Venturing Into the Greek Hades

Facing fiery fans and fickle management, Yitzhak Shum will have his work cut out for him in Athens

Yitzhak Shum's appointment as manager of Panathinaikos Athens came as a complete surprise on both sides of the Mediterranean, and it would appear that the decisive factor in his appointment was the impression left by Maccabi Haifa's elimination of Olympiakos Piraeus in the last Champions League season.

The level of animosity between the two leading clubs in Greece reaches a scale that can only be imagined here. To Greek football fans, "Stand up if you hate the Reds/Yellows/Greens" would be more reminiscent of a nursery rhyme than an abusive taunt. Some 40 percent of Greeks support Olympiakos - the rest hate them unreservedly.

Watching your sworn enemy win seven championships in a row is, for a Panathinaikos supporter, a torture worse than any administered even in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. So one can only imagine the pleasure the club's fans derived from watching a team in green demolish Olympiakos in the Champions League last September in Nicosia, 3-0 and send 13,000 diehard Olympiakos supporters, who traveled to the "away" game, into mourning.

Another three goals from Haifa in the return leg in Athens made Panathinaikos realize that even a club with modest resources and and a not-so-famous manager could find the key to the city rival's downfall.

One can only hope that Shum is aware of the fickle loyalty shown in Greece to managers far more celebrated than himself. Olympiakos, which won this year's Greek first division title on goal difference over Panathinaikos, switched managers no less than four times during the course of the season. Takis Lemonis was the first to go after the club's failure in the Champions League. Kolias was appointed as caretaker manager for a month and was replaced by Srecko Katanec, who lasted exactly two months. Katanec was replaced by Ukranian Oleh Protasov, who started off the season as the club's senior scout.

Shum should pay heed to the story of Panathinaikos' outgoing manager, Sergio Markarian of Uruguay. In his two spells with the club, Markarian lost only one game in the Greek league. However, as fate had it, that game was against Olympiakos and the 3-0 scoreline gave the detested city rivals the trophy.

"Markarian is a thorough manager, although too defensive for the fans' liking and also somewhat unlucky," says Greek sports writer Kostas Goralis. "In his first season with Panathinaikos, he lost the title because of a penalty awarded to Olympiakos in the 90th minute.

"This time around he took over from the Portugese coach Fernando Santos. Things went smoothly until the defeat to Olympiakos which caused an outburst of anger from the fans. Several players were hurt when fans broke into the club's training ground. Markarian escaped unscathed, but was so angry that he refused to extend his contract despite efforts by the management's efforts to persuade him to stay on."

Just how fanatic Greek fans can be, one can learn from the case of AEK Athens manager Dusan Bayevic, who had been mentioned as a leading candidate to replace Markarian. Bayevic, who had been a figure of adulation at AEK, went to coach Olympiakos and instantly became public enemy number one as far the AEK fans were concerned.

Throughout his spell with Olympiakos, Bayevic was labeled a traitor and an enemy of AEK. "You betrayed Serbia to become a Greek. You betrayed your wife for a singer. You betrayed AEK for Olympiakos. God denied you any children so you couldn't betray them," read a banner at AEK's home stadium.

Even when he returned to coach AEK, with which he won six championships (two as a player and four as a manager), Bayevic wasn't forgiven by all the fans. This season 50 of them traveled to Rome for AEK's decisive game in the first group stage of the Champions League against the local team, but stayed outside of the stadium in protest against their "treacherous" manager.

Mass, premeditated brawls among supporters are a regular occurrence, usually a week before derby games. Messages are posted on Internet message boards naming the site of battle.

A salary of 600,000 euros a year for a two-year contract is a leap for Shum, but one has to remember that in Greece, not all contractual obligations are fulfilled in reality. Shum will have to make do with a lower budget than was available to his predecessors because of the sharp fall in broadcasting revenues.

Several key players have been released, including the club's leading goal scorer Nikos Lymoeropoulos, who fell out with the club's management and appears to be on the way to Marseille. Midfielder Giorgos Karagounis has left for Inter Milan, with a loan option to Udinese. Karagounis plays in a an identical role to Giovanni Rosso at Maccabi Haifa, which would explain the Greek club's interest in the Croatian. All the players with the exception of the Nigerian-born Polish striker Emmanuel Olisadebe have been asked to take drastic pay cuts.

Unlike at Maccabi Haifa, however, Shum will be able to count on a tough and efficient defense, led by the Danish national team captain Rene Henriksen and Yannis Goumas.

Yitzhak Shum will soon head into an unknown world. No one knows how long he will be able to survive the Greek Hades, but his decision to give it a try can be understood - if only for the experience.