ATHENS – With Greek soccer’s Super League suspended after PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis stormed the field with a gun in his holster to protest a disallowed goal, police were searching to arrest him after he vanished following the game’s cancellation.
Savvidis, a Greek-Russian businessman with close ties to Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who authorized putting the league in limbo, is owner of a TV station, tobacco company as well as Makedonia Palace Hotel and Souroti Water, the league’s main sponsors.
Savvidis, a Georgian-born businessman of Greek ancestry and a former member of the Russian parliament, has holdings in Thessaloniki port and had pleaded for the government to erase big fines imposed on his tobacco company before he bought it.
Chaos erupted when Savvidis took to the field at his Thessalonki team’s Toumba stadium wearing the handgun on his belt although Greek laws prevent even police from carrying firearms in sports arenas.
Despite that, an arrest warrant that was issued had charged him only with going onto the field – he did it earlier in the game – and not with bringing a weapon it was reported he was licensed to otherwise carry.
The image brought ridicule to Greece outside the country and a warning from soccer’s international governing body FIFA that the country’s national team could face a ban even as it is scheduled to play a friendly match on March 23 – in Toumba Stadium.
It was the latest in a series of violent incidents and came after Greece’s soccer federation mysteriously erased a series of penalties on PAOK after another violent incident in which the coach of an opposing team was hit in the face with a towel holder thrown from the stands, where fans are allowed to set off incendiary flares and commonly toss objects.
The Super League as it is called has been beset with constant violence, threats against referees, charges of match-fixing and is controlled by wealthy interests with strong government influence but has descended into farce and out of control with the soccer federation, Greece’s sports authorities and the government doing almost nothing to stop it until the Savvidis gun incident brought embarrassing international attention.
The arrest warrant – not for the gun – was issued by a prosecutor, SKAI TV said, and set police off trying to find one of the country’s most prominent businessman who couldn’t be found initially.
Savvidis though was reportedly also being investigated for possession of an object that could cause harm in a sporting venue.
Tatyana Gordina, the deputy CEO in charge of corporate communications at Savvidis’ Russia-based Agrocom Group, said he hadn’t made any threatening gestures nor pulleed the gun or aimed it at anyone and was only carrying it openly – in violation of the law.
“There were no threats made by Ivan Savvidis, especially not involving the use of a weapon, during yesterday’s match,” she said without explaining why just wearing a gun on the field wasn’t a threat.
“There was an emotional walk out onto the field, probably a breach of sporting regulations, and nothing more. Most of the headlines in the Greek press exaggerate the facts,” she said, dismissing it as nothing.
Another four people involved in the incidents that led to the PAOK match against AEK of Athens – the league’s two leading teams this year who were on course to meet in the championship final, a rarity in a sport dominated by Athens-based Olympiakos and Panathinaikos – were also wanted by police.
SHUT IT DOWN
The incident brought the involvement of Tsipras who met with Deputy Sports Minister Giorgos Vassiliadis, and said it went too far even for Greece’s tolerant standards in which violence is part of the game, especially off the field, and now on it.
“I don’t care about the political cost. This issue must end and everybody responsible will be held accountable,” Tsipras reportedly said during the meeting before authorizing the shutdown of the league, which has happened before only to spring back into action.
Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis had previously been the Sports Minister and vowed to crack down on violence but so far had said nothing about the gun incident with Savvidis a close ally of the Premier and SYRIZA.
Vassiliadis told reporters that a new set of stricter rules will be enforced “after spending three years trying to clean up the game.” He added, “We will not allow anybody to deter us from this path, even if tough decisions are required in consultation with UEFA (European’s soccer’s governing body.)”
That echoed similar tough talk before incidents were forgotten and the games allowed to go on again until the next troubles that inevitably erupt and are either ignored or, critics said, implicitly condoned by the soccer federation, sports authority and government.
Vasileiadis said the league would not begin again “if there is not a new, clear framework agreed to by all so we can move forward with conditions and regulations,” without explaining why he didn’t just order it.
“The government for the past three years has given great battles to manage to clean up the troubled football sector. We have won a lot, but much more remains to be done,” the minister said.
“In any case, we will not allow all this effort to be endangered, we will not allow phenomena of the past to be resurrected,” he added, although all governments have and have failed to stop it despite a long line of promises, vows and alleged crackdowns.
After the FIFA warning, he said he didn’t care. “Let there be Grexit in soccer, we do not care,” referring to a potential international ban. “Unless club owners stage a moratorium and accept the inclusion in the rule book of penalties for their inflammatory statements, we are not going to back down.”
He added: “We cannot have the people who were in favor of sanitizing [Greek soccer] do things like that and fight. They all have a responsibility.” He was to convene a meeting March 13 of the Super League board and with officials from clubs who oppose the suspension of play.
The picture of a wealthy team owner carrying a gun onto the field brought a new fusillade of criticism of Tsipras and SYRIZA, which is riddled with anarchist and terrorist sympathizers, for a series of rampages across Athens that targeted banks, foreign embassies, and even the Leftist party’s headquarters, with no one arrested, forcing Tsipras to plead he was not soft on crime before the violence escalated again, this time in soccer.
THE FIX IS IN
New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was on a tour of the United States, said the government had shown it had only empty promises to rein in Greece’s oft-ridiculed and violent soccer and said the new images set back the game, and the country, for years.
The center-left Movement for Change said promises by the government, which includes the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) to clean up the game were really a smokescreen to let the wealthy owners with their fingers in the government and businesses keep corrupting the game for their own enrichment.
Stavros Theodorakis, head of the To Potami party that was folded into Movement for Change said aftermeeting Tsipras that, “Mafiosi gravitate to football in all countries … However, if we do not now impose strict rules and laws, if we don’t take heads, we’ll be repeatedly faced with such behavior.”
A well-known New Democracy MEP, Giorgos Kyrtsos, said he feared the government – with PAOK’s penalties being waived for previous violence – was trying to insure that Savvidis” team would win the title.
Kyrtsos said there was an “amalgamation of Russian oligarch corruption, political reasoning a la Maduro and SYRIZA hypocrisy,” partly a reference to Venezuela’s near dictator Nicolas Maduro, who is admired by Tsipras, a former Communist youth leader.
Kyrtsos warned that, “rigging the (football) championship by the government in favor of PAOK will cost it dearly”.
WEAVE OF INTERESTS
the coalition’s promises to clean up soccer were nothing but a smokescreen to allow vested FIFA, which has done virtually nothing to force Greece to stop soccer troubles, this time said the national team wouldn’t be allowed in international play if “the competent bodies” fail to “take proper actions … to eradicate all sorts of violence in order to guarantee the smooth running of the national competitions.”
“The FIFA monitoring committee … strongly condemns the recent incidents in Greece and urges all national football stakeholders to act immediately to put an end to the unacceptable situation arising in Greek football,” a FIFA statement said.
European soccer’s governing body UEFA condemned the incident and said because it “occurred in a domestic competition, any disciplinary measure to be imposed falls under the jurisdiction of the relevant bodies of the Hellenic Football Federation,” staying far away from it. Greek teams have failed miserably for years in European play.
Savvidis has close links with the new leadership of the soccer federation, led by Vangelis Grammenos – and was able to arrange for the national team to play at his stadium and for its next game on March 27 to be screened live on Epsilon TV, which he also owns.
It wasn’t clear how long the suspension would last as PAOK and AEK, if they continue winning, could clash again in the Greek Cup final a year after even more violent incidents at Volos between their fans injured dozens of people and police officers.
Panathinaikos said the government was unfairly punishing the whole league to protect Savvidis and spoke of a “tried and failed” aimed at “issuing a pardon to the all the indecent and immoral incidents recorded for the umpteenth time by one particular grand official of a soccer team, who enjoys the government’s favor.”
“This decision hurts all the other clubs that did not provoke or participate in the incidents, and dissolves the league that sought a new balance with the efforts made by many parties,” the Panathinaikos statement added.
The shutdown came quickly and caught some teams off-guard, including Apollon Smyrnis, which had already gone to Ioannina before its March 12th game as cancelled.
“Apollon is the only club to pay both in psychological and financial terms for the decision, which we heard of but until three hours before kick-off has not been officially communicated to us,” the Athens club stated.
“We have paid good money to travel and stay at Ioannina and now we will have to repeate those expenses in the future,” Apollon protested, asking for a reinbursement.