SPORTS

Balance of power shift in Greek soccer?

In recent years, it was common for any prospective institutional alliance sought by Panathinaikos, with the aim of bolstering its presence among professional soccer clubs, to be nipped in the bud by Socrates Kokkalis, the mighty president of perennial rival Olympiakos. All efforts made would quickly collapse as Panathinaikos failed to persuade any possible backers of its potential ability as a dominant force. Interested third parties have tended to drift towards the rival camp at Olympiakos. This balance of power has prevailed ever since Panathinaikos’s experienced administrator Giorgos Vardinoyiannis, a brother of main shareholder Vardis, held the club’s reins. In the last four years of his 21-year reign as president of Panathinaikos (1979-2000), «Captain» Vardinoyiannis was unable to impose his views even on routine issues as a result of the dominant network of clubs established by Kokkalis at EPAE, the association of professional soccer clubs. It was only natural that his successor, Angelos Filippidis, who was assigned the club’s chief administrative position three years ago with no background in the sport and no connections other than his ties to the Vardinoyiannis family, would also fail. Despite his efforts, Filippidis failed quite simply because nobody, enemy or friend, was ever convinced that he possessed even a fraction of the clout to stand up to the mighty Kokkalis. But, suddenly, the power battle in Greek soccer seems to be changing now that Yiannis Vardinoyiannis, Vardis’s eldest son, has emerged as Panathinaikos’s new chief, in reality if not nominally. In a short space of time, he has managed to attract 12 of the Greek first division’s 15 other sides into strategic alliances, including Skoda Xanthi, traditionally a close ally of Olympiakos in institutional matters concerning Greek soccer. These developments have come as something of a surprise, as they seem to have surfaced without much prior planning. The sudden shift in the balance of power in Greek soccer has been interpreted in various ways by local pundits. Some attribute the change to the arrival of Vardinoyiannis, a man whom they believe has all the prerequisites, and many of the advantages, needed to operate as a rival of Kokkalis. It is obvious that the response would have been subdued if any other individual had emerged at the helm of Panathinaikos. Others say the change has to do with the tactics followed by Vardinoyiannis. Rather than make vague or romantic promises, the realistic Vardinoyiannis has used money as a key operating tool. He presented a collective plan regarding television broadcasting rights, which, at its preliminary stage, appears likely to offer fair solutions for all clubs. The new alliance’s bond has yet to be tested, and it remains unclear what the results would be if Kokkalis went on the counterattack. Admittedly, Kokkalis remains powerful, and the Vardinoyiannis family has not suddenly become so omnipotent as to effect a drastic change in professional Greek soccer. Yet the ease with which many clubs have decided to change camps can be primarily explained by Kokkalis’s greed, and his desire to hold onto the big chunks and leave the crumbs for smaller clubs. He generated tension, and, at the first opportunity, most of his allies went their own ways. As we await for a response from Kokkalis, both the power and effectiveness of the newly formed alliance will need to be proven. Logically, this alliance will not limit its activity to financial matters, but will also stretch its reach to other institutional matters concerning Greek soccer. The correct functioning of EPAE and EPO, Greece’s soccer federation, does not depend solely on the efforts of their respective chief officials. In order to reverse the ailing state of Greek soccer, it is necessary to uproot the entire mechanism, which, for years now, has hurt the image of Greek soccer and kept fans away from stadiums. The changes to be made, however, must be profound, not superficial; otherwise it will simply be a case of making one step forward and two steps back. Greek soccer can no longer afford combinations of progress and regression.