SPORTS

Greek soccer saddled with big problems

The continent-wide soccer recession has meant cutbacks for clubs in Spain, Italy and England but for second-tier nations, such as Greece, it could smash dreams of matching the game’s elite. As the 2003 season comes to a close, television revenues have collapsed, hooliganism is rife, attendance is at rock bottom and stadiums are crumbling. A state-led investigation into soccer finances led the Greek culture minister, who has the portfolio for sport, to recently warn: «Some professional clubs are not going to be able to survive.» Observers point to the rich diet of matches against the European elite on the menu since the creation of the Champions’ League and accuse the country’s biggest teams of the ancient Greek sin of hubris. Many recall Greek fans’ first heady taste of Champions League-style signings in 1998 when Olympiakos unveiled expensive transfers from Barcelona and Porto. Two forwards, Brazil international Giovanni and Slovenian Zlatko Zahovic, arrived for a reported $17 million in contracts and transfer fees, heralding in a new era. In their European debut, the pair scored three goals between them as Olympiakos recorded a memorable home draw against Real Madrid. Panathinaikos followed suit, capturing Croatia’s Goran Vlaovic from Valencia, and AEK picked up Yugoslavia’s Dragan Ciric from Barcelona’s reserves. Greece’s bigger clubs – the playthings of major industrialists since shipping magnate Vardis Vardinoyiannis purchased Panathinaikos in the 1980s – saw the potential for real income. By the end of last season, Greece had risen to seventh in UEFA’s ranking system. This will mean three Champions League berths (one of them going through a qualifying round) and three UEFA Cup spots for the season beginning September 2003. Armchair interest A moderately successful Champions League campaign can net clubs up to $12 million. But clubs needed a more stable income on the home front to underpin European earnings. Years of terrace violence, alleged match-fixing and one-sided championships meant income from the turnstiles at domestic matches was at an all-time low. Armchair interest in soccer remained high though in a country that boasts 12 daily sports newspapers, and television executives saw an opportunity. Midway through the 2001-02 season broadcaster Alpha Digital arrived to compete with long-term subscription channel Supersport, promising Western European-style riches for Greek clubs. Alpha offered top clubs up to 13 million euros for three seasons, while PAOK Thessaloniki signed for 22 million over five years. Ten of the 16 first division sides signed up. But by September 2002 Alpha had attracted fewer than 30,000 subscribers and the broadcaster collapsed. It was a major blow to smaller clubs but an even greater loss to big teams who had already spent their European earnings. «Under the new circumstances, the income of the professional clubs is next to nothing,» said Greek League of Professional Clubs (EPAE) President Thanassis Kanellopoulos. The lure of European glory meant pay structures at clubs had been pulled apart. At Panathinaikos, Greece midfielder Giorgos Karagounis earned less than $25,000 per season, a club source told Reuters. Portugal veteran Paulo Sousa, who joined in 2000 for 18 months, got a contract of $3 million per year. The situation was little better at their rivals. «Last year from the revenues of Olympiakos, 162 percent went to players’ salaries… This shouldn’t be happening and it will drive the clubs to bankruptcy,» said Olympiakos Managing Director Petros Kokkalis. Clubs appealed to the State, which has traditionally baled out teams in debt, but were rebuffed. «We will not cover the expenses of professional clubs, not one drachma. We didn’t create the problem and we can’t act as a firefighter,» said Sports Minister Giorgos Lianis in October 2002. Former Sports Minister Giorgos Floridis, now a deputy at the Finance Ministry, was the first to ask where the money from Greece’s brief bubble had gone. «The year 2002 was the year of thievery in Greek soccer,» said Floridis, who accused club owners of siphoning off money. Antiquated ground None of the state-of-the-art stadiums that dot the rest of Europe have been built in Greece. Athens rivals Olympiakos and Panathinaikos will meet for the biggest game of the season on Sunday at an antiquated ground – albeit with recently refurbished stands – with only 15,000 seats. State auditors were ordered to investigate finances at all top-flight soccer clubs, with a full report due in June. The entire board of AEK resigned after tax inspectors found an $18 million hole in their accounts in December. The owners of PAOK were charged with embezzlement in April after court-appointed auditors found only $5.5 million of the $22 million in reported television earnings had reached club coffers, while players, coaches and officials warn of lean times ahead. Veteran PAOK coach Angelos Anastassiadis said the best supporters could look forward to seeing some previous board members serve jail terms. «The people who have been running this club for the last three years are criminals,» he told reporters.