THESSALONIKI, Greece — Led by the billionaire Greek-Russian owner of the PAOK soccer team – who has had an arrest warrant issued against him a year earlier for bringing a gun onto the field to protest a referee’s decision – tens of thousands of fans celebrated the club’s first Greek league title in 34 years.
Ivan Savvidis, said to have the ear of Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsiras, is banned from attending his team’s games and there has been no explanation why he still hasn’t been taken into custody while walking around in full view.
He stood before his team’s fans in front of the famous White Tower in Greece’s second-largest city and rejoiced in the victory with Greek soccer long under a cloud of having matches fixed and the shipping magnate owner of the dominant Athens team Oympiakos facing a trial on charges of doing that.
In wild scenes of celebration, fans packed along the city’s seafront — hundreds holding red flares — to catch a glimpse of the winning team on a double-decker bus after its 5-0 win over Levadiakos sealed its undefeated run to victory, two underdogs.
Fans don’t care about charges he’s tried to influence government policy or charged onto the field with a gun in his holster last year, drawing penalties that kept his club from having a shot, to so speak, at winning the title then as they chanted: “Ivan, get your gun.”
Savvidis controls much of the country’s second-biggest port, transformed the club and bet heavily on the northern Greek economy. Supporters chanted his name as he walked between two rows of flame machines during a celebration ceremony as police made no attempt to apprehend him despite the warrant.
The 60-year-old businessman, whose family is partly of Greek ancestry, took over PAOK in 2012 and rescued the club from financial ruin, settling debts and building a 63-million euro ($70 million) roster equal in value to that of the country’s largest club, Olympiakos.
Savvidis, who made his fortune in agriculture in southern Russia, tapped into PAOK’s underdog status and broader resentment throughout the city, which believes it has been overlooked by decision-makers in Athens.
“We have laid the foundations for what I hope is the start of some great achievements,” he said, speaking through an interpreter as he doesn’t speak Greek, despite his roots. “Let those in Athens think with a clear head: What they did to us made us stronger by the day.”
IN THE SHADOWS
Over the past decade, Savvidis has invested in northern Greek businesses, some on the brink of failure, as well as television stations and newspapers that are generally supportive of SYRIZA.
It seems like he’s been able to move easily between competing interests, using his wealth and connections, despite not being fluent in Greek, to show up like a shadowy figure in a spy movie, charming and buying and scheming and, critics said, double-dealing for Russia.
That was the essence of a piece in the New York Times tracing his ability to interact with the people at the top of politics and business to get what he wants, having the Greek government support to write off a big fine for a Greek tobacco company he had owned, his roots being in the business in Russia, where he made his money before coming to Greece.
Greece’s western allies have noted his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he served as a member of Russia’s Parliament before setting up his Greek businesses.
His dream of building a major club was almost toppled last season in a league game against AEK Athens, during which he stormed onto the field to challenge the referee’s decision with a handgun holstered in his belt, surrounded by burly bodyguards.
PAOK last won titles a generation ago, in 1976 and 1985, and Larissa was the last team outside Athens to claim the championship trophy when it did so in 1988. Olympiakos dominated subsequent decades, winning 19 out of 21 titles before AEK’s victory last season while another Athens club, Panathinaikos, won the other two.
The stranglehold fueled bitterness among PAOK’s owners and fans. Controversy surrounding big-game refereeing decisions, as well as match-fixing prosecutions in the top-flight league, prompted league organizers to use foreign referees at all key matches this season and with frequent violence from fans.
PAOK was founded in the mid-1920s by Greek refugees who fled to the city after a catastrophic war with Turkey and owes much of its loyal following to that history. Not only veterans and fans feel that burden.
Vieirinha, PAOK’s Portuguese captain, wasn’t born the last time the team won the league. In tears, he received a standing ovation from 25,000 fans at Toumba Stadium, playing the last five minutes despite an injury.
“A great team like PAOK does not deserve to wait 34 years to win a championship,” Vieirinha said. “What we lived through this past year is a dream for every PAOK fan. I am one of them. I come from them. For me, PAOK means everything.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)