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Strikers jumped up for headers only to miss the ball entirely. Players tumbled over one another, shouting out accusations that they had been fouled. Madam Soula, a former prostitute and now, at the age of 67, the owner of two luxury brothels here in Larissa, stepped in this fall to sponsor Voukefalas, a small amateur soccer team that like many others in Greece was having trouble coming up with the cash for uniforms, equipment and playing field fees.
But local officials in this once-rich farming area are hardly thanking her for her efforts. For a time, this city of , at the foot of Mount Olympus seemed to be weathering the Greek crisis better than most. But the years of recession are piling up and most businesses are suffering. Unemployment is over 20 percent, higher among young people.
Madam Soula said her business had been hurt, too. But not that much. Customers sometimes even fly in from Britain, she said, drawn by Internet ads. Batziolas said he looked everywhere for team sponsors, but found nothing until Madam Soula came forward. His own travel agency, L. Travel, provided most of the money last year. But it just could not afford to any longer, he said. Tzanakoulis, who has been mayor here for more than a decade, says that the municipality is continuing to support sports, but that the central government has not been delivering, which leaves a great need.
Voukefalas is not the only team to have been creative in looking for sponsors. Another soccer team got a funeral home to act as a sponsor and for a while wore black T-shirts with white crosses. But league officials did not like that either. Madam Soula tries to shrug off the hullabaloo over her sponsorship. In these needy times, she is simply trying to help, she said. She has a handful of homes, she said, including a small, tidy house beside one of her brothels.
There she grows a vegetable garden and tends to a small dog and nine cats. During tough economic times, an amateur team found sponsorship from a local madam. But it is clear, too, that the public condemnation it has brought her is taking a toll. On a recent evening, she seemed crushed at times that her generosity should engender such hostility. She defends prostitution as a means of survival that allowed her to support much of her family over the years.