ATHENS - The ruling New Democracy government is rushing through Parliament a bill that would protect the billionaire owner of the Thessaloniki-based PAOK soccer team - who’s had an outstanding arrest warrant for carrying a gun onto the field during a game - from having his team relegated to a lower division.
A semi-independent professional sports committee voted the strict penalty against Russian-Greek PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis for owning a share of another first division team, Xanthi, a conflict of interest.
But in what critics said was an apparent bid to shelter Savvidis - who, ironically was also close to the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA - the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is trying to get around the committee ruling with legislation aiding the owner.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas, said Greek media, admitted that an urgent bill in Parliament provides far lenient penalties for major soccer violations in a game riddled with corruption, wrongdoing and hooliganism for generations.
The measure, said the government is aimed to avoid "devastating consequences” of placing a popular team in a lower division with PAOK, the reigning champion despite Savvidis avoiding arrest, in first place in this year’s Superleague, just ahead of Athens’ Olympiakos.
New Democracy swiftly moved to lessen the penalties after howls from PAOK fans who are a major voting bloc in Greece’s second-largest city and among the most vociferous and even violent during games.
Mitsotakis ejected Thodoris Zagorakis, a former captain for Greece’s national soccer team, from the party for saying he would pick PAOK over New Democracy if he had to choose between them.
Zagorakis was a well-known Greek international midfielder who played for PAOK and AEK Athens, among others, and led the national team to its only European championship with a stunning win in 2004.
The committee’s decision will go to a sports judge overseeing Greece’s Super League, who will then issue a ruling, which could be moot if the legislation passes and with Xanthi also found in violation of rules for not disclosing Savvidis as a part-owner.
It wasn’t said if he will be allowed to keep violating the rules to keep his part ownership while owning PAOK as Greece police haven’t moved yet to arrest him for bringing a gun onto the field during a game.
PAOK and Xanthi would be allowed to keep competing in the first division and be allowed to be assessed only point penalties, apparently now exempt from ever being sent down to a lower division no matter what violations are committed.
Culture and Sports Minister Lina Mendoni justified the government's intervention, saying that "when Greek society is threatened by division … it is a matter of responsibility for the government to assume a legal initiative, “without explaining what that meant.