History will be made when Fenerbahçe SK welcome Panathinaikos FC to Istanbul.
By Türker Tozar & Dimitra Pappa
Politics, as much as football, will come into play when Panathinaikos FC visit Fenerbahçe SK in the UEFA Cup this week. Because Thursday's second-round game is the first meeting of Greek and Turkish sides in European club competition history.
Nor is that the only reason the match is circled in bold on the fixture list. The tie comes at a time of closer diplomatic relations between Turkey and Greece, who are behind a joint bid to host the UEFA European Championship in 2008. The local media covered in extensive detail the Athens team's arrival in Istanbul, with the Milliyet newspaper referring to Panathinaikos as "our friends".
A common future
Among that number are the 1,700 away supporters who will attend the match at the Sükrü Saraçoglu stadium, along with Greek foreign minister Georgios Papandreou, minister of culture Evangelos Venizelos and sports minister Georgios Lianis. Their presence will be merited, Panathinaikos president Angelos Filippidis said, because the "two games between the clubs are more than football matches - they are a common ground for Greece and Turkey to prove they can walk together in the future".
Filippidis continued: "
The matches between Panathinaikos and Fenerbahçe have great significance because they take place at a time when the two countries are making a giant effort to get over past problems and face the future with optimism. It is our duty to give the Greek and Turkish people the hope that the new millennium will be brighter."
Which of the teams faces the brighter future in the UEFA Cup this season remains to be seen. Panathinaikos, who beat the Bulgarian side PFC Litex Lovech in round one, lie tenth in their domestic league. They did, however, claim a restorative win at the weekend - 3-2 against FC Aris Thessaloniki - in coach Sergio Markarian's first game in charge.
"This will be a really tough game for us," the new man warned. "Fenerbahçe are a solid team and have, in Ariel Ortega, one of the world's best playmakers." Markarian, who has no injury worries, added that his team "are confident of getting a result in Istanbul". "Playing at Fenerbahçe will not intimidate us - my players will stay focused on the game," he added.
They will do well to concentrate their attentions on a Fenerbahçe team who were too strong for Sweden's AIK Solna last time out. Werner Lorant's men might be off the pace in the Turkish first division - seven points behind the leaders, in fourth place - but as defender Fatih Akyel said: "We want to give our fans a gift by winning this game and scoring a hatful of goals."
Home comforts needed
Defender Zoran Mirkovic should be the sole absentee, with Ortega and Haim Revivo expected to shake off knocks sustained in the weekend draw at Gençlerbirligi. Turkish international striker Akin Serhat may also return from injury.
A different game
Akin confirmed many people's suspicions when he said: "We should ignore Panathinaikos's situation in the Greek league because this match will be different." Indeed it will.