LARISSA, Greece - A cash-strapped Greek soccer team has found a new way to pay the bills, with help from the world's oldest profession. Players are wearing bright pink practice jerseys emblazoned with the logos of the Villa Erotica and Soula's House of History, a pair of pastel-coloured bordellos recruited to sponsor the team after drastic government spending cuts left the country's sports organizations facing ruin.
One team took on 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 small amateur Voukefalas club — which includes students, a bartender, waiters and pizza delivery drivers — is getting the most attention for its flamboyant sponsors.
"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 reserve goalkeeper. "It's a question of survival."
Prostitution is legal and operates under strict guidelines. Though garish neon signs advertising "studios" are tolerated in Greece, the sponsorship has ruffled some feathers in the soccer-mad central city of Larissa. League organizers have banned the jerseys during games, saying the deal violates "the sporting ideal" and is inappropriate for underage supporters.
Batziolas acknowledges his team was taken 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 expenses and keep the euro as its currency. As Greece heads toward a sixth year of recession, drastic budget cutbacks have hammered many ordinary people: Retirees are left to cover their own medical expenses, children are losing their school bus services — and sports teams are scrambling for sponsors as businesses close under the burden of emergency taxes.
Soula Alevridou, the brothel owner and the team's new benefactor, has already paid more than €1,000 (C$1,284) for players to wear her jerseys. The team is appealing the game ban, but it's no big worry for the 67-year-old grandmother and businesswoman, who says she's only in it for the love of the game.
"It's not the kind of business that needs promotion. It's a word-of-mouth thing," she said, dressed in white from head to toe and flanked by two young women in dark leggings, at a recent morning game. Her businesses, plushly decorated bungalows where 14 women are employed, are weathering 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 1-0, a fourth straight match without victory, despite her promise to players of "a special time" at her businesses if they won the game.
"There's lots still missing. We have no midfield," said Alevridou, who is slightly built and husky-voiced. "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 football clubs sent most of their star players abroad this summer to cope with financial trouble and poor attendance, with fans no longer able to afford tickets.
Government cuts have hurt most of the teams in the local amateur league — including the majestically named Olympus, Hercules, Fearless, and Sagittarius, as well as Voukefalas, named after Alexander the Great's horse.
The impact of the crisis on sports is of major concern in Larissa. The town of 200,000 provided the only professional club to ever break Greece's 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 a year. Their sponsor promises there may be more money forthcoming.
"Here is where it all begins, with amateur sport. It's where the talent is bred," Alevridou 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.