A new Greek golden age
Whether in the field of science, arts, gastronomy or military strategy, Greece has always managed to amaze its European neighbours, and in 2004 this success extended to football as Otto Rehhagel's men were crowned champions of Europe for the first time. Greek clubs, however, have struggled to reach similar heights, and today remain in the shadow of Europe's elite, a trend they hope to buck next season.
The three giants of Greek football set the ball rolling a few years ago by attracting some of world football's biggest names. Frenchman Christian Karembeu played for Olympiakos, while fellow FIFA World Cup™ winner Rivaldo played for both Olympiakos and city rivals AEK Athens. Finally, Panathinaikos have had stars like Brazilian Flavio Conceicao, Croatian Robert Jarni and Portuguese Paulo Sousa in their ranks. It is fair to say, however, that when these footballing legends arrived in Greece, their best days were already behind them.
Since then, things have changed and Greek clubs are now attracting world-class players at the peak of their careers. Olympiakos convinced the Swede Olof Mellburg to cut short his Juventus adventure so that the Erythrolefki (Red-and-Whites) could benefit from his vast experience acquired from 90 international call-ups and seven seasons at Aston Villa. Championship winners for the last five years, Olympiakos also secured the signature of English forward Matt Derbyshire who, having begun his career at Blackburn, has decided to extend his stay in Athens after scoring five goals in seven games while on loan there last season, a ratio which he hopes to improve upon in the coming year.
These new recruits will be joining up with stars like goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis, defenders Didier Domi and Raul Bravo, midfielders Luciano Galletti and Cristian Ledesma and Brazilian forward Diogo to form a team which Olympiakos hopes will not only clinch their sixth consecutive domestic title, but will also reach the club's third European quarter-final at the least, thus emulating the achievements of 1993 (in the European Cup Winners' Cup) and 1999 (in the UEFA Champions League).
The only problem for the Piraeus side is that other clubs are just as ambitious, with Panathinaikos leading the charge. Tired of playing second fiddle to the Erythrolefki, the Prasini (Greens) have pulled out all the stops in a bid to knock their fiercest rivals off their pedestal, even managing to tempt away Argentinian Sebastian Leto, one of their key players from last season who was on loan from Liverpool.
But it is another ex-Red that has really been making a splash in Athens, with Frenchman Djibril Cisse having joined Panathinaikos in a bid to win silverware and get his career back on track. After serious injury, mixed fortunes at Marseille, and a season battling against the drop at Sunderland, the 27-year-old Les Bleus striker is aiming to win back his international place. "From a sporting point of view, what attracted me here was Champions League football," admits the former Auxerre man, who was given a rapturous welcome by 3,500 fans upon arrival in Greece. "Many people think I've made a mistake, but I've proved time and again that I can bounce back. If I can score 20 to 25 goals next season, my name will be back in the headlines and I can win a place in the World Cup squad."
If Cisse is to net that many goals, he will need quality service from the Panathinaikos midfield, and with Brazilian Gilberto Silva, 2004 European champions Yorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis, and former Ajax winger Leonardo, Henk ten Cate's side seem well-prepared to challenge for their 20th Greek title and make a big impact in Europe.
Aris prepare for battle
With AEK struggling to recapture past glories - their last title was in 1994 - Aris Thessaloniki may be a good outside bet to dethrone Olympiakos next season. Named after the Greek god of war, the club has rolled out the heavy artillery and look set to do battle.
In addition to Tunisian midfielder Mehdi Nafti, winner of the CAF African Cup of Nations 2004 and formerly with Birmingham City and Racing Santander, and young Irish forward Ian Daly, formerly of Manchester City, last season's sixth-placed team have decided to turn to South America to bolster their squad. Their star signing, 32-year-old Uruguayan journeyman Sebastian Abreu, is out to prove he is still as sharp as ever as he prepares to play for his 16th club in his seventh different league. Chances are that El Loco will feel very much at home in Thessaloniki, where he will team up with old South American adversaries Leandro Gracian, Cristian Nasuti and Carlos Arano, who signed from Boca Juniors, Banfield and Huracan respectively.
The Aris-PAOK derbies look set to be even more hotly-contested than usual, as Sergio Conceicao, Pablo Contreras and Ibrahima Bakayoko will be joined at PAOK by Italian veterans Mirko Savini, formerly of Fiorentina and Palermo, and Bruno Cirillo, who had spells with AEK, Reggina and Inter. Other big names who have opted to go Greek include Croatian Bosko Balaban, who links up with Uruguayans Alvaro Recoba and Fabian Estoyanoff at Panionios, and Latvian international striker Maris Verpakovskis, who has joined the ranks of Ergotelis after plying his trade with Dynamo Kiev and Celta Vigo.
With all these new arrivals, the country's ever-passionate fans will have even more to shout about in the new season as they aim to secure their place amongst the heavyweights of European football.