Crisis in the Greek Game
The same weekend that West Ham made the headlines for fan trouble at the London Stadium, there were much crazier scenes unfolding in the Greek Superleague.
PAOK were playing league leaders AEK with the score tied at 0-0. PAOK defender Fernando Varela put the ball in the back of the net, but the referee seemed to rule the goal offside. When the confusion spread to the touchline PAOK president Ivan Savvidis stormed onto the pitch, with a handgun in his holster and surrounded by bodyguards, to confront the referee.
It was a shocking moment that led to AEK players leaving the field and the match being quickly abandoned.
The Greek government then decided to suspend the league while FIFA warned that Greek clubs would be banned from international competitions unless authorities took action.
It was the final straw in a long list of corruption and violence in Greek football. Olympiakos and Nottingham forest owner Evangelos Marinakis is being investigated for alleged drug trafficking, and he was at the centre of a match-fixing scandal that has just seen his name cleared, but has lead to 58 jail sentences. Olympiakos has even asked for foreign referees to be flown in for key matches due to the distrust of match officials.
In 2016 the Greek Cup was also canceled after crowd chaos, which saw fans storm the pitch hurling flares before riot police ushered them off the pitch.
Attendances average just 4,300 in Greece’s top tier and many fans say it is because of the tolerance for corruption and the predictability of the league (Olympiakos have won the title 19 times in the last 21 seasons).
The fans are very passionate and it’s never been easy for any team from outside Greece to go and win there.
That’s why it’s a sad story for Greek football after their amazing success at Euro 2004 against the odds. The whole country fell in love with football that summer.
“The target at the start was to win a game,” said Tsiartas, a midfielder who was used as a sub throughout the finals. “Just one game. It was something none of the national teams had been able to do at a major finals. That would have counted as a success: winning just once.”
They accomplished that feat in their opening game with a 2-1 win over hosts Portugal, before drawing with Spain, and progressing as runners-up. Next they faced France in the quarterfinals, a team which included Zidane and Henry in their primes. Greece won that 1-0 and progressed to the semis. That’s when they started to believe anything was possible.
Another 1-0 win against Czech Republic saw them reach the final, where they would face Portugal again. They had already beaten them once, and everyone knows what happened next.
“We did not have a Zidane, or Simao, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We only had hard work, sacrifice, determination and that family spirit.” said Takis Fyssas, who played in defence.
The league ban has now been lifted after all 16 clubs agreed to a list of government demands, including point deductions and potential relegation for violence. Hopefully it is the first step towards making Greek football the beautiful game it should be, so that it can be properly enjoyed by fans like it was in 2004.