Published October 17, 2012
LARISSA, Greece – The world's oldest profession is giving a whole new meaning to love of the game.
Players on a cash-strapped Greek soccer team now wear pink practice jerseys with the logos "Villa Erotica" and "Soula's House of History," two bordellos it recruited as sponsors after drastic government spending cuts left the country's sports clubs facing ruin.
Other teams have also turned to unconventional financing. One has a deal with a local funeral home and others have wooed kebab shops, a jam factory and producers of Greece's trademark feta cheese.
But the amateur Voukefalas club — whose players include pizza delivery guys, students, waiters and a bartender — has raised eyebrows with its flamboyant sponsorship choice.
"Unfortunately, amateur football has been abandoned by almost everyone," said Yiannis Batziolas, the club's youthful chairman, who runs a travel agency and is the team's backup goalkeeper. "It's a question of survival."
Prostitution is legal in Greece, where brothels operate under strict guidelines. Though garish neon signs advertising their services are tolerated, the soccer sponsorship has ruffled some feathers in the sports-mad city of Larissa. League organizers have banned the pink jerseys during games, saying the deal violates "the sporting ideal" and is inappropriate for underage fans.
Batziolas acknowledges the sponsorship took his team by surprise. "They didn't believe it in the beginning," he said. "But when they saw the shirts printed, they thought it was funny."
Near-bankrupt Greece is struggling to meet creditors' relentless demands to slash spending and keep the euro as its currency. As Greece heads toward a sixth year of recession, drastic budget cuts have hammered many ordinary people: Retirees have been left to cover their own medical expenses, children have lost school bus services, and sports teams have scrambled to find sponsors as businesses close under the burden of emergency taxes.
Brothel owner Soula Alevridou, the team's new benefactor, has already paid more than 1,000 euros ($1,312) for players to wear her jerseys. The team is appealing the game ban, but that doesn't worry the 67-year-old Alevridou, who says she's only in it because she loves soccer.
"It's not the kind of business that needs promotion," she said, dressed all in white and flanked by two young women in dark leggings at a recent game. "It's a word-of-mouth kind of thing."
Her businesses, plushly decorated pastel-colored bungalows where 14 women are employed, have weathered the country's financial disaster far better than most, and she readily acknowledges her success.
"If we don't help our scientists and athletes, where will we be?" she asked. "Greece has educated people, cultured people and good athletes. It's better to help them than take our money to Switzerland."
Alevridou watched in disappointment as her team lost its fourth straight game, 1-0, despite her promise to players of "a special time" at her businesses if they won.
"There's a lot still missing. We have no midfield," said Alevridou, a slightly built woman with a husky voice. "Many of our boys have jobs that keep them working at night. And if we have a game the following morning, they can't have a real presence on the pitch. ... They need more help."
They aren't the only team suffering. Greece's Amateur Athletics Federation suspended all its activities for several weeks earlier this year to protest funding cuts. And even the major soccer clubs sent most of their star players abroad this summer in the face of financial trouble and poor attendance, with fans no longer able to afford tickets.
Government cuts have hurt most of the teams in the amateur league in Larissa — the majestically named Olympus, Hercules, Fearless and Sagittarius clubs, as well as Voukefalas, named after Alexander the Great's horse.
The impact of the crisis on sports is a major local concern. The town of 200,000 fielded the only professional club to ever break big-city domination of the league, winning the national championship in 1988. In 2007, Larissa FC also rebounded from bankruptcy for victory in the prestigious Greek Cup.
Voukefalas says it needs about 10,000 euros ($13,120) a year to meet expenses, and Alevridou has promised more cash.
"Here is where it all begins, with amateur sport. It's where the talent is bred," she noted. "I am a Greek woman, and I love my country."
She watched quietly, holding a cigarette and wearing a straw fedora with a leopard print band, as her team struggled.
"The team will get better," she said. "I'm certain of it."
AP writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.