“Europe is self-destructing,” said Polyxeni Konstantinou, a 56-year-old public-sector worker voting in central Athens. “I voted for Syriza because I hope that it will help change the tragic circumstances that now govern Europe. Will Syriza be able to achieve everything it says? Probably not. But whatever it does achieve, then that will be good for Europe.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Mr. Konstantinou after the leftist party Syriza won national elections in Greece almost a month ago, sweeping to power behind the promise of ending austerity measures. Now the party is facing one of its first concrete decisions, and it involves…football. The “derby of eternal enemies” between Athens rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiakos on Sunday, February 22nd featured riots and a pitch invasion in addition to flares, fireworks, and chairs being thrown onto the field. Indeed, it gave the image of a Greece self-destructing. In the wake of the violent match (Panathinaikos won 2-1, by the way) a board meeting among the presidents of Super League clubs on Tuesday came to a premature ending, with Olympiakos president Evangelos Marinakis engaging his Panathinaikos counterpart Giannis Alafouzos in a verbal argument before it descended into violence. Apparently, Panathinaikos’ deputy president “Vasilis Konstantinou suffered a cut lip from a blow by one of [Mr.] Marinakis’s bodyguards” according to the Financial Times. Following the unprecedented off the field violence Super League president Giorgos Borovilos announced Wednesday, February 25 that the league would be suspended indefinitely.

That “indefinite” suspension—the third suspension for Greek football this year—did not last long, however. On Thursday 26 February, deputy sports minister Stavros Kontonis met with Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for a second time and backed down, announcing just a one week suspension: “Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to have Super League games played this weekend. The decision of the government regarding the combatting of violence is definitive and irrevocable. If the situation remains the same, there will be another suspension”. Of course many—including Greek football journalist Panos Polyzoidis—do not think the suspension will have any effect. As Mr. Polyzoidis said such violence has been common for the last 40 years in Greek football; it is more of an indication that the government has not—and still does not have—any concrete solution in mind. One cursory look at the history of football violence in Greece seems to confirm Mr. Polyzoidis’ opinion. Eight years ago in 2007 the league was suspended for two weeks following the murder of a Panathinaikos fan during an organized brawl with rival Olympiakos supporters in Athens involving 500 supporters. Back then the goal was to separate fan clubs—ultras, in a sense—from the teams. Clearly those security measures that were to be implemented had no real effect, and the onus will now be on the new Syriza government to prove concretely that they are the party with solutions, as was their platform while campaigning in the run up to elections. This won’t be easy when the government has more immediate economic problems to deal with: On the same day that the government backtracked from the indefinite suspension Syriza had to face their first anti government protests when 450 far-left protestors took to the streets and some clashed with police.

Stavros Kontonis, the deputy minister for sports, implied in comments to ANT1 TV that an electronic ticket scheme may be set up to combat violence in the stands. In Turkey this system has come under fire for being a tool to control political minded fans. In Greece, such a system would ostensibly be used to deter fan violence. But since the violence is not only confined to the stands—with even team presidents unable to control themselves—it seems that the problem is more deep-seated; fan groups have not been separated from the teams in the eight years since it was stated as a goal by then Sports Minister Giorgos Orfanos.

Due to Greece’s ongoing economic problems and high unemployment rate (hovering around 25%) it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some men vent their frustrations in (and around) the stands during football matches. But it is important to note that high unemployment rates are not the main thing to blame for increased violence in the stadiums. As Eurostat confirms Greece’s unemployment rate was only 8.4 percent in 2007, the last time the government focused on eliminating stadium violence. This leads me to believe that endemic problems are at the root of Greece’s football violence (and economic issues). When the system is characterized by cronyism and governed by who one knows, it means that—more often than not—a blind eye is turned to the damaging actions of the real culprits. The fan groups are close to the teams who have no incentive to punish them for creating atmospheres that intimidate their opponents, just as many politicians are weary to punish tax-evaders who support them in elections. At the end of the day it comes down to winning at any cost. It will be up to the new government to face this head on but, as they saw Thursday, it may prove to be harder than expected both on and off the field.

 

The Fans Put on a Show Sunday–But How Much Longer Will the Show Go On? Olympiakos Manager Vitor Pereira Seems to be Wondering Himself in the Last Image:

Images Courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2964899/Panathinaikos-vs-Olympiacos-overshadowed-riots-fireworks-flares-chairs-thrown-pitch-bitter-Greek-rivalry.html

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