How Soccer Club Owners Have Become Kingmakers in Greek Politics

Greece, the land of mystical beauty and tzatziki dips, is also home to some of the worst corruption in Europe, tying with China for the 80th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and arriving below most recent EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania. While the Greek state suffers from the usual suspects of public corruption, bribery, tax evasion and lack of transparency, many have shied away from exposing how deep the problems truly run. Just like that famous image of a snake devouring its own tail, Greek society has allowed the profligacy of certain powerful individuals to seep even into the favorite pastime of many contemporary societies: soccer.

The soccer mafia

Corruption in Greek soccer is having a field day. Following the initial 2011 match fixing scandal, Koriopolis, club owners, officials, players, referees and police were charged with creating a violent criminal organization in Greek soccer. The scandal, labeled by Deputy culture minister Giorgos Nikitiadis as “the darkest page in the history of Greek football,” was prompted by a report issued by the European soccer governing body UEFA, which flagged over 40 rigged games in the 2009-2010 period. The director of the think tank Forum for Greece, Andreas Andrianopoulos, bitterly remarked that this wasn’t news to many in Greece, referring to the “widespread bribing of referees by clubs to boost their chances of winning the championship going unpunished.”

The initial investigation was based on telephone recordings of powerful individuals, naming over 80 people as suspects in the case, including prominent Greek shipping magnate and Olympiacos FC owner, Evangelos Marinakis. But the gears of the justice system were quickly ground to a halt, as the case was put on the backburner for several years.

Finally, in August 2014, the investigation was re-launched under the lead of Deputy First Instance Court Prosecutor Aristidis Koreas. He insisted that the leaked telephone recordings contain compelling evidence that the accused were involved in bribery and match-fixing and that out of the 15 individuals already questioned, which included members from Soccer Federation’s Central Refereeing Committee, referees and club owners, some have admitted to the existence of a mafia in Greek soccer.

While the new impetus came in the context of a revamped fight against corruption, raising hopes for a swift and decisive trial, journalists and other figures familiar with the Greek justice system have been more cynical about the process, claiming that in order to truly root out this malaise, real political will is required. But does this will exist in the Greek political sphere? The answer to this question becomes evident following announcements of the removal of prosecutor Koreas from the case on October 3, illustrating that when powerful and well-connected individuals are involved, “the government [chooses] to avoid the ugly and public scenarios of prosecutions”.

Money buys power

Evangelos Marinakis, accused of using his close relationship with the President of the Hellenic Soccer Federation, Georgios Sarris, to appoint favorable referees to matches, has consistently denied accusations claiming that “there is not one shred of evidence against me.” The Chairman of Capital Products Partners, a Nasdaq-listed company, who was named 73 out of 100 on the 2013 Lloyd’s list, the leading shipping journal, was also the President of the Greek Super League when the scandal broke and is considered one of the most powerful individuals in Greece. He has previously been accused of breaking rules and heading into the referees’ locker room at half-time during a game between Olympiacos and Asteras Tripolis, which Olympiacos won in the second half. The reds Chairman walked away unscathed after denying any wrongdoing, officially claiming that he had gone in the room to wish the officials “good luck.”

In a rather twisted turn of events in May 2014, Marinakis ran for local councilman in his hometown of Piraeus and secured a victory on the “Pireaus, winner” ticket, alongside Mayoral candidate and former Olympiacos spokesman Yannis Morales. The initial announcement that they were to run sent shockwaves across the Athens port city, and coincidentally or not, was made public just several days before a Greek privatization agency began to receive bids for a majority stake in the Piraeus port, a development Mariankis had long been opposed to. Critics have seen the move as a worrying development of wealthy magnates creeping their way into the political sphere with the aim of defending their business interests.

No questions asked

Despite such a shocking case of rampant corruption, few in the Greek media have actually covered the story, echoing the conclusions of Nevradakis. Those who have voiced their findings on the Koripolis affair, such as journalist Aris Asvestas, have confessed to being violently attacked due to their in-depth coverage of the situation. Referee Petro Konstantineas, who told prosecutors how he refused to fix a match in favor of Olympiacos, later had his personal bakery blown up by an unknown group of individuals.

While some news outlets have reported on the story in past, they remained relatively silent on the details and the names of those accused, including the 10 daily sports newspapers in Greece. The media landscape seems to be heading down an even darker road with Marinakis allegedly set to acquire radio sports station Sentra and sports paper Goal, while his rival Yannis Alafouzos, owner of Panathinaikos FC, has his eye on Novasport FM, the largest sports broadcaster in Greece and newspaper Sportsday.

“The triangle of power”

The case, which appears to have been put on hold after the convenient removal of the once-determined Andreas Koreas, goes to show that politics, big business and media owners form a tightly knit community of interests, or what Reuters once called the “Greek triangle of power”.

The allegedly corrupt and wealthy in Greece continue to go about their business untouched; the media fail to report on it and the politicians remain silent. Back in 2012, Panos Kamenos, the leader of the right-wing Independent Greeks party, underlined that, “the Greek media is under the control of people who depend on the state. The media control the state and the state controls the media. It’s a picture of mutual blackmail.”

It appears the financial crisis and its catastrophic consequences failed to teach the Greeks a thing or two about battling corruption. Enduring financial ruin, the Greek public suffered the most, carrying the heavy burden of the troika’s austerity measures while politicians and the powerful got away with their crimes. Today, who will pay the price in one of history’s worst cases of football corruption in Greece? Unless the public and the European community start to speak out, Greek society will continue down this self-cannibalizing spiraling path towards destruction.