The reign of Greek federation chairman Vassilis Gagatsis is over. Paul Pomonis looks back at the volatile period he oversaw
It is said there is a thin line between glory and catastrophe. Never has this been clearer than in the recent fall of Vassilis Gagatsis, the once mighty chairman of EPO, the Hellenic Football Federation.
Only six months ago Gagatsis seemed indestructible. Last October he won a third consecutive re-election as chairman of the federation, a victory that left him the absolute ruler of Greek football until 2012. By January, caught between a criminal case brought against him for forgery and breach of trust, and various ongoing fiscal and criminal investigations for financial mismanagement, Gagatsis had to grudgingly resign.
It was a finale as inglorious as it was unexpected, for a man who had spent 11 years as the most influential figure at EPO (four years as general secretary and seven as chairman of the federation). During this time he managed to associate himself with Greek football’s finest hour and its biggest scandal while humiliating every minister or political apparatchik who attempted to encroach on the federation’s self-governing status.
Control of EPO had traditionally been the cornerstone of every Greek sport minister’s policy. Gagatsis was the first EPO chairman who not only stood his ground against the collective might of the Greek political class but managed to force four consecutive sports ministers to capitulate by threatening to get FIFA involved whenever cornered. It must have been a source of huge personal satisfaction for Gagatsis to see on two occasions, in 2002 and 2006, the Greek parliament introduce legislation effectively recognising his untouchable status.
“We took over a ‘limited liability’ federation,” Gagatsis boasted in his resignation statement, “dependent on state subsidies for its survival, prey to the whim of every minister... We changed the course of history by concentrating all legislative and executive power to the hands of the federation and its local union-members.” Judging by his parting salvo, it is obvious that his defence of the federation’s self-governing status is what Gagatsis is most proud of. Rather surprising for a man who presided over Greek football’s proudest moment, the Euro 2004 triumph in Portugal. Although, for reasons that will be explained, few people are willing to associate Gagatsis with the “Miracle of Lisbon”, his contribution was hardly negligible. After all, only a man of Gagatsis’s arrogance and obstinacy would have picked a cantankerous, semi-retired German to be Greece’s coach.
However, for the vast majority of Greeks Gagatsis’s stint at the helm of EPO will forever be tainted by the Paranga scandal. In 2002, a Greek TV investigation revealed the existence of a widespread network of referees, club directors and football officials who were fixing games on a huge scale. The network was euphemistically called Paranga (the hut). Chronologically, its operation coincided with both the ascension of Gagatsis to the highest echelons of the federation and the establishment of total domination of the Greek league by Olympiakos, two facts many saw as related. It has long been a tenet of Greek football that he who controls EPO controls referees. For many, like the respected journalist Filipos Syrigos, Gagatsis was “the institutional head of the hut”.
The subsequent handling of the scandal by the federation only thickened the cloud of suspicion: despite the wealth of evidence, EPO hid behind the fig leaf of a plodding criminal investigation to explain its inactivity. The fact that nobody was eventually held accountable for Greek football’s biggest corruption scandal meant that allegations of pro-Olympiakos bias would follow Gagatsis throughout his stint as chairman.
Indeed, during the 12 seasons of Gagatsis’s reign, Olympiakos won 11 league titles, an unprecedented feat. Although Gagatsis declared that the accusations against him were used by many “to cover their own mistakes and excuse their personal incompetence”, it was hardly surprising that Olympiakos were the only club that issued a communiqué thanking Gagatsis “for his contribution to Greek football”.
Funnily, no mention was made of what that contribution was. Despite his undeniable professional virtues and the godsend “Miracle of Lisbon”, Gagatsis is leaving Greek football no healthier than it was in 1997, when he made his entrance. The amateur competitions have ground to a halt for lack of funds, sporting infrastructure remains as decrepit as ever, while the professional leagues are still suffering the after-effects of the Paranga scandal. The new leaders of EPO will need a radical shift of direction if they are to rise to the multiple challenges facing Greek football, which in his long stint as chairman Gagatsis totally failed to address.
From WSC 268 June 2009