It was about a year ago when Greek football, including professional clubs and the national team, faced the specter of being suspended from all international competition, following “reforms” which the SYRIZA government attempted to ram through which would have formally created state oversight of the country’s national football federation and football leagues.
Faced with the threat of expulsion from international play, the “reforms” were eventually diluted enough to avert such an outcome. However, numerous other changes, including the restructuring of the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) board of directors and roster of referees, moved forward. These “reforms” were enacted purportedly to “eliminate corruption” in Greek football.
That “catharsis” has been on full and proud display this season, as two teams in particular, AEK FC (based in Athens) and PAOK FC (based in Thessaloniki) have been the seeming beneficiaries of this new state of affairs. Refereeing, purportedly “cleaned up” as part of these “reforms,” has been brazenly and unabashed favorable to these two squads, with numerous matches decided on dubious decisions or “missed” calls.
It is surely a coincidence that the presidents of these two teams, wealthy oligarchs Dimitris Melissanidis and Ivan Savvidis, are strong supporters of the current SYRIZA-led government, as well as beneficiaries of the current regime as well.
It is Melissanidis who, along with Czech investors, has taken ownership of the privatized national lottery and sports betting organization OPAP, all the while being the president competing in the very same domestic football league for which OPAP accepts bets. Conflict of interest is apparently an unknown phrase in the ranks of the SYRIZA-led government.
In the 1980s, Melissanidis was twice charged with bribery. This was followed in 1996 by a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion and oil smuggling. In 2013, Melissanidis allegedly threatened the life a journalist who had published an exposé of the activities of Melissanidis-owned Aegean Oil.
In turn, Ivan Savvidis, a former member of the Russian parliament, has recently purchased, along with foreign investors, the port of Thessaloniki. He owns 100 percent of national television broadcaster Epsilon TV. His investments in Greece include ownership of a soft drink factory, a luxury hotel, an aviation company, and a facility which produces tobacco products and which he threatened to liquidate if debts to the state were not written off.
It seems this close-knit relationship with the government pays dividends on the pitch as well, as AEK FC and PAOK are in a neck-and-neck race for this year’s Super League crown, while perennial champions Olympiacos are middling in third place. The owner of Olympiacos FC, shipping magnate Evaggelos Marinakis, is not known to maintain favorable ties with the SYRIZA-led government.
Recently, a scheduled match between PAOK and Olympiacos never began, after a fan threw an object from the stands which struck the coach of Olympiacos in the head. As per league rules and precedent set after a similar incident last season, where Panathinaikos FC was penalized (interestingly enough in a match against PAOK) after a fan hurled a beer bottle which struck one of PAOK’s players. Panathinaikos lost the game on paper, was docked three additional points in the standings, and its home field was penalized for two matches, where the team played in front of empty stands.
However, cozy relationships with the centers of power apparently pay off, as in the case of PAOK. Following the incident in the match which never began with Olympiacos, essentially the same penalty was levied as in last year’s incident. However, upon appeal, PAOK’s three deducted points were restored, and the suspension of its home field was dropped, just in time for PAOK to face its rival, AEK, in front of a packed house instead of in front of empty seats. The only part of the initial penalty which remained unchanged was the “outcome” on paper of the PAOK-Olympiacos match that never was, which remains an Olympiacos victory by default. The reversal of the original decision ensures that PAOK remains very much in the hunt for this year’s Super League title.
This decision is scandalous not only due to the fact that a clear and evident double standard was employed, seemingly to protect PAOK. It is scandalous also due to the incredible speed with which the decision was levied. In a country where an ordinary judicial case can drag on for a decade or more, and where previous decisions and appeals involving sporting clubs often took weeks to resolve, the appeal was heard and original decision was overturned all in just over 24 hours and issued at 1 am, during a weekend to boot.
Greece is a country that has a reputation of being inefficient and where the state operates in a frustratingly slow and ponderous manner. The reality is that the Greek system can be frighteningly quick and efficient when deemed politically expedient. This is evidently the case with the ultra-fast decision favoring PAOK issued by the “reformed” EPO, stacked with personnel essentially hand-picked by the SYRIZA-led government.
Sports is politics worldwide (as evidenced by the recent Russian “doping scandal” and actions of the International Olympic Committee), and this is plainly evident in Greece, where teams owned by oligarchs favorable to the government are the beneficiaries of favorable treatment. These oligarchs then utilize the organized supporters of their squads to create “voting blocs” which faithfully and fanatically toe the line laid down by the team president and reinforced through sports newspapers and online portals favorable to the team in question.
As this happens, the SYRIZA government has attempted to score political points by claiming that it has “cleaned up football,” just as it is apparently “fishing out corruption” and “punishing those which brought Greece into its current mess” through the serendipitously-timed “Novartis scandal,” targeting members of the former New Democracy and Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) governments. Coincidentally, these reforms in the sports world favored pro-SYRIZA oligarchs, and coincidentally, the “Novartis scandal” successfully removed the massive Macedonia demonstrations and their aftermath, from the news cycle and from public discourse.
And unfortunately, for those who have even a cursory understanding of both the Greek sporting world and Greek politics, the decision to overturn the penalty against PAOK comes as no surprise. This author was at a café in Athens to watch the PAOK-Olympiacos match that never was, and overheard a conversation from the neighboring table, where a PAOK fan who was from Thessaloniki and who apparently had a contact within PAOK’s management reassured her friends that “Kontonis will overturn any decision against PAOK” (referring to former deputy minister of athletics and current justice minister Stavros Kontonis). It looks like her source within PAOK was well informed.
This decision now sets a new precedent, where any teams whose fans bring dangerous objects into the stadium, throw objects and strike opposing players and coaches, will essentially walk away unpunished. So much for SYRIZA’s efforts to “clean up” Greek football. And anyone who believes that this decision was reached without the influence of the highest ladders of power in Greek society, is sadly delusional.
Furthermore, the decision to reverse the previous decision at 1 am before game day and to allow tomorrow’s PAOK-AEK match to go forward with spectators begs the question: when did the tax authorities manage to certify the tickets for Sunday’s game? Did they do so on Friday, before the decision was even issued, knowing what it would be? Or are we expected to believe the tax office will open on Sunday, just for PAOK?
Such are “reforms,” SYRIZA-style, in Greece today. While “unlicensed” elderly chestnut vendors are thrown in jail an issued steep fines and while those who set a bank branch ablaze during protests in 2010, killing three people including a pregnant mother-to-be, have not ever been apprehended or charged; hooligans can throw objects, injure opposing teams’ coaches, and bring entire… motorcycles into a supposedly secure stadium (this also happened during the PAOK-Olympiacos match that never was) and go largely unpunished. And for such reforms, SYRIZA’s legions of supporters repeatedly claim, as if reading off a script, that SYRIZA is “doing away with the old corruption.” Perhaps it is, by rewarding the renewed corruption of its supporters, friends, and cronies.
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