In three weeks Greek football went from purgatory to paradise, but Paul Pomonis is not sure whether the euphoria will survive Colin Moynihan being called in for advice
“Greeks always exaggerate, whether in sorrow or in joy,” was Otto Rehhagel’s rather unkind remark when, minutes after the Euro 2004 final, a Greek TV reporter asked him to comment on the explosion of mass euphoria that greeted his team’s astonishing crowning as European champions. Anxious to preserve his seasoned pro image, King Otto had for once got it wrong. If anything, even in jubilation both players’ and fans’ reactions to the “fairytale of Portugal” were characterised by stunned incredulity and down to earth realism. “How on earth did you pull such a stunt?” a reporter asked striker Demis Nikolaides a few hours after the final. “I have no idea,” came the honest reply, while scorer Angelos Charisteas urged the fans back home to party on as “they would most probably never experience anything remotely similar in their lifetimes”.
Please Don’t Wake Us Up ran the headline of an Athens daily after the epic semi-final qualification over the Czechs, summing up the general feeling. For the Greek public, long resigned to associating football with either a TV crime drama or a never-ending series of disasters, the prospect of a Greek national team success in a major football tournament belonged to something out of a Twilight Zone episode. In fact after a series of calamitous seasons, even the most hardened football fan had conceded that in Greece the game had gone beyond the point of salvation.
Decades of chaotic mismanagement, widespread corruption and lack of transparency came to a head during the 2003-04 season. According to a financial report published by the Ministry of Development, the accumulated debts of the 15 top division clubs had reached €275 million (£185m), a staggering amount considering that the total gate income of the top division last season did not exceed €10m (£6.7m). In fact, the report concluded, under the existing Fair Trading regulations 11 of those clubs should have their licences immediately revoked. The government stopped short of carrying out the advice, but in panic most clubs suspended payment of even their most basic obligations, starting with their players’ wages.
Not surprisingly spectator violence continued to rise. Panicky measures such as the blanket ban on all away fans, introduced in January, further complicated an already unmanageable situation. Things reached rock bottom in May when, in order to ensure the police’s permission to stage the cup final, the FA publicly called on the fans to stay away from the match. Faced with a situation which increasingly resembled a bad joke, the fans voted with their feet. The season ended on an average attendance of 3,200 per match, while only one club, PAOK Salonika, managed to exceed the 10,000 mark.
Under the circumstances, it was only reasonable that expectations for the national team ran low. And it was not just the fans: on the day the team landed in Portugal, Nikolaides announced that the final first-round game against Russia would be his last. Even the usually bombastic Rehhagel said he would be more than satisfied if his team recorded Greece’s first ever win at a major football tournament.
Following the victory over Portugal in the opening game of the tournament fewer than 300 fans came out on the streets of Athens to celebrate. By the time Greece reached the quarter-finals, the street parties had come to involve tens of thousands. For a nation permanently self-conscious about its image, which for the last four years has had to endure the fall out of disastrous preparations for the Athens Olympics, the events in Portugal turned out to be an intoxicating tonic. If Greek football can shine on the world stage then nothing is impossible, was the underlying feeling. The beleaguered Athens 2004 Olympic Organising Committee could only thank their luck for the godsend.
Not surprisingly, Greece’s triumph in Portugal is unanimously considered a major opportunity for positive change. Free Football ran the headline of conservative Athens daily Kathimerini in the wake of Greece’s win over France. Riding on a crest of euphoria, the newly elected sports minister, Giorgos Orfanos, labelled the Greek national team’s success “the last chance to clean up the game”. An ecstatic nation cheered on.
Still, when the celebrations die down, Orfanos may realise that it takes much more than populist bravado to solve this particular dilemma. The underworld that has been controlling Greek football for decades has on many occasions turned out to be far more resilient and astute than consecutive ministers expected. After all, the acid test for Orfanos’s intentions has already turned up: on the eve of the Euro 2004 semi-final against the Czech Republic, an Athens court rejected a takeover bid for AEK, opening the way for the club’s relegation to the Fourth Division. The way the new government chooses to deal with this crisis will speak volumes of the depth of their convictions and the lengths they are prepared to go in dealing with what have been called Greek football’s carcinoma.
When asked about his views on the government’s intentions, central defender Traianos Dellas was less than optimistic. “I don’t believe anything will come out of this,” was his curt reply. Considering that the first man to whom Orfanos turned for advice after his appointment was Conservative sports spokesman Colin Moynihan, Dellas’s scepticism may not be out of place. Perhaps they should start considering making Rehhagel the new sports minister.
From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month