Fan unrest, warring clubs and financial chaos sink Greek football to greater depths
Greek football badly needs some moments of levity. Last Wednesday night, it had one, a brief instance of laughter in a grim landscape. It happened amid the high tension of a Cup tie between the fierce rivals, Olympiakos and the troubled AEK Athens, and it starred the volatile coach Victor Pereira.
Pereira, a Portuguese, has only been Olympiakos’s head coach since January. Already he has quite a reputation. He made a great, and now notorious, show of inspecting the goalposts as if they had been tampered with, ahead of the derby against Panathinaikos last month, in full view of fans who later rioted. So, when, urgently chasing a ball that had gone out of play with his team needing a goal to stay in the Cup against AEK three nights ago, he ran and slipped, falling on his backside on the pitch’s surrounding track, a roar of mirth erupted around the arena.
Not long afterwards, Pereira was celebrating wildly, as Olympiakos gained an equaliser in the dying moments of ordinary time. The vigour of his cheering was later deemed excessive by many observers, cited as irresponsible and provocative in a climate of unrest. Around 25 supporters of AEK were soon spilling onto the track, and to the field. Players fled towards the tunnel and the safety of the dressing-room: Match abandoned.
There will be no fans, beyond a smattering of staff and VIPs, at Super League and lower tier matches this weekend, as the new Greek government pursues hardline policies to stem violence that has become systematic around the most popular sport in the economically troubled country. Last weekend’s games were also played behind closed doors.
The previous set of scheduled fixtures were postponed entirely. That was as a result of the unrest at the Panathinaikos-Olympiakos game, when followers of the home team took occupation of the pitch, setting off flares and hurling missiles. Initially, the suspension of the calendar was indefinite, pending talks between clubs, the national association and security forces. Talks turned out to be rather difficult in the case of the country’s two leading clubs, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. A meeting of their respective directors ended up in a brawl, a bodyguard of the Olympiakos president reportedly assaulting the Panathinaikos boss.
Those two clubs are locked in a tight race for a title which had been Olympiakos’s for the last four years and has been less fiercely contested since 2013 when AEK, former giants, were relegated as a penalty for running up unmanageable debts. Three weeks ago, it looked as if there might not be a 2015 title at all. The left-wing government of Alexis Tspiras, elected as prime minister in January, resolved to tackle football’s endemic crowd problems and made it clear his cabinet were ready to stop the season altogether. Matchdays had been suspended twice before the Panathinaikos-Olympiakos violence, in September following the death of a fan at a third division match in Crete, and two months later when a referee was badly beaten up.
A symptom of a wider social malaise, connected to Greece’s severe financial crisis? That is a fairly widespread theory. Another is that all those at the top of the game need to behave responsibly, take a lead, brawling directors and braying coaches included. “Anybody who says my celebrations were deliberately provocative is wrong,” insisted the excitable Pereira last Wednesday, after another dispiriting evening for his sport.
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Updated: March 13, 2015 04:00 AM