NEWS

Soccer barons are in desperate straits after State fails to bail them out of pay-TV collapse

The collapse of pay-TV channel Alpha Digital last week brought Greece’s already shaky professional soccer world down with it, along with all those who have been squandering the Greek people’s money for years. Officials’ hopes that the State would succumb to their blackmail and eventually bankroll their supposed business activities died last Wednesday when Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos closed the door on what for decades had been a goldmine for the presidents and bosses of the professional soccer clubs, not for the purpose of developing the sport itself but to further their own power. Time has run out on the illness that plagued the soccer world for years. Everyone knows what most of the heads of most of the soccer clubs were involved in before assuming their posts. With the exception of a very few, they had no social or financial background, while the business dealings of those few who were independently wealthy might not stand up to closer scrutiny, for a number of people who had laundered illegal gains used the soccer teams as a front and then robbed the State and the fans. It was these people who took over Greek soccer and turned it into an arena for gangland dealings, according to the ethics and habits of their own circles, including corruption, threatening and blackmailing journalists, beating up rivals and all kinds of other underworld activities. «Soccer mafia» was how former deputy culture minister Giorgos Floridis described them in an interview with Kathimerini about a year ago. «Mountebanks» is what Venizelos recently called them. «Under no circumstances will we allow all these adventurers to rob the state coffers of even the slightest amount,» he said recently. One could use even stronger language, considering the several billions used up over the past few years without leading to any progress in the sport itself. All that money has been channeled into people’s pockets, known and unknown. «Where did those 25 billion drachmas go?» Venizelos asked them at a recent meeting. He received no reply. After all, what could they say? No infrastructure projects have been built, nor have there been any improvements to existing installations. Some First Division team stadiums don’t even have toilets. Players are lured away from other teams with huge sums that are snapped up by middle-men and the club presidents. Some of these players are not even paid their travel expenses, leading to complaints to international federations and making Greek soccer the laughing stock of Europe. «Don’t go to the Greek teams because the presidents won’t honor the contracts. You’ll lose your money,» is the advice given by players speaking from bitter experience of the situation in Greece. The Greek Soccer Federation (EPO) has a pile of complaints regarding contracts that have not been honored. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has repeatedly warned Greek clubs that if they don’t pay players and coaches they will be excluded from European and domestic matches. Take the case of Brazilian player Rodrigo Feruzem, who has already sued Harilaos Psomiadis, president of the AEK club, for forging sworn statements from Feruzem that they had jointly agreed to break their contract and that Feruzem had waived any further financial claims against the team. «If Greek teams are included in (the state football pool) Stoichima (Let’s Bet), people will suspect that the results are being doctored,» Venizelos told them, effectively accusing them of fraud and theft. After all, haven’t they themselves admitted as much? A year ago, television talk shows were bombarding viewers for some weeks with half the team presidents accusing the other half of being gangsters. Accusations of fixed games and referees accepting bribes led to a judicial inquiry. Not even that was enough to stop them. Instead of going to prison, those who broke the law continued to operate. Only recently a representative of a major club admitted that soccer was overdue for a major clean-up. In order to understand just who is running the soccer clubs, one only has to attend a meeting of their association, EPAE. The presence of armed bodyguards lends the proceedings the air of a mafia summit rather than a meeting of businessmen. Recently the vice-president of EPO, Aris Stathopoulos, was savagely beaten up – not the first incident of its kind. In a statement upon leaving hospital, Stathopoulos said his assailants were from the soccer world. Earlier, Thessaly soccer official Thanasis Papayiannis was beaten up in similar circumstances. Even at this late date, the State has finally realized just who it has been dealing with; a realization ordinary fans made long ago, abandoning the grandstands. The sport had to reach its nadir before the State decided to get rid of the «soccer godfathers.» For that is what is going to happen. When there is no cheese, the rats disappear. This is a golden opportunity to clean up championship soccer. Only those who are financially and administratively capable should stay, the rest should go to prison, because squandering public money is a criminal offense. Greek soccer can be saved if it is reorganized on a new basis by people who really love the sport and want to make a contribution to it, not profit by it. It is by no means an easy task. In the first few years, there will be negative results in European matches. However, the right foundations will have been laid. Teams’ finances will be organized; they will try to find resources other than television and games of chance, in order to schedule transfers, build and maintain stadium installations and train players. Most important of all, this will create the conditions for fair championships, where the strongest will be those who win on the soccer field, not in the head offices. Only then will supporters regain their trust of officials, referees and players and return to the grandstands. Now they are not even watching the games on television, which is why the networks have turned their backs on the clubs. Why buy a product that is no longer selling? A clean-out of the Augean Stables will have other side-effects. Many teams owe money to players and to the State – these will be relegated after a while, according to the law, and protests will be raised. But if the historic Italian club Fiorentina could be relegated because of debts, why couldn’t it happen here? At present, the French championship is led by Nice, a team once relegated to the fourth division due to bankruptcy. The players agreed to stay on without pay, a board member took over as coach and within three years the team climbed back up to the top of the first division standings. That is what is meant by love of the game and good business stewardship. In Greece, people love soccer and are certain to support it, but only if convinced that if they go to a match they will not be deceived. That is the lesson to be learned by those who stay on and those who take over some of the teams under the new conditions.