Oligarch Ivan Savvidis to control two clubs. Image: W. Aswetsopoulos
PAOK Thessaloniki and Xanthi, both owned by Russian-Greek oligarch Ivan Savvidis, have been sentenced to forced relegation, and politicians are in a panic
The news hit on Monday evening, as Greek media headlined, "like a bombshell", the reigning champion of Greek professional football PAOK Thessaloniki was sentenced to forced relegation by the Commission for Professional Sports.
A quote fondly used in Greece says that a revolution in the country is only possible when one of the "rough teams" is condemned to forced relegation. This acid test is now in store for Greek politics. In concrete terms, this means that PAOK Thessaloniki has been condemned to relegation to the second league, but can expect that the current laws will simply be overridden. Although the Professional Sports Commission is legally an independent body whose decisions are to be implemented by the government, the Ministerial Secretary of State for Sports, Lefteris Avgenakis, has already intervened.
"The government respects the self-government of Greek football and the verdict of the Professional Sports Committee. But it is not possible to impose the most severe penalty, that of relegation, on historic soccer clubs without absolute proof", he tweeted.
In this regard, the offense charged against both teams condemned to relegation is clear and the penalty of mandatory relegation is unavoidable. Both PAOK and Xanthi have the same owner, according to the Commission’s file. It is about the Russian-Greek oligarch Ivan Savvidis. Savvidis is accused of controlling both teams, which both play in the same league.
PAOK already announced that in case of forced relegation of the football team, all competitive teams will be withdrawn from all competitions. Violent demonstrations are feared in northern Greece.
The club goes on the offensive and announces: "Soon their dream of seeing PAOK on the ground becomes a nightmare." The club demands the resignation of Avgenakis: "Today we pick up the gauntlet thrown by Lefteris Avgenakis and call on the Prime Minister to remove it immediately. It is dangerous for the sport and for the cohesion of the country."
Avgenakis has good reason to fear the relegation of PAOK. One of the first to react to the news was Nea Dimokratia MEP Thodoris Zagorakis. Zagorakis, the 2004 European champion and a long-time PAOK player and official, announced that he would leave the party if the relegation ruling was actually implemented.
Zagorakis’ statement reads, among others: "Since I have not learned in my life to twist my words and hide, I say clearly: the self-government of Greek football cannot be used as an excuse. Those who have appointed this commission are responsible for the current state of Greek football."
However, the members of the independent commission are appointed by the respective ministerial secretary of state for sports. Thus, Zagorakis directly attacks his party colleague. Zagorakis says: "The most important thing at this point is to stop this ridiculous comedy immediately. If this is not the case, if PAOK does not get justice, I cannot find myself under the same political umbrella with all those who are acting on the instructions of third parties against PAOK and Greek football itself. I promise to do my best for the right of PAOK wherever and whenever necessary."
The name of the "third parties", Zagorakis does not mention the name of the third parties who will take action against PAOK. He means the leader of Olympiakos Piraus, whose name many do not want to say for fear of consequences.
Image: W. Aswestopoulos
Zagoraki’s statement is not the only one from a politician who clearly puts the interests of a sports team above the welfare of his own political party. The mayor of Katerini and former Nea Dimokratia deputy Kostas Koukodimos also took a stand against the decision and Avgenakis. The regional governor of Macedonia and Thrace, Apostolos Tzitzikostas, expresses himself more diplomatically. The politician of Nea Dimokratia calls on the authorities to reconsider their decision and to decide championships in a sporting way.
All Greek politicians are aware that action against PAOK will result in massive vote losses for their party in northern Greece. What is also piquant is the accusation, conjured up by many fans of AEK Athens and Olympiakos Piraus, that behind PAOK’s 2019 championship is the government of Alexis Tsipras at the time. Avgenakis owes its rise so far to the demand by Prime Minister Mitsotakis.
The "big four" of Greek football
Last week, under the leadership of Avgenakis, the "big four" met for a discussion in the central Athens luxury hotel Grande Bretagne. The "Big Four" that is the owner of Olympiakos Piraus, Vangelis Marinakis, the owner of Panathinaikos Athens, Yannis Alafouzos, as well as the owner of AEK Athens, Dimitris Melissanidis, and the representative of PAOK, Ivan Savvidis. The meeting ended without agreement. Instead, there was a long statement by Marinakis, describing in drastic words why Greek football would sink into a lawless state. Marinakis demanded from the politicians and the sports jurisdiction to finally take action.
Savvidis appeared as the strong man of PAOK at the meeting of the football presidents. Formally, however, the majority shares of the club are held by his son. The accusation against PAOK is based on the fact that in Xanthi a nephew of the Russian-Greek oligarch became the owner of the club, but that the amount of money required for this purchase cannot be explained by the nephew’s income.
The decision of the Commission
The statement of the decision of the Commission for Professional Sports is laconic, it deals with the two cases decided on Monday with a short, complicatedly formulated legal statement1
The decisive factor for the compulsory relegation is the revocation of the licenses of both teams, the revocation of the "Certificate of participation". This is set by the commission at the beginning of the season, which means that all games played by the two teams so far are legally considered to have "not taken place" had to be counted as not having taken place. The commission is de jure the only one authorized to make the final decision on the certificates of participation. In order to bypass the commission, the law had to be broken by whoever.
Greece is under close scrutiny by FIFA and UEFA because of numerous incidents in and around the intertwining of politics, sports and sports betting. Avgenakis sprach bereits in der vergangenen Woche davon, dass es im Ernstfall auch zum sportlichen Grexit kommen konne.
Teams as a substitute for religion and cadres for fan armies
The rough teams in Greece are PAOK, Olympiakos Piraus, Panathinaikos Athens and AEK Athens. They have, each loyal to the club’s presidents, crude fan clubs that can decide elections within their circle of influence. The sports clubs are almost religiously worshipped by the fans.
The most popular sports in the country are football and basketball. In fact, there have already been relegations, which, however, always had the participation of the club management.
In basketball, Olympiakos Piraus was relegated to the second division last season. They had repeatedly refused to play archrivals Panathinaikos Athens in protest against questioned refereeing decisions. In the meantime, Olympiakos flirted with playing in the Adriatic Basketball League. The club is currently playing in the second Greek Basketball League in the Basketball Euroleague. In basketball, AEK Athens was also relegated and promoted in the meantime.
In soccer, AEK Athens reorganized itself in 2013 by voluntarily relegating to the third division. The millions in debt remained with the old club. The amateur division competed in the third league, was promoted and became champion in 2018. In Germany, the DFB had already revoked Panathinaikos Athens’ license several times because of its debts; in Greece, this is handled differently.
There have already been numerous scandals surrounding Olympiakos Piraus. For example, the president of the association in the 1980s, Giorgos Koskotas, was imprisoned for fraud. As with the Bank of Crete, which he led to ruin with his embezzlement of millions, he also had numerous illegal financial transactions at Olympiakos. The club emerged from this crisis almost unscathed and also survived its involvement in betting scandals. All clubs have had their debts to the state cancelled, deferred or discounted several times over the years.
One of the Big Four can only be relegated if the club’s own management and fans want it to be. In Greece, this law still seems to prevail over any law passed by parliament.