By Dimitra Pappa
After a four-week break as clubs tried to come to terms with the financial crisis in Greek football, the Alpha Ethniki kicks off again on Saturday, but the underlying problems in the Hellenic leagues refuse to go away.
With the collapse in September 2002 of the broadcasting partner of ten of the 16 top-flight clubs, Alpha Digital Synthesis SA, the profound problems of financing Greek football became apparent, and the government's refusal to use public funds to bale out struggling clubs has left many leading sides on the brink of bankruptcy.
According to a report published last week by the Commerce and Development Ministry, the 14 teams in the Alpha Ethniki in 2001/02 reported joint losses of €65m over the course of the 2000/01 campaign to see the accumulated debts of all the clubs in the top flight reach €200m.
The Hellenic Football League (EPAE) have asked the Greek players union, the PSAP, to persuade their members to accept a 20 per cent wage cut as clubs try to cut their costs. EPEA representative Petros Kokkalis, son of Olympiakos Piraeus FC president Socrates Kokkalis, said: "If the situation continues, all the clubs will go bankrupt. In 2000, 162 per cent of Olympiakos's income went on player wages."
The figures need little explanation. Spending has long since outstripped income at most Greek clubs, and while the exploits of Olympiakos, AEK Athens and Panathinaikos FC in Europe have delighted supporters, the reality of domestic football in Greece is much less healthy.
While the game's popularity has encouraged plenty of interest from businessmen in Greece, there has been remarkably little in terms of off-the-field investment in recent years. Tellingly, the last major stadium to be built in Greece was the OAKA Spiros Louis 20 years ago, and investment in players far outweighs investment in facilities.
This has left clubs saddled with ageing facilities which hardly encourage spectators to watch live football - the comfortable new stadiums that brought a renaissance in football support across Europe have yet to appear in Greece, and with an average attendance of just 5,670 in the 2001/02 season, the consequences are all too obvious.
Costs not covered
While television money briefly papered over the cracks of this fundamental problem, the general downturn in the European rights market has ensured that television companies will no longer cover clubs' costs.
Finding additional sources of income has proved difficult. The clubs attempted to persuade the government to allow football games to be placed on fixed-odds coupons run by the state bookmakers as a means of securing additional funding, but the fear that such a move may lead to match rigging in a country already deeply concerned about its citizens' passion for gambling brought a firm 'no' from the state.
In theory, there are strict government regulations covering the debts of football clubs. Article 79 of the 2725/99 Sports Law states that if a team cannot cover their debts, they should have their licence revoked, but with the gravity of the clubs' problems and the popularity of football, there has been a widespread unwillingness to enforce the code.
UEFA's licensing programme applies in Greece from 2004/05, providing rigid rules on club finances, especially for those involved in European competitions. Hopefully, the current crisis and the impending imposition of these guidelines can help clubs to get their houses in order. The solutions will doubtless be painful, but for the long-term future of football in Greece, it seems there is no alternative.
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