The New Greek Oligarchs' Path to Power: Soccer

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The nexus cultivated by these oligarchs is complicating Greece’s recovery. 

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Most Greeks had never heard of Evangelos Marinakis before he bought the soccer club Olympiakos in 2010. Now there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t know him.

On a wall overlooking the multicolored containers of the cargo port of Olympiakos’ home city of Piraeus, adjacent to Athens, imposing graffiti reads: “Without Olympiakos there is no reason to live.” And Marinakis — a shipping magnate and media tycoon — has leveraged that fanatical support into political success.

In 2014, a raft of figures linked to Olympiakos, Greece’s best-supported club, were elected to the municipality in Piraeus. Marinakis became a councilor, and his sidekick Yiannis Moralis — Olympiakos’ vice president — became mayor under the ticket “Piraeus, Winner.” They deployed soccer rhetoric in election rallies that were full of red and white Olympiakos flags.

A lot of times you see that [owners] have some political expectations, or maybe they are trying to boost their other businesses through football.

Thanos Sarris, editor-in-chief, Gazzetta

But Marinakis is part of a wider trend. For sure, businessmen and politicians have long been attracted to Greek soccer clubs, especially after they were professionalized in the late 1970s — particularly the “big four” of AEK Athens, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and PAOK. But the economic crisis and harsh austerity have created opportunities for an evolving breed of oligarchs to tighten the relationship between soccer, business and politics in Greece more than ever, some experts argue. Soccer is a weapon of influence, of image making, and a vehicle to realize ambitions that reach far beyond the sport.

“If you understand how football works in Greece, you can understand how politics and everything else works,” says Tasos Alevras, who has made a documentary about Olympiakos and who calls the trend the “footballization of politics.”

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Coach Giannis Anastasiou (right) and Panathinaikos majority shareholder Giannis Alafouzos pose with the trophy after winning the Greek Cup Final match between PAOK and Panathinaikos FC in 2014.

Source Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty

The presidents of the big four Greek clubs are all shipping magnates. Ship owners are often unpopular figures in Greece, as they enjoy preferential tax rates while the taxes of ordinary Greeks have soared under economic crises.

But in Greece, the owners of soccer clubs — rather than star players or coaches — tend to hog the limelight, and often the adoration of fans. To carve out a fiefdom in a particular region or city, soccer is a potent tool. “I think the clubs are being used for the presidents to be seen more favorably in public bids for companies,” says Georgios Antonopoulos, a criminologist at Teesside University.

The influence that soccer brings is particularly useful at a time when the country’s sustained economic crisis has led to business and political opportunities that didn’t exist when oligarchs eyed clubs in previous decades. The Greek state has been obliged to privatize many of its key assets under terms dictated by international lending institutions. As in the post-Soviet fire sale, oligarchs have been gobbling up Greek assets. And at times of flux, new faces are in greater political demand than in steadier periods.

“It’s difficult to prove, and many things are happening under the table, but a lot of times you see that [owners] have some political expectations, or maybe they are trying to boost their other businesses through football or to also have their own ‘army’ in order to support their causes,” says Thanos Sarris, the editor-in-chief of the Gazzetta sports website.

The gun-carrying Greek-Russian oligarch Ivan Savvidis bought and invested heavily in PAOK, while also buying up huge swathes of assets in Thessaloniki — including resorts, hotels, real estate, media outlets, a water bottling company and industrial warehouses. Savvidis is currently attempting to buy a share of Thessaloniki’s lucrative port. Dimitris Melissanidis — a shipping magnate and oil tycoon who owns AEK Athens — acquired a significant share in the formerly state-owned gambling conglomerate OPAP. “I don’t think this would have happened without the commanding support that the club provides,” says Antonopoulos.

And politically, while Marinakis fought and won in his city of influence, Savvidis has openly praised the country’s ruling Syriza government. Panathinaikos’s owner, Giannis Alafouzos, is a staunch supporter of the center-right opposition New Democracy. Those like Marinakis directly contesting in elections emphasize their track records as successful businessmen and their link to ordinary people through soccer, and they portray themselves as coming from outside the traditional political elite, says Alevras — a strategy that has worked in democracy after democracy in recent years.

Many club owners have been accused of crimes, usually related to corruption. Marinakis is currently facing charges of match-fixing — which he strongly denies. But the popularity of a soccer club, some analysts argue, buys owners a shield of protection, making it less likely that they will be prosecuted, or at least convicted. None of the big four clubs were willing to comment on the record for this article.

“In Greece, they say that the owners of one of the four big teams can operate like a sword or the sea,” says journalist and academic Christos Charalampopoulos. “A sword in order to get something from the state, from politicians; and a sea when they start looking to use the fans as a sea to protect them.”

Indeed, the vast majority of Olympiakos fans seem untroubled by Marinakis’ controversial track record and appear devoted to him. “Why blame Marinakis when everyone does the same thing?” asks Olympiakos fan Maniatis Lambros, 63.

Some are less enamored. Nikos Valadasis, 45, a die-hard Olympiakos fan, claims Marinakis has courted a far-right nucleus among hard-core Olympiakos fans. “In this era, this ‘army’ supports Marinakis [first] and then Olympiakos,” he says. There’s a reason for that support. Greek owners have often provided money, tickets and job opportunities to win fan loyalty, attractions particularly hard for people to resist at a time of economic crisis, says Valadasis.

The Greek government is drafting a sports law aimed at improving the governance of the country’s soccer, but earlier this month, PAOK president Savvidis staged an extraordinary intervention that defied the rules of the game, the authorities and, perhaps, sanity.

After the referee disallowed a late goal for PAOK in a Super League match against AEK Athens, Savvidis stormed the pitch twice, revealing what appeared to be a holstered gun on his hip, and tried to confront the referee. The match was suspended and the crowd told to disperse. The Greek government announced the indefinite suspension of the league. But reining in Greece’s increasingly wild soccer oligarchs may prove harder.

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