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Monday, June 02, 2003

Sports

All the President’s Men


The Greek soccer season is over and we have a winner: Socrates Kokkalis, the president and majority shareholder of Olympiakos. To be sure, it was his players who actually won the championship by topping the other 15 teams in Greek soccer’s professional league in a season that involved 30 games played over nine months. But the players would not have done so without his leadership. By the same token, Olympiakos could have fallen short and lost out to another big team — AEK, PAOK, or the eventual runner-up, Panathinaikos — but only if the respective presidents of those teams had managed to match up equally well with Kokkalis.

Once upon a time in the East…
It was not supposed to be that way. In fact, it was only 25 years ago that Greece’s soccer league turned fully professional, a move that inaugurated a new era in the country’s most popular sport. Prior to this great transformation, the teams belonged to amateur clubs that were involved in several sports and ran their soccer teams on a semi-professional basis, while relying on the government for financial support, tax breaks on gate receipts, and other favors such as giving jobs in the public sector to top players in order to supplement their income.

In that cash-strapped environment, there were other under-the-counter ways that players (as well as referees) could make extra money. Bribery was rampant, and riots at games by angry and frustrated fans were frequent. Greek society’s conventional wisdom that conspiracies governed public life in the 1960s was confirmed on the soccer field as often as it was in parliament.

For some, of course, those were the good old days. Pathos, not a paycheck, dictated the intensity on the field. But this type of nostalgia overlooks who paid the piper. Presidents were paternalistic figures in that era of semi-professionalism, and they used their own financial resources and those of their close associates to control things on and off the field. Wealthy businessmen were able to attract highly paid foreign coaches and pay the salaries of star players although both kinds of expenditures were actually well beyond the means of their clubs. They were also able to ensure that referees made the right calls in closely contested matches and to control fan clubs by dispensing free tickets and paying for transport costs for road games. The presidents of the top clubs formed an unofficial cartel that prevented any upstart team from challenging the three or four top clubs that monopolized the sport’s honors. No wonder that Greek soccer’s padre padrones achieved legendary status in the 1970s. Apostolos Nikolaidis was known as Panathinaikos’s “patriarch,” shipowner Nikos Goulandris was Olympiakos-Piraeus’s “father,” and businessman Loukas Barlos was AEK’s “uncle.”

After 24 years of professionalism beginning with the 1979-1980 season, and despite many changes, the club presidents remain the dominant figures in Greek professional soccer. Initially, it appeared that Greek soccer was entering a brave new world with gleaming corporations replacing the tawdry “amateur” clubs. In July 1979, a group of shipowners led by Stavros Daifas put down a staggering 61 million drachmas to acquire the majority of shares in Olympiakos, Inc., while the Vardinoyannis Group — which, among other things, owned the Motor Oil Hellas refineries and Avin Oil distribution company — paid another 60 million drachmas to secure majority interest in Panathinaikos, Inc.

What this all meant, in effect, was that more money was pumped into the sport, and that the informal state of patronage became official. The newly minted professional clubs formed their own association, but they never quite achieved autonomy from the state-run soccer federation. But nor did they seek it, since they retained old benefits such as tax breaks and special favors. The corporations harked on their independence only when it came to negotiating television contracts and handling their own accounts.

Money itself did not bring modernization, however, because none of the big clubs were interested in establishing bona fide self-governing institutional structures. Governments accommodated the demands of the captains of the soccer industry, mindful of its popular appeal. Referees were still vulnerable to the clout wielded by the big clubs, while reporters covering teams could well be described as the first embedded or indeed “in-bedded” journalists. Each season’s soccer shenanigans remain rich material for satire, let alone criticism, but the Greek print media on the whole cravenly “report” on the sport in a manner more worthy of the public relations departments of the influential teams.

The pitch is red
The 2002-03 soccer season was rife with signs of further degeneration. The previous season had ended on a very sour note, as investigations into alleged bribery of referees by Olympiakos led nowhere. Even the TV screening of videotapes containing damning evidence was apparently not enough to implicate anyone, and accusations harmlessly bounced off Socrates Kokkalis. Several newspapers railed against the influential businessman in vain, citing charges against him of espionage, money laundering, embezzlement, fraud, and felonious bribery, but then answered their own questions as to his legal impermeability by explaining that he enjoyed a very close relationship with Prime Minister Costas Simitis.

As the 2002-03 season got underway, Olympiakos, which had come top of the league continually since 1996-97, came out of the blocks strongly, but then faltered. By Christmas, Greek soccer began contemplating the unthinkable: a fatal loss of form of the perennial champions or, depending on one’s standpoint, a terminal loss of Kokkalis’s control behind the scenes. Olympiakos’s reign over Greek soccer began looking increasingly tenuous. Fans had gotten so used to the Piraeus team’s by-hook-or-by-crook predominance that they had begun to refer to the years since 1997 as Year I of Olympiakos’s championship, Year II, and so on, in emulation of the French revolutionary calendar.

But Socrates Kokkalis is no Maximilien Robespierre. The French revolutionary lasted a mere five years until the guillotine brought his reign of terror to an end in 1794. Kokkalis has shown that he’s made of sterner stuff, and that there’ll be no Thermidor for him. Young Socrates was raised in the communist bloc as his father, Petros, was a leader of the Greek left and was therefore forced to seek refuge in eastern Europe. Hence, Kokkalis, Jr. studied in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic among people who knew much about seizing and retaining power (to a certain point).

For someone with such an impeccably socialist pedigree, Kokkalis managed to do extraordinarily well in the capitalist West. In 1997, he founded Intracom, the largest provider of telecommunications, information, and defense electronic systems in Greece. According to its Website, the company has established a leading position in the southern and eastern European, as well as Middle Eastern, markets. With a presence in more than 50 countries all over the world, Intracom has now emerged as a global player in its fields. If the opposition press claims about close ties between Simitis and Kokkalis are true, one must give the Greek prime minister credit for knowing how to choose his friends.

Kokkalis became president of Olympiakos — whose colors are, appropriately, red and white — in 1993. As if guiding Olympiakos to six consecutive titles was not proof of his skills, Kokkalis showed the world how much presidents count by delivering the 2002-03 crown to Piraeus. Admittedly, frontrunner Panathinaikos bent over backward to make things exciting right at the end of the season. While Olympiakos regained its winning form a few Sundays before the end, Panathinaikos dropped valuable points on the road in Yannina and Nea Smyrni.

Soccer in deepest shade
Meanwhile, a couple of other strong contenders lagged behind, proving that sometimes having a good team but the wrong kind of president can be worse than having a not-so-good team but a very good president. By all accounts, AEK, which finished third in the league standings, had the strongest team and put together a spectacular 12-game winning streak. Unfortunately, they also had the worst president.

To make a long story short, Chrysostomos “Makis” Psomiades is now AEK’s former president. After a year in which he led the club to the brink of bankruptcy, he was pushed out of office and, after a struggle, sold his shares to another major shareholder, ENIC, a British company. Psomiades’s forced divestiture was a precondition demanded by the British before injecting cash into the club to be used in part to pay significant sums owed to the coach and players. At the moment, Psomiades is protesting the findings of an audit of AEK’s finances by the state’s financial-crimes squad that revealed that close to 9 million euros had gone astray during his “administration.”

Meanwhile, PAOK-Thessaloniki finished fourth behind AEK, but won the Greek Cup, the second most important Greek soccer trophy, which involves an elimination tourney that is much shorter than the league’s marathon-like nine-month season. Such a good showing was a miracle for northern Greece’s most popular club because PAOK’s president was unable to balance the books. Georgios Batatoudis was eventually forced to step down from his position as head of the franchise at the end of the season in a swirl of allegations of financial wrongdoing.

With cash-strapped AEK and PAOK unable to muster the energy to challenge for the title, and with Panathinaikos stumbling toward the finish line, Kokkalis became the man of the hour. His team was scheduled to play Panathinaikos on May 11 in the penultimate game of the season for both teams, in what was essentially a winner-take-all contest (although a tie would have favored Panathinaikos and a one-goal victory for Olympiakos would have meant an additional play-off game between the two teams to decide the winner).

Kokkalis made it his business to rally his troops in order to secure a huge victory. Several weeks earlier, he had started a campaign to persuade Olympiakos fans to register as members by paying a subscription to the team, in a move supposedly designed to bridge the gap between shareholders and ordinary fans and thus “empower” the latter. The campaign gained momentum beyond Piraeus and throughout Greece just as the league championship approached its finale, creating additional excitement among the red-and-white faithful.

Kokkalis then threw the gauntlet down to the enemy in a speech he made encouraging the enrollment of new members. He expressed his confidence that his team would defeat Panathinaikos handily because the opposing players, he said, were “hens” (kotes) a term of opprobrium in Greece that questions the masculinity of one’s foe. His next move was to visit his team in practice in order to encourage it and raise morale. The next day, Kokkalis announced he was doubling the bonus that players would receive in a victory against Panathinaikos, in another move to encourage them and raise morale further.

Kokkalis’s counterpart, Panathinaikos president Angelos Philippides, decided to take the high road and did not respond — an odd move for a man who, after last season’s encounter between the two teams, was banned for six months for his role in a physical attack on a referee and for his demand that the government invalidate the championship since the referee who had been attacked had allegedly favored Olympiakos. Worse still, Panathinaikos’s president said nothing about bonuses. Worst of all, he decided not to attend the crucial game between the two teams. Had he been present, he might have been able to persuade police to protect the Panathinaikos bus from the Olympiakos home crowd that pelted it with stones and firecrackers upon its arrival at the stadium. The Olympiakos fans repeated this attack when the Panathinaikos players took the field. One thing is certain: his predecessor, Georgios Vardinoyannis, would have marched onto the field to reassure, and demand an end to the intimidation of, his players.

Long before the smoke from the firecrackers aimed at the Panathinaikos players had cleared, Olympiakos had scored two goals and went on to add another one and win both the game and championship. A disoriented Philippides called his players “hens” in a radio interview the next day and then hastily retracted his comments, while a triumphant Kokkalis congratulated his team and made plans for a massive celebration in downtown Piraeus. Let’s give the man all the credit he deserves: Of all the presidents of the top Greek soccer clubs, only he has understood that modernization cannot work without a good dose of tradition mixed in. Kokkalis’s Olympiakos, Inc., may be a well-run corporation, but it also relies on a populist brand of paternalism — and it is this combination that separates this president’s men from all the other presidents’ hens.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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