their stay in England this week Panathinaikos might be wise to beware Greeks bearing gifts. This is because most of them will undoubtedly be supporting Arsenal.

Heritage and ties to the old country may be enough to persuade them to pass on their good wishes to the Greek representatives in the European Champions' League - their gift. Indeed, they may well have a soft spot for the club who have been champions of Greece 18 times and are the only one from the country to have reached the final of the European Cup. But if it gets close that might as well be a patch of quicksand somewhere on the Ionian islands - the reason to be wary.

"A big game, you're not kidding it's a big game," said Tony Demetriou. "The entire community of Greeks in north London is up for the match and a lot of them will be very interested to see Panathinaikos here. But I can tell you who'll they be shouting for and that's Arsenal. This is the Champions' League and there's no room for sentiment."

Demetriou is a sports writer on the London-based Greek weekly newspaper Parikiaki and a self-confessed devotee of Arsenal who contributes a regular column on the club. There is a substantial community of Greek expatriates and immigrants who live within a decent Dennis Bergkamp free-kick of Highbury and their first love is the Gunners. "There are a few who support Spurs and Chelsea but most of the support is for Arsenal and Manchester United and because the Champions' League game is at Wembley there'll be a huge turnout from among the Greeks," said Demetriou.

The game features large among the population of the 60,000 who live in the Wood Green and Palmers Green areas and the Kopa League has two prospering divisions, some of them, like Omonia, named after Cypriot league clubs. The extent of dedication is shown by the fact that some bars along Greens Lane in north London are also named after teams.

While most of the community has its origins in Cyprus they also maintain an allegiance to the teams on the Greek mainland. They do not come any bigger than Panathinaikos who lost 2-0 in the final to Ajax (the first of the Dutch side's three consecutive triumphs) at Wembley in 1971 when they were managed by Ferenc Puskas. "The ground was filled with Greek Cypriots living in London. It was a great atmosphere," said Chris Stylianou, manager of the Cypriot Centre in Wood End which is the headquarters of the Kopa League. "This has become a big centre in the past 16 years since it opened but the footballers are some of our main users."

The league secretary, Lakis Chrysotomou, said most of the teams in the league would be flocking to Wembley. "It will be very good-natured but I honestly can't see many of them supporting Panathinaikos. My club has got 16 tickets so the whole squad will be going and if any are shouting for Panathinaikos it could well be because they are Man Utd fans like me."

Arsenal will start big favourites against a side from a championship which has not distinguished itself in European competition. Its clubs are hardly likely to be joining the front part of the queue for any European Super League but semi-professionalism has gradually given way to professionalism there.

Panathinaikos have always been that but they come to Highbury not as Greek league winners but under the modern rules which stipulate that runners-up can also compete in the Champions' League. What the ancient Greeks, who virtually invented athletic competition, would have made of such a system is not difficult to guess, particularly as Panathinaikos trailed Olympiakos Piraeus by six points last season.

As soon as the league finished there was an immediate uproar about match- fixing. Investigations were promised but the apparent reaction from a government official was not one of panic or surprise. He said: "Greek soccer has been diseased for years. We did not need to wait until the end of the season to realise that."

Demetriou, trying to be as objective as possible, suspects that Arsenal will have far too much versatility for the Greeks. But Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, will not have overlooked the fact that in one of the superficially weaker of the four-team leagues Panathinaikos won their opening match against Dynamo Kiev.

"I might feel a bit sorry for them after the game because of who they are. But that won't stop me going for Arsenal," said Demetriou whose latest column predicts that the Gunners will avoid a Greek tragedy. It should be some neighbourly night. The kebab shops around Wembley might do a better trade than any night for 27 years.