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Sleeping with the enemy

I was 13 at the time, and Pana played Atlético Madrid in a preseason friendly at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. PAO, as the team is called, beat the Spaniards 2-0, if memory serves, and I bought a scarf that I still have. (Though it barely survived my beery college days, when I used to wear it out to the bars. All you undergrads, a little advice: Get yourself a soccer scarf in a foreign language. It's a built-in pick-up line.)

In the taxi on the way home, Uncle George explained the unwritten rules about being a Panathinaikos fan. There really was only one: Hate the other two big clubs in Athens, AEK and Olympiakos.

One of the big three has won the Greek Championship all but six times in the league's history, so you can imagine the enmity built up over time. The diehards in Gate 13, PAO's supporters group, would rather drink hemlock than root for one of those guys. (Gate 13ers proudly display their riot photos on their Web site.)

This week, though, I have to admit, I'm rooting for Olympiakos. (Gasp! The horror!) No, it's true. And afterward, I won't chain myself to a cliff side to have my eyes pecked out by eagles. I'm sincere in my support because Olympiakos has a massive, do-or-die crunch match in the Champions League against Werder Bremen on Tuesday. It needs just a draw to advance from a pretty difficult Group C that also includes Real Madrid and Lazio.

I, proud Panathinaikos fan, would give anything to be at Karaiskaki Stadium in Piraeus to watch Olympiakos handle Werder. I might even don a red scarf for those 90 minutes, though I will have my original green one tied around my waist under my jacket.

Now there are plenty of ultras in the world reading this and choking on their Vegemite sandwiches. "Damn Americans!" they're saying. "What an arse. You never betray your club!"

Yeah, yeah, yeah, well ... that sort of Semper Fi attitude might apply when you're a fan of a big club in Italy, Spain or England, where Champions League action is a given each year and your team is flush with cash and South American superstars in their prime.

But when you're a fan of a second-tier league like the Greek Super League, you don't have such luxury. You only get so many spots in the Champions League -- Greece gets one automatic and one qualifier (this year, the qualifier, AEK, was thumped 6-1 by Sevilla) -- so those Champions League teams end up representing more than their club. They represent a nation.

Think of it like a beauty pageant. It's not as if all the beautiful women in, say, Michigan, don't root for Miss Michigan in the Miss America pageant.

Or think about Eurovision, the annual international pop-song competition. It's like March Madness for aspiring Britneys who compete under their national flags. In 1974, ABBA won for Waterloo. I'm pretty sure all the other disco-pop bands in Sweden were singing along during the finals: Waterloo, couldn't escape if I wanted to.

To me, Olympiakos is simply Greece's entry in the Champions League. If it does well, everyone in the Greek Super League, including my beloved Panathinaikos, will reap the benefits. Maybe the league will get a second automatic group-stage berth. Maybe some Brazilian star will watch Olympiakos and decide he wants to play in sunny Athens rather than, say, rainy Bremen (hint, hint, Diego) or snowy Moscow (hint, hint, Vágner Love).

Being a fan of Greek soccer, I must root for Olympiakos. If ... no, when it qualifies for the next round, I will raise a glass of ouzo to it. Stin ygeia sas, o Thrylos! ("To your health, Legend.") But only one glass. You don't want to overdo this rooting-for-your-rivals thing.

Besides, I need to save some of the ouzo for next week. Panathinaikos has a big match in the UEFA Cup. The opponent? Atlético Madrid.