Last-gasp victor

Greece escaped a FIFA threat to throw them out of the World Cup at the end of April. Paul Pomonis explains how they got in such a mess

When the newily appointed junior minister of sport Giorgos Florides declared his intention “to intervene institutionally and dynamically in football” in March 2000, few people took notice. A year later the Greek FA was seriously threatened with expulsion from FIFA. Florides, a 44-year-old lawyer, took over his post with the aim of achieving the often announced katharsi (cleaning up) of Greek football. It soon became obvious that for him katharsi meant the removal of Victor Mitropoulos, head of EPAE, the Greek FA.

The Mitropoulos brothers, Victor and Thomas, are the most controversial figures of Greek football in the past two decades. In 1981 they took over a small Athens club, Egaleo, and led them into the First Division. But, facing insurmountable financial problems, the brothers could not prevent the club’s rapid descent. Worse, Victor was charged with embezzling 45 million drachmas (£82,000), a charge that would come to haunt him several years later. Thomas received a custodial sentence for issuing dud cheques. The Nineties dawned with both brothers ruined. But not for long.

Using his keen business sense and undoubted charisma, Victor managed not only to return to EPAE’s executive committee but also to secure the post of head negotiator for the League’s TV rights. When, in 1995, he to brokered a £2.2 million deal with a cable TV network, he was hailed as a financial wizard. His plans for increased TV income were particularly appealing to smaller clubs, bedevilled by dwindling gates and the greed of the big boys. Victor’s status as the champion of the weak was confirmed in 1998 when he successfully fended off the combined attack of Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, eager to get a bigger share of the new TV bonanza. With ­election as chairman of EPAE in 1999, his comeback was complete.

Meanwhile, Thomas was working away backstage. Having built a reputation as a fixer in his Egaleo days, his services were called upon in the mid-Nineties by Olympiakos chairman Sokratis Kokalis anxious to release the FA and the referees from what he perceived as a strong Panathinaikos grip. In 1996, Thomas joined the Olympiakos board. Coincidentally or not, since employing Mitropoulos, Olympiakos have won five consecutive titles.

Victor, facing an indictment over the Egaleo embezzlement charges, had successfully engaged in legal obstruction for seven years – a testament to his powerful political connections. In September 2000, however, Giorgos Florides introduced a draft bill prohibiting people facing criminal charges from holding senior sports administration posts. Parliament voted the bill through unanimously in December.

Victor’s only hope of holding on to his office lay with FIFA and on March 20 they duly delivered. In a letter addressed to EPAE and signed by secretary general Michel Zen-Ruffinen, FIFA presented the Greek government with a clear ultimatum: either revoke all legislative measures relevant to Mitropoulos’s removal by April 25 or face expulsion from FIFA.

Facing the prospect of a PR disaster, the government got involved in some frantic damage limitation work and pulled off a last-minute compromise with FIFA. Nevertheless, there is bound to be some political fallout. Not even his worst enemies question Florides’s good intentions and personal integrity. However, ­politics being the dirty game they are, he is the person most likely to become the fall guy. Having staked everything on the katharsi card, Florides may soon learn the hard way that football is not the ideal ground for building a political career.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month