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Friday, September 19, 2003

Sports

Greek Soccer (Improbably) Bids for European Glory


When Constantine Karamanlis uttered the phrase “we are doing well abroad, but badly at home” he was referring to Greece’s success in joining the European Community in the 1980s, despite its domestic political problems. Karamanlis’s phrase applies very well to the present state of Greek soccer, the country’s most popular sport, which, incidentally, the great statesman carefully avoided because of its corrupt practices. On the domestic front, nothing much has changed. Greek soccer is in the doldrums, with severe economic problems and a sharp drop in attendance at games adding to the problems caused by discredited administrators and referees. But not so on the international front. The Greek national team is poised to qualify for the final round of Euro 2004, the continent’s equivalent of the World Cup.

Improbably, if Greece beats Northern Ireland in Athens next month, it will win its qualifying group that includes soccer powerhouses Spain and Ukraine. It finds itself in this enviable position after following up its road wins in Belfast and Zaragosa with a 1-0 victory over Armenia in Yerevan in early September. Armenian claims that the Greeks tried to bribe them before the match appear to be totally unfounded and will not alter the Greek win. Only sixteen countries will participate in the finals in Portugal in 2004, out of fifty-one that entered the qualifying stage a couple of years ago.

The last and only time the Greek team made it to the finals of this major European nations’ tournament, that is held every four years, was in the summer of 1980 — coincidentally, six months before Greece became a member of the European Community. In order to do so back then, they had to come out on top of a qualifying group that included the Soviet Union. Greece lost its road game against the Soviets, played, coincidentally, also in Yerevan, but it defeated the big red machine in the return game held in Athens, and made it through to the 1980 finals. In a very unusual move, EPO, the Greek Soccer Federation, placed a special plaque outside the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium where that game was held, saluting the fans for their encouragement during that “historic” encounter.

If the outcome is successful this time, perhaps the federation should put up a plaque saluting the team coach and the players for focusing on the goal of getting to the finals without being distracted by the ongoing crisis of the Greek professional league. Three months prior to the victory over Armenia in September, Greek soccer entered its summer recess in a profound crisis. The 2002-03 season had witnessed crowd violence and destruction of property in and around stadiums, a further decline in attendance at games, renewed accusations of bias by referees, and the inability of several clubs to pay their players. Olympiakos Piraeus retained the championship for a seventh consecutive year, fuelling suspicions that the club uses behind-the-scenes methods to maintain its dominance. There is not other championship in Europe where one team has managed to monopolize the championship for so many consecutive seasons.

There were even bigger problems for the league this past season, when lucrative television deals fell through. In the mid-nineties, a new, all sports pay-channel, Supersport, owned by the Netmed Group, began carrying live soccer matches by offering a much better deal than the regular television channels such as the state-owned ERT as well as Antenna and MEGA. But in 1999, a new digital satellite station, Alpha TV upped Supersport and offered clubs separate more lucrative contracts. Apparently, Greek soccer retained its broad popularity, and the thousands of fans staying at home did want to watch their favorite teams play, at least in their living rooms. There was also a big market for Greek soccer broadcasts among the thousands of Greek immigrants in Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States. Alpha went ahead and offered several times more money — AEK Athens, for example, suddenly found itself earning ten million Euros. Buoyed by the big fat TV contracts, the clubs went on a spending spree over the past two years. Alas, early in the 2002-2003 season the bottom fell out of the market when Alpha discovered that advertising income was falling short of the large sums it had paid for the rights of televising games. It annulled the contracts, and the TV income bubble burst. Big clubs such as AEK Athens, and Aris and PAOK of Thessaloniki found themselves unable to pay their players.

The summer break is normally regeneration time for Greek soccer. The bad refereeing decisions, the hooliganism, the injuries the players suffer because of the dreadful playing surfaces and all the bitterness is put aside. The runners-up lick their wounds and look ahead to the next season, by launching an all out effort to improve their roster in the transfer market. Disgruntled fans are appeased by promises of imminent signings of fabulously talented players. Somehow overlooked by the wealthier and bigger European clubs, these players are an extraordinary find by the agents and talent scouts of Greek clubs. Moreover, they appear to be certain that a move to a Greek club will be the right career move. Indeed, in most cases, these big names are unaware of all the fervent speculation about their future that is going on in Greece. Ultimately, with very few exceptions, the foreign players who do arrive in Greece are of the lesser-known variety.

Transfer speculation becomes a summer sport that is fed by the sports media. The teams themselves need to do very little hyping. There are seven daily sports papers, several sports websites and numerous sports, radio, and TV programs desperate to find anything “newsworthy.” Unsubstantiated rumors about those world-class players preparing to join a Greek club routinely become front-page news. When the more anonymous replacement arrives at Athens airport, he is hailed as the new messiah of whichever club has signed him on.

Yet Greek soccer’s summer circus was very low key this summer. The financial crisis sparked by the unexpected end to the lucrative TV contracts brought everyone back to reality. AEK, Aris and PAOK were facing bankruptcy in the face. Panachaiki, the Patra soccer club defaulted on its debt payments. No one could even pretend they were about to sign up the likes of David Beckham.

Olympiakos’ main rival, Panathinaikos, was one of the few teams with some cash to spare but they were too busy trying to find a new president and a new coach. After the team lost the championship by caving in to Olympiakos right at the end of the season a personnel change became necessary. The owners of the club, the Vardinoyannis family, appointed a former team doctor as president, and initiated a search for coach. The easy choice would have been Zdenek Scasny, the Czech coach of OFI Crete, a professional team also under the sway of the Vardinoyannis family influence. The problem was, however, that Scasny, despite a short but excellent record in his country was not the type of marquee name that would appease the Panathinaikos rank and file, who were upset at their team’s end-of-season debacle. A whirlwind of speculation began in the sports media. Would a big name come to the Athens club, or would Scasny be moving from Crete to the capital?

Prudently, Scasny chose not hang around waiting in case Panathinaikos came knocking, and traveled to the United States to watch his daughter Pavlina play for the Philadelphia Charge that competes in the professional women’s league. Confirming his reputation of being blunt and outspoken, Scasny confirmed that Greek soccer was in crisis. Small teams, such as OFI, he said, were blatantly victimized by refereeing decisions, the team’s players lost their focus and their will to win, the soccer federation came up with bewildering last minute changes in the schedule. While in the United States, Scasny learnt that he would be staying in Crete after all, because Panathinaikos chose Israeli coach Yitchak Shoum as its new coach. The unknown Shoum’s only claim to fame was that he had guided his former club, Maccabi Haifa to victory against Olympiakos. Appeasing the fans is, indeed, the name of the game during the summer recess.

While the sports media speculated freely about the unknown local and foreign players about to be recruited by the Greek clubs, whether any of the top teams would go bankrupt, and who would be taking over Panathinaikos, the national team was evidently maintaining its composure and preparing for the crucial game in Armenia. It cannot be a coincidence that the national team coach, Otto Rehagel, a German, included five Greek players who play in professional leagues in Europe in the eleven man line up he fielded in Armenia. The foreign-based players do not have to worry about imminent bankruptcies or other untoward events upsetting their careers. It was one of those players, Zisis Vryzas who plays for Perugia in Italy who scored the only goal of the game. Demis Nikolaidis, who moved to Athletico Madrid from cash-strapped AEK Athens, came close to scoring at the end of the game. In fact Rehagel had to persuade Nikolaidis to join the national team, he had quit a while ago protesting the Greek soccer federation’s handling of a dispute between AEK and, who else, but, the always dominant Olympiakos.

Rehagel has been coaching the Greek team since 2001, but he prefers to speak in his native tongue to the players and to the press. It is rumored that the real purpose of this is to protect himself from the interfering busy-bodies of the Greek soccer federation who have nothing better to do than to voice their opinion about the national team’s international encounters. The interpreter he uses for the team and the media somehow gets lost when the federation’s potentates are around. Rehagel may indeed not speak much Greek, but he seems to be aware of Karamanlis’ dictum that the Greeks do better on the foreign rather than the domestic front.

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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