By Adam Szreter
If life can be said to imitate art, then it is fair to say the contradictions of Greek football are an accurate reflection of modern life in the home of the world's first democracy.
The average Greek citizen smokes more than all his fellow Europeans, yet lives longer than any of us; they work more hours yet suffer less stress; and the pollution in Athens - the highest in the European Union - belies the fact that some of Europe's cleanest beaches lie just beyond the perimeter of the ancient capital.
Two Champions League places
There are nine daily newspapers in Greece dedicated solely to football - yet the average attendance at even the biggest clubs barely reaches 15,000; and Greece's UEFA club coefficient ranking is so high that next season, for the first time, they will have two automatic entrants to the UEFA Champions League. But the general order of the domestic game has never been more chaotic.
'Very big crisis'
You could call it something of a crisis, but Petros Kokkalis, vice-president of Olympiakos Piraeus FC, would disagree. "
It's not something of a crisis, it’s a very big crisis, and one that is going to need drastic measures to overcome," says the son of the club's owner and one of the prime movers behind an initiative on the part of Greece’s biggest clubs to impose change.
Lack of leadership
The clubs envisage movement on several fronts, most notably a complete reorganisation of the league, including central marketing along the lines employed by UEFA to run the Champions League. But already they are finding that a lack of clear leadership is leaving their proposals to gather dust.
'Tangle of unresolved issues'
"The current situation stems from a tangle of older issues which were not resolved at various stages in the development of professional football in Greece, and have now combined to form what looks like an insurmountable obstacle," says Kokkalis. "Such issues have to do with the legal framework which was set up in the early Eighties and with the transformation of clubs from non-profit organisations into limited companies.
'A transformation not well managed'
"That changed players into professionals; it changed people like me from doing civic duty to having a professional job; and it changed fans into customers, and so on. That was, in my opinion, a transformation that was not well managed and has, little by little, brought us to this point."
Ever since the September collapse of Alpha Digital, which left ten of Greece’s top 16 clubs without much-needed TV revenue, it has seemed as though the "nefos" smog cloud that hangs over Athens every summer has stayed for the winter too - and settled permanently over the offices of the beleaguered Hellenic Football Federation.
After unsuccessful appeals for government compensation following the broadcasting collapse, the League of Professional Clubs (EPAE) took their members out on strike for a month. At the last game before the stoppage, Panathinaikos FC supporters started fires and ripped out thousands of seats at the Nikos Goumas stadium after seeing their side lose at local rivals AEK Athens FC. The return match, incidentally, is this weekend.
The tranquility of the new year was shattered when Demis Nikolaidis, the Greek player of 2002, told police he had been threatened by AEK's acting president, Makis Psomiadis, and his bodyguards. "It is not just that he came to my house and threatened me, it's that Greek football tolerates Psomiadis and his henchmen and their methods," Nikolaidis said at the time.
Psomiadis was facing a 12-year prison sentence for forgery but was freed, pending an appeal, on medical grounds. However Greece's sports minister, George Lianis, warned AEK they should sever links with Psomiadis or face relegation.
The following week, on the day that three first division players failed drugs tests (all failed a second test earlier this week), AEK, who had also been ordered to pay a €16m tax bill by government auditors, and FC PAOK Thessaloniki were threatened with relegation over transfer debts. The AEK board resigned within 24 hours.
Two days later the Greek government set up a working party to investigate the finances of all professional clubs; then the Panathiniakos coach and president learnt they are to face trial in connection with the assault of a referee last season; and this week Panahaiki FC were also told they face relegation because of transfer debts.
So where does Greek football go from here? Accusations of corruption and mismanagement are rife, stadiums are dilapidated, and the quality of the product - both at domestic and national team level – leaves much to be desired.
Club licensing scheme
Recent performances in UEFA club competitions offer a ray of hope, as does UEFA's proposed club licensing scheme, despite fears that smaller clubs may struggle to meet the standards which will be required to participate in competitions like the Champions League and UEFA Cup in future.
"The major issue for me is the stadiums," says Panathinaikos FC's International Relations manager and lawyer, Sofoklis Pilavios. "We just do not have any.
Hopefully there will be four stadiums for the Olympic Games, and then the big clubs will try to build their own.
"This is something that will help football a lot, because as long as the stadium is owned by the state, then the state has something to say about the club. Hooliganism is a major issue, but I do not think this is the reason why people are not going to the stadiums.
'Facilities the major problem'
"I think the facilities are the major problem and I think our fans will respect better conditions. As for the financial situation, I'm not an expert but I do know that many club presidents and other people involved in football are getting richer."
It is true the Olympic facilities could provide a new dawn for Greek football, and certainly Christian Karembeu, the most high-profile player among a dwindling band of foreign imports, certainly believes it. "There is a crazy passion for football here," says the Frenchman. "
I am very optimistic for Greek football, and I hope that we Europeans can help it become one of the best championships. Why not?"
That may take a while, and more of the kind of bravery displayed by Nikolaidis who, sadly, now needs bodyguards of his own. But there is certainly a strong will in Greece for football to prevail, and if those in power can unite behind clear leadership, who knows what may be achieved in the land of contradictions?
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