In another of our Inside The Game reports, we look at the impact that the Greek economic crisis has had on the country’s football development.
It seemed too good to be true. The date was August 29th, 2004 and as the XXVIII Summer Olympics came to a close in Athens, it was the perfect ending to what was termed by some as the ‘Summer of Greece’. The successful hosting of the Athens Olympics had been preceded by the Greek national team’s miraculous run in winning Euro 2004 just a month and half before. These two magnificent achievements were supposed to usher in a new period of unprecedented growth for football and sport in Greece.
Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. Nearly nine years on, Greece as a whole has suffered through the harsh consequences of economic austerity thanks to a mammoth financial crisis; a crisis which has seen the country resort to needing a bailout rescue to avoid bankruptcy. Needless to say, sport has suffered tremendously in these difficult times. Football in particular has been greatly affected.
Not So Super League
One of the biggest fears following the Euro 2004 success was that Greek football would not build upon that feat. Poor financial management, corrupt presidents and football officials, and violence in the stands had been long term issues plaguing the Greek game. The hope was that winning Euro 2004 would help eradicate these issues. Instead, these problems have only been exacerbated in recent years thanks to the debt crisis.
For a few years after the turn of the millennium, Greece had two if not three representatives in the UEFA Champions League. The economic windfall from that participation as well as the presence of three to four teams in the Europa League (then UEFA Cup) along with lucrative television deals meant that several Greek sides found themselves in healthy economic shape, able to snap up strong foreign and domestic talent.
Wasteful transfer spending and out of control wages year after year finally began taking their toll in the last few seasons as football came to terms with the nation’s unprecedented financial crisis. Sponsorships suddenly became harder to come by and faced with budgets that had spiraled out of control, clubs were forced to sell their best players abroad. Even comparing figures between this season and last can give a clear indication at the alarming state of the Greek Super League, the country’s top division.
13 of 16 teams in the Super League are operating on vastly reduced budgets from last season, with only the promoted sides seeing their budgets increase. Even Olympiacos, the most decorated club in league history and the most dominant in the last 15 years, slashed their overall spending by 21 per cent this season. Nea Smyrni-based Panionios, a mainstay in the top flight, amazingly spent 80 per cent less this season as compared to last. Kerkyra, from the island of Corfu, have a tiny operating budget of just €600,000. Over the course of the current season, clubs have altogether spent €5.7M, just a tenth of the total league clubs shelled out four years ago.
Even traditional Greek giants, the Athens’ duo of AEK and Panathinaikos, find themselves struggling mightily. Panathinaikos have engaged in a fire-sale of much of their top talent in order to pay off debts and were at one point near the relegation zone, an unheard of scenario. AEK are in even worse shape with debts at the start of the season hovering near the €35M mark. Battling against relegation for much of the season, it appeared matters could not get worse.
However, the club seemed to hit rock bottom only recently when promising Greek Under-21 player Giorgos Katidis made headlines around the world for issuing a Nazi salute after scoring the winner in a match against Veria. Katidis was subsequently banned from all Greek national teams for life as well as from AEK Athens until the end of the season. The player maintains that he was unaware of what his gesture meant. That black eye to the club’s reputation was followed by the arrest of president Andreas Dimitrelos for the side’s unpaid taxes, said to have totaled an unbelievable €170M.
The lack of spending means has led to increasing problems for the Greek game. Less money is being spent on improving football infrastructure, thus stadiums and pitches are in worse condition than in previous years. This has been one factor in the drop of average attendance which now stands at well below 5,000 fans per game for the Super League. Of course, the economic crisis has meant that people are spending less on “luxury” items such as football tickets.
Keeping high-quality talent has become nearly impossible. Some of the league’s brightest stars such as Kevin Mirallas and Djibril Cisse have left, while national team stalwarts Giorgos Karagounis (Fulham), Sotiris Ninis (Parma), and Vasilis Torosidis (Roma), amongst others, have made moves abroad. It is becoming a vicious circle. Players leave for more competitive leagues and higher wages while the Super League decreases in quality from their absence and, coupled with the economic issues, clubs cannot splash the cash to lure top stars.
While the top flight suffers greatly, the lower leagues are on virtual life support. The state of many clubs can only be described as dire. Stories range from not being able to fund transportation to and from matches to not having basic training equipment. Rarely, do stories of clubs that pay their players on time surface; in fact a recent study showed that two-thirds of top flight players are consistently paid late. It is no wonder why some amateur sides have sought sponsorship from the likes of brothels and funeral parlors.
One Shining Beacon
Amidst all of the chaos surrounding Greek football, there is one team that continues to inspire and make Greeks proud. The Greek national team have somehow avoided the disastrous effects of the crisis. Ethniki boss Fernando Santos and his charges have been superb since the Portuguese was installed as the successor to Otto Rehhagel in July 2010. Greece have only tasted defeat three times in 32 matches under Santos, qualifying for Euro 2012 where they reached the quarter-finals and they are currently well placed to make it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Add to this a consistent place in the top 15 of the FIFA World Rankings.
The team have not gone through a wholesale change of mentality from Rehhagel’s defend-first philosophy. Yet, what Santos has done is maintain the gritty style from before and make it more tactically diverse, though the focus remains on counter-attacking football. Furthermore, Santos has shown his belief in the quality of the Greek player. He has won plaudits for his willingness to chop and change when necessary and his readiness to introduce young talent into the squad.
The success of the national side, in what essentially amounts to a golden era, has shown that the top Greek players are full of quality. While the strength of Santos’ team is undoubtedly in the collective, it cannot be ignored that the squad is full of class players ranging from veterans such as Karagounis, Torosidis and Georgios Samaras to promising youngsters such as Schalke’s Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Kaiserslautern’s Kostas Fortounis.
Ironically, this was a team that was incessantly ridiculed in the 1980s and 1990s in part for their inability to actually function like a cohesive unit thanks to factions formed by players based on club allegiances. A distinct lack of success ensured little interest in this team with Greek fans preferring to focus on the fortunes of their favorite club sides. Now the situation is different with the national team being the one ray of light, the one true source of pride of the country’s football supporters.
Reality vs Opportunity
For now Greek football must battle through what surely is one of the country’s most difficult eras. It remains to be seen what the next few years will bring for football in this embattled nation. In truth, there is real chance to begin building a foundation for the future with an emphasis put on developing the young Greek player.
This should lead to increased opportunities for talented Greek footballers who for so often have had to play second fiddle to more established foreign players. Clubs will now be forced to turn to their academy systems or to amateur clubs to fill out squads with younger talents. In theory this should lead to the improvement of the average Greek player. And football may regain a lost appeal amongst youngsters who will now feel they have a legitimate shot to feature for professional clubs.
The truth is that it will take the Greek game many years to recover from its current predicament. More than likely, the fate of football in Greece will go the way of the country as a whole. As soon as it becomes clearer when Greece will emerge from the depths of this financial devastation, only then can it be said with any degree of certainty when Greek football will begin to recover some of its past glory and emerge from the doldrums.
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