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Jul 15, 2009

Greek giants embark on transfer odyssey

The lure of Greek football has never been stronger. With players looking to expand their horizons, this summer has seen a number of stars make surprise moves to the Mediterranean and shun potential transfers to the other big European leagues.

The Greek Super League doesn't have a great history of being able to attract talent, barring players who have their better days behind them (with Rivaldo's move to Olympiakos and then AEK Athens in 2004 the most notable); yet this season has seen a new wave of players lured by the large wage packets and temperate climate offered by the Southern European country.

The two giants - Olympiakos and Panathinaikos - have led the way. Unsurprising given that they are the only two teams in the league that have the kind of financial backing and opportunities of silverware to realistically chase bigger named players.

Already this summer, Olympiakos have brought in Enzo Maresca, Matt Derbyshire and Olof Mellberg; while Panathinaikos have splashed €7m on Sebastian Leto, signed Konstantinos Katsouranis and broken the Greek transfer record by paying €10m for French striker Djibril Cisse.

While these players may not stand out in the same way as Real Madrid's pursuit of a new band of galacticos, they represent a step up in quality and diversity that has hitherto been unseen in Greece. Persuading the likes of Derbyshire - an England U-21 international - and 22-year-old Leto, who is highly rated in Argentina, is something of a coup. Cisse, at 27, would still have been a good signing for many clubs in Spain, Italy and England before he made his decision.

That is not to say that the Greek Super League has not been an attractive prospect before. Gilberto Silva signed for Panathinaikos from Arsenal in 2008, Argentine Luciano Galletti arrived at Olympiakos from Atletico Madrid in 2007 and the league has even had some success in bringing young foreign players to the country, having beaten many of Europe's top clubs to the signature of 22-year-old Brazilian striker Diogo from Portuguesa.

However, there is a degree of optimism surrounding the Greek game that has not been seen for many years. With lucrative wage packets at the core, clubs believe that with the right offer, they can persuade any number of European stars [or fading stars] to join. Michael Owen was subject to interest from Olympiakos before he made the move to Manchester United, while veteran defender Sol Campbell has been tracked by top-flight newcomers Atromitos; and that interest is not without substance.

Greek clubs, especially those at the top of the league, legitimately have a lot to offer some players. European football is something that even the vast hoards of wealth at Manchester City cannot offer for the 2009-10 season, but Greece has two Champions League spots for their top sides and also enters three Europa League teams - which next year will be AEK Athens, PAOK and Larissa - alongside a decent pay packet.

The top clubs are seen as prestigious, but the gap really becomes apparent in their transfer dealings. The giants build for the Champions League, while the other teams build for their domestic league and that is the major difference.

Olympiakos have won 12 out of the last 13 league titles and have a domestic dominance that is almost unrivalled in the rest of Europe. They can therefore attract some bigger name players and then focus their rebuilding efforts on progress in the Champions League.

New manager Temuri Ketsbaia, himself one of the finest foreign players to have played in Greece, has one of the easiest jobs around as a loyal fan-base and financial stability give him the tools he needs to continue their incredible trophy run, while also attempting to make inroads in Europe. The signings of high quality players like Maresca and Mellberg can only improve a side that has an almost unchallenged run at the title each year and may even give them a shot of progressing beyond the group stages in the Champions League - a rich prize for their investment.

Owner Sokratis Kokkalis is worth an estimated $1.5bn and the 70-year-old, who is the chairman of Intracom Holdings, one of the largest multi-national technology groups in South-Eastern Europe, has shown his intentions to keep bankrolling the club with his vast personal fortune. An ominous sign for the rest of the league.

While an argument could be made that the likes of PAOK and Aris might mount a Championship charge over the next few years, local rivals Panathinaikos are best placed from the rest to upset the established order of the past decade and win their first title since 2004.

President Nikos Pateras, who is one of the largest shipping magnates in Greece and has an estimated fortune of nearly €1bn, offered up €25m as a transfer budget for the coming season, which has yet to be completely spent. Manager Henk ten Cate has the backing of the main stock-holders, which includes multi-millionaire owner Giannis Vardinogiannis and, although the fans aren't happy with his rule (even though he now owns just a 50% share), they should be happy with the club's summer dealings.

Spending over €17m, the club are still some way behind Olympiakos, although they are going about things the right way; but there is little hope for the rest of the league in terms of new talent. Gone are the days of a Rivaldo-esque player signing for a smaller club.

Quality new arrivals are thin on the ground with the only relatively high-profile arrivals thus far being Uruguayan forward Sebastian Abreu and released Birmingham City midfielder Mehdi Nafti at Aris, Panionios' deal for ex-Aston Villa forward Bosko Balaban and Larissa's recent capture of midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos from Hull City.

So the big-boys really do hold all the cards, but there is hope for the rest of Europe that a relatively minor league can still attract some players of a high calibre, even if two clubs control the majority.

The Greek League might never have a Kaka, Ronaldo or Messi, but while Olympiakos and Panathinaikos continue to persuade players to expand their horizons, they will further their ambitions to improve their league and could yet make bigger waves in Europe in the long-term.

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