Football in Greece is quickly losing its fan base amid scandals and stadium violence.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 21/11/11
Croatia's fans run to escape a fire caused by a flammable device thrown at them during a Euro 2012 qualifying match against Greece at Karaiskaki Stadium in Piraeus on October 7th. [Reuters]
Football scandals in Europe may seem to happen as often as goals. However, the arrest of 83 people associated with Greece's Super League on charges of match-fixing and money laundering, coupled with unceasing violence at games, has led to a drop in attendance and premium television subscriptions. Add to that mix the embarrassment of one club owner escaping authorities -- twice.
"The majority of the fans want to see clean football. It seems to be cheaper to buy a game than make a better team and this has taken people out of the football fields. They don't go and don't watch football," Culture and Sports Ministry spokesman George Bikos told SETimes.
The situation is the result of a series of charges leveled against agents, businessmen, club owners, former referees, a player, bookies and the highest echelons of the Super League, whose president, Vangelis Marinakis, was charged by prosecutors with instigating violence at games.
Then Prime Minister George Papandreou called in UEFA President Michel Platini for advice in July, as Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos called the game "corrupt".
It was agreed that UEFA would work with the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) to find solutions in four key areas -- violence, corruption and match-fixing, doping and refereeing.
The government, meanwhile, plans to defer to EPO before preparing legislation to regulate the game, although one EPO official was charged in the scandal.
In June, Deputy Citizens' Protection Minister Manolis Othonas linked the probe to Greece's arguably losing battle against corruption, and tied it to the country's debt crisis.
"This affair is of paramount importance," Othonas said. "There will be no tolerance, no exceptions and no compromise. This is what the whole of Greek society is demanding, not just people linked to football," he said.
Plainclothes policemen escort two civilians arrested in connection with a probe into match-fixing in Greek football, at the Athens courthouse June 23rd. [Reuters]
Court documents showed numerous transcripts of recorded telephone conversations -- most filled with profanities and threats of physical violence -- allegedly between corrupt team officials as they predetermined match results, using players and referees.
Bets on the allegedly fixed games were placed online or with betting agencies in Greece, in other parts of Europe and in Asian countries, according to the documents.
More than 800 suspects were initially implicated, with reported links in seven countries, rocking Greek football. Profits from bets placed on the games were estimated at untold millions of euros, with 13 million said to have bet on one match alone, Kathimerini reported.
With nothing resolved, the regular season began in confusion when the team Asteras Tripolis was relegated by the league after being charged with bribery, along with Olympiakos Volou, whose then team president, Achilleas Beos, has since been convicted of wrongdoing and jailed.
EPO, however, overturned the decision banning Asteras Tripolis after it said that recorded conversations detailing alleged bribes were not sufficient evidence.
Kavala owner Makis Psomiadis was arrested this month in Macedonia. [Facebook]
One of the voices was a familiar figure in Greek football: Makis Psomiadis, owner of the second division team Kavala. Psomiadis is known for a big mustache, bigger cigars and a long history of run-ins with both the league and the law. These include charges of gold smuggling, embezzlement, blackmail, tax evasion and even a role in torture squads during Greece's notorious right-wing Junta of the 1970's.
He became a fugitive from justice on June 26th after he was charged in match-fixing. When he was apprehended two and a half months later, a judge promptly released him, even though he was also accused of failing to pay 300,000 euros in taxes.
This comes at a time when Greeks are being taxed to the gills and enduring pay cuts required by austerity measures aimed at keeping the country afloat and to get a series of 113 billion euros in bailout rescue loans from the EU-IMF-ECB Troika.
When an uproar prompted the courts to call Psomiadis back, he disappeared again, but not before announcing "I am a political prisoner." The judge, before questioning Psomiadis, read a statement the defendant handed him decrying the accusations. He wasn’t on the lam too long.
On November 9th, Psomiadis was arrested at a cafeteria in Macedonia, near the Greek consulate. Authorities said he was staying with a former player.
Observed Kathimerini, "To Greeks beleaguered by 18 months of pay cuts and tax hikes and slashed pensions, and facing the prospect of more, the case was a symbol of the cozy relationship between the privileged and the courts, which have shown leniency to the moneyed and the connected."
Fans clash with police after the end of Greek Cup final soccer match between AEK and Atromitos at Olympic stadium in Athens, April 30th. [Reuters]
The Psomiadis case was also a benchmark of how far Greek football has fallen, although Bikos insists his ministry has tried to crack down.
"The problem with fixed matches is not a Greek problem. It's all across Europe," he tells SETimes.
He also said that two others, including the president of another second-division club, Ilioupouli, were jailed. Bikos added, "People don't like what's going on". He said there has been a drop in betting on games through the country's lotteries because "people feel they [games] are fixed". Super League officials were not available for comment.
One fan, Vassilis Vaziourakis, 34, who roots for Panithinaikos, a perennial league champion along with its bitter rival, Olympiakos, says he does not watch anymore.
"I was crazy for football, but I'm disgusted with all this and I do not care even for my team," he tells SETimes, adding the players are concerned only about their salaries. "They don't care for the history of the clubs."
Even the league's championship this year was sullied when fans of AEK attacked the fans and families of its opponent Atromitos. For that, AEK was awarded a victory anyway. Bikos says it is common.
"Most of the teams have private armies of fans and we have violent eruptions."
The government vowed another crackdown, echoing previous promises that were not kept, and Geroulanos acknowledged it would take a long time to clean up what has become ugly game of football in Greece.