Welcome to Hellas

Football in Greece is turning increasingly ugly, tainted by both hooliganism and corruption. Paul Pomonis reports

When fans of Olympiakos used stones, lumps of wood and petrol bombs to attack a bus carrying AEK Athens supporters to their Greek Cup semi-final second leg last month, there can have been few in Greek football who were either shocked or surprised. Violence and corruption have been escalating for years and the AEK-Olympiakos feud is the  most poisonous of all in the festering domestic game.

The latest incident was sparked by a near-riot at a basketball match between the two clubs  the previous weekend, but even that paled into insignificance compared with the events at a meeting of the two clubs earlier in the season. The chairman of the League, Vic­tor Mitropolous, who dares to venture only into a few grounds and then escorted by armed bodyguards, became involved in an altercation with a former AEK chairman, during which his minder was stabbed, though not before firing five gunshots. Typically, al­though there was enough TV footage to convict at least a dozen people of GBH or even att­empted murder, nobody was charged.

There is a pervading feeling that big clubs can get away with anything. The people who ambushed and beat up the referee of the 1995 Cup final have still not been identified. Last season a top referee was shot six times in the legs. Although various football names were mentioned, the investigation was eventually dropped. Violence by the fans of big clubs is usually met by the League’s disciplinary com­mittee with laxity. Second Division Kalithea saw their ground closed for one match after the chairman vented his anger at a referee. Yet PAOK, whose fans flattened a linesman with a rock, received merely a £1,500 fine.

November was a particularly bad month for the beleaguered Greek FA. Its vice chairman was involved in a gun fight in the VIP lounge at AEK’s ground; AEK’s Nikolaides, Atmatsides and Kassapis announced they were boycotting the national team in protest at what they perceived as the football authorities’ pro-Olympiakos bias; and the Athens Public Prosecutor charged the FA’s secretary-general with bribery. In a recent interview the socialist MP Yorgos Lianis said that football encapsulates everything that is evil and base in Greek society. And he should know, since he was the sports minister from 1993 to 1996.

Not surprisingly, the fans are turning their backs. Last season the average First Division crowd was 4,000. Olympiakos, the Double winners and the most popular club in the country, averaged 11,000. After years of mis­management most clubs are left with debts so big that should commercial law be applied Greece would be left with a two-club league.

The direct consequence is an understandable reluctance from investors to get involved, leaving the clubs dependent on meagre state subsidies and TV income. ENIC’s failure with AEK Athens is a telling example.

Financial hardship breeds corruption. Although allegations are rife, they are never seriously investigated. Earlier this season the AEK manager implied that his team had bought its way to a Champions League place. A former Olympiakos director was quoted as bragging that he had played a bigger role in his club’s three consecutive championships than the team’s manager. Neither case was investigated.

In a recent opinion poll among fans, 60 per cent said they believed the league title is not decided on the pitch. It’s an opinion shared by top football figures. One of the most re­s­pected players of the past 20 years, Stelios Manolas, revealed on TV that during his play­ing days he knew that big clubs routinely paid referees to get results and even went on to give names. Unsurprisingly, his revelations fell on deaf ears. Lost in perennial byzantine power plays, the football authorities act as if afraid that should they dig deeper the whole edifice may come tumbling down.

From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month