#360business: A Greek tragedy in football

Matt Jones - Editor 06:16 18/08/2015
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Olympiakos (red) is the only Greek club in good financial health.

With the country in worse financial ruin than its famous architecture, it is hard to believe that only 11 years have passed since Greek sport’s finest hour.

The national football team stunned hosts Portugal, and the world, to win Euro 2004, but in the wake of that epic result the beautiful game in the country has since lurched from Greek triumph to Greek tragedy.

A rapid decline
The 2004 champions are rock bottom of Group F in Euro 2016 qualifying and on the brink of elimination, despite next year’s tournament being increased from 16 to 24 teams. A dreadful campaign yielded no wins in six games, including back-to-back defeats to the Faroe Islands.

Domestically the game is also in poor shape. The top flight Super League has plummeted from being the 11th highest spenders in world football in 2008-09, the season before the financial crisis gripped the country, to 20th in 2015. It also ranks 21st in average annual player wages.

Big names are still arriving. Olympiakos signed Argentine Esteban Cambiasso on a free transfer from Leicester City last month. Ghana’s former Chelsea star Michael Essien signed for Panathinaikos earlier in the summer, his €1.6m net salary making him the league’s highest paid player.

But don’t let this fool you. Between 2008 and 2009, Gilberto Silva, Laurent Robert, Nolberto Solano, Alvaro Recoba and Aleix Vidal arrived in a total combined Super League spend of €96.70m (Dh389bn). However, just €32.49m more has been spent in the six seasons since. Emerging markets like the Middle East, Far East and US have overtaken Greece as a more lucrative destination for one final payday.

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Footballers’ financial ‘fears’
The financial crisis has led to talk of Greece’s withdrawal from the Eurozone (Grexit), sparking pandemonium among foreign footballers, fearful of a slash in wages should the country default on its debt. If that were to occur, Greece would revert to its former currency, the Drachma, which would result in the automatic devaluation of the contracts of foreign players to less than half their original value.

“Fears have been allayed due to the new bailout agreement, but uncertainty abounds. Some predictions still have a Grexit as a major possibility in the coming years,” said George Tsitsonis, a US-based Greek freelance writer. “If that were to happen the exodus of players would be swift and wide-ranging as their contracts would amount to basically nothing.”

In the year Greece won the European Championships, the Super League had three representatives in the Champions League – Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens. It has not had more than one for the last eight seasons and financial mismanagement led to giants AEK’s relegation from the top flight in 2013.

Midfielder Kostas Katsouranis, a lynchpin of that famous 2004 feat, is saddened by what has become of the beautiful game in his country in the following years. “Nothing good came out from the crisis for football,” said the 116-time capped Katsouranis, a former Panathinaikos, AEK and Benfica player, now a free agent after playing for Atromitos last season.

“Most of the clubs have been affected, only Olympiakos are an exception because of Champions League profits. In the last five years, the crisis has affected many smaller clubs and some of them had or have huge problems which are threatening their viability.

“Players are trying to help. I can’t say the same about clubs. Some of them are doing some things, but there is not a general policy to show solidarity,” Katsouranis told Sport 360º.

Past glory won’t pay the bills
Katsouranis’ view is shared by many Greek football journalists. Antonis Tsirakis, who writes for the website a-sports.gr, said: “Fans want teams to reduce their season ticket prices. Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and Panetolikos did.

“This summer some informed fans they can pay for season tickets in instalments, although fans still don’t go to matches. No stadium is full except the derbies.”

Tsitsonis, who has written for FourFourTwo, FIFA World, Goal.com and Inside Futbol, believes that with most clubs tight on budget, decreasing prices is not an option for many.

“The clubs cannot help their fans because most are barely surviving themselves,”he added. “Most teams in the Super League can barely pay their bills. Go down a division or two and the situation is even worse. Shirt sales are down as are satellite packages. If there’s a big match now, a fan will go to a bar to watch it for free and only have to pay for food and beverages, but even this is occurring less.”

Champions standing alone
Olympiakos are the only club flourishing, and 17 titles in the last 19 seasons means they have kept a stranglehold not only on the opposition, but also Champions League revenue.

Vasilis Sambrokos, who covered Greece’s triumph 11 years ago, says most clubs reacted far too slowly to the tragedy.

“In the early years of the crisis they did nothing, only some acts to show that they felt the suffering of Greek society,” said Sambrokos, content director at gazzetta.gr and a presenter and analyst for satellite service OTE TV.

“But during the latest couple of years they have acted, because stadiums were becoming empty. They have given discounts to unemployed fans, free entrance to children and sold group tickets for ‘small’ matches at lower rates.

“They are trying to attract more fans because they finally realised their earlier policy was bringing the championship to a dead end.”

The knock-on effect of decreased wages in Greece can be seen clearly in stadiums, with plummeting attendances over the last six years.

Fans no longer flocking
Greece’s Euro 2004 win, along with the creation of the Super League in 2006, originally saw attendances swell.

According to website European Football Statistics, attendances domestically jumped from an average of 2,830 per game in 2004 to 5,944 a year later – an increase of 110 per cent.

After a slight dip in 2006 attendances continued to grow until the debt crisis struck in 2009, peaking at 7,622 that year. Fans, however, have stopped coming to the venues in the same numbers. Figures dropped in five of the next six seasons to 3,122 in 2015 – an overall drop of 59 per cent.

“As far as attendances go, that is where the real impact is being felt by clubs,” said Tsitsonis.

“It is a ski-slope type decline that you can see year by year. The situation’s dire, 12 of the 18 Super League teams averaged 1,500 spectators or less last season.

“The trend is clear – people with less money are not going to go to football matches especially when many deem Greek football disorganised, corrupt and lacking proper infrastructure.”

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