Monday, 17 December 2012
Greek football sponsors: The brothel and the undertaker
Their goalkeeping is competent, their teamwork solid but it is not their skills that make Voukefalas FC stand out on the pitch, it is their shirts - bright pink and emblazoned with the words "Villa Erotica".
In tough times, who else to turn to but the local brothel? For this amateur club in the central Greek city of Larissa, it was the last option available to save them from bankruptcy.
The team's coach, Yiannis Batziolas says there is nothing to be ashamed of, and that the game is full of far shadier sponsors.
"When you see that, in professional football, betting companies and alcohol are advertised, I think that's far more immoral," he says.
"In Greece, it's not peculiar to visit a sex house. I think most young people have been to these places because it is a human need.
"And I'm proud of the woman who owns this brothel, proud that she helps our dreams of playing football come true."
The woman in question is Madam Soula Alevridou who sits in the stands, proudly watching the team show off their tackling skills.
Petite, with cropped grey hair and dressed in a jacket and tie, she has built a reputation in the city as a wealthy businesswoman.
Telling myself there is a first time for everything, I pay a visit to her brothel on the outskirts of Larissa.
Inside the ordinary-looking building, the rooms are bathed in red light, with gold gilded mirrors on the scarlet walls. The decoration is suitably kitsch with purple velvet thrones and multi-coloured crystal lamps. The suite is even equipped with a jacuzzi and minibar.
In Alevridou's apartment within the Villa Erotica complex, I ask her how she came to support the team.
"It's because I love Greece and I like helping young people," she says.
"The authorities here don't give money for sports, for education or anything. So why shouldn't a poor football team come to me to help make ends meet?"
Her attempts at philanthropy have not always been accepted.
Recently she sent money to a school in the western Greek city of Patras to fund a much-needed photocopier but the cheque was returned.
"I just want Greece to move forward in these difficult times," she says.
"We all have to stand behind our country. This is a legal brothel and I want to help. Why can't I do it?"
Not everybody in Larissa sees it that way.
The local football union has lodged a formal protest, insisting that selling sex should be kept out of sport. It has ruled that for matches, the team must wear darker shirts, although they can still bear the brothel logo.
"It's not acceptable to promote prostitution," says the head of the union, Marios Spiratos.
"We know it's a part of life but we think it's not the right thing for young amateur athletes. Some of the players are under 18 years old."
In the next-door city of Trikala, the football authorities also have some concerns about the new patron.
The amateur team there sport black, not pink, and the logo is a cross - it is a funeral parlour that has given a new lease of life to Palaiopyrgos FC.
Because of objections from the local authorities, the large purple cross must be covered with masking tape for matches, although it frequently peels off and nobody complains.
"I like the outfit," says midfielder Haris Bakogiannis.
"The cross makes our opponents fear us - and nobody has ever worn something like it, so we're famous now."
The funeral business is a tiny little shop in the centre of the city, piled high with artificial flowers and Orthodox Christian icons.
The young undertaker, Christos Panagiotou, says the idea of sponsorship came up over late-night drinks with friends from the team.
"At first the players thought it was a joke, but now they've got used to it," he says.
So does the cross give them extra luck?
"So far, unfortunately not," he says.
"I hope the help from my business will save them from relegation. But it's sad that teams have to turn to us to support them - that we are going through this tragic situation in our country."
At an amateur and national level, Greek sport is indeed in dire straits. With funding slashed and barely any investment, athletes face a bleak future.
Just eight years ago, Greece hosted the Olympics and the national team were crowned the football champions of Europe.
Now facilities are falling into disrepair and teams are resorting to desperate measures to survive.
But at least in this region, two clubs have been spared, thanks to their unconventional new backers.
In this unusual story, perhaps both sides win. Local football is given a much-needed boost, while a little more custom is drummed up for the undertaker, and for the madam.
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